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WHO: Cyberbullying affects 1 in 6 school kids

March 27, 2024

In a survey of Europe, Asia and Canada, researchers found that peer violence and cyberbullying are major problems for school-aged children — and they're getting worse.

An adolescent girl crying as she looks at her cellphone
Being cyberbullied: 15% of adolescents experienced cyberbullying in a WHO/Europe study, with the rates increasing since 2018 for boys and girlsImage: Antonio Guillen Fernández/PantherMedia/IMAGO

Whether it's physical or psychological, bullying and other forms of peer violence among young people are nothing new. In fact, overall trends are stable.

But a study of 44 countries in Europe, Central Asia and North America indicates an increase in cyberbullying since 2018.

The "Health Behaviour in School-aged Children" (HBSC) study was published March 27, 2024, by WHO/Europe (World Health Organization). It identifies "the increasing digitalization of young people's interactions" as a main cause of cyberbullying.

In a same-day media release, the WHO Regional Director for Europe, Hans Kluge, said the report was "a wake-up call."

"With young people spending up to six hours online every single day, even small changes in the rates of bullying and violence can have profound implications for the health and well-being of thousands," said Kluge, highlighting self-harm and suicide as possible consequences.

Key findings of the study

The researchers called on study participants — teenagers of 11, 13 and 15 years — to report their behavior and experiences with bullying.

On average, more boys than girls admitted to inflicting violence on peers at least 2-3 times per month during "the past couple of months" (prior to the time of the survey).

And overall "prevalence of cyberbullying" was highest at age 13 and "significantly higher" among boys at all ages, the study authors wrote.

They noted that among the boys surveyed, 15-year-olds in Lithuania reported the highest propensity for cyberbullying others. Among girls, 13-year-olds in Romania were the most likely to engage in such behavior.

On the receiving end, about one-in-10 boys and girls reported they had been bullied at school at least two or three times a month in the past couple of months.

"Overall, 15% of adolescents reported being cyberbullied at least once or twice in the past couple of months (15% of boys and 16% of girls)," the study authors wrote.

One-in-10 adolescents reported having been involved in physical fights at least three times in the last 12 months (14% of boys and 6% of girls).

Cyberbullying: A gender issue?

The researchers said they found that boys exhibited a higher tendency towards aggression and engagement in physical fights than girls.

Both boys and girls revealed a similar prevalence for cyberbullying. But they found cyberbullying was on the rise among girls aged 11 and 13 years old.

How does the study define cyberbullying?

In the survey, researchers asked young people whether they had sent (or taken part in the sending of) "mean instant messages, wall postings or emails, or posting or sharing photos or videos online without permission."

The authors said that while bullying had "traditionally" been an "in-person" form of peer violence, "virtual forms of peer violence have become particularly relevant since the onset of the […] COVID-19 pandemic, when young people's worlds became increasingly virtual during times of lockdown."

Reducing cyberbullying

The researchers say they hope their findings will improve understanding of adolescent bullying and peer violence across Europe, central Asia and Canada and enable experts to "target interventions effectively."

That would include "gender-sensitive strategies" to tackle and reduce the problem of bullying and programs to promote digital literacy, empathy and healthy conflict resolution.

In an email to DW, the HBSC's Joseph Hancock wrote: "Success requires ongoing collaboration between all stakeholders. We urge individuals, families, schools, communities, and governments to work hand-in-hand to ensure all adolescents have safe and supportive environments to flourish."

The study covered more aspects of bullying than we have been able to cover in the space of this article. If you would like to read the full report, we've included a link below.

Edited by: Clare Roth

Primary source:

A focus on adolescent peer violence and bullying in Europe, central Asia and Canada. Health Behaviour in School-aged Children international report from the 2021/2022 survey. Volume 2. WHO/Europe, March 27, 2024: https://www.who.int/europe/publications/i/item/9789289060929

DW Zulfikar Abbany
Zulfikar Abbany Senior editor fascinated by space, AI and the mind, and how science touches people