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School principal Gregg Wieczorek in Hartland, Wisconsin, was prepared to see a sharp increase in cyberbullying when his students migrated to online learning during spring 2020. He held conversations with employees about how to deal with a potential spike. He and his team had started strategizing how they would discipline students for their virtual behavior.

They were relieved when, in fact, the opposite happened.

“We have a school of 2,100 kids, and usually three or four cyberbullying incidents a year are serious ones,” said Wieczorek. “I don’t know if we had any last year.”

Despite early fears that a surge in cyberbullying would occur during the pandemic, some research has found that the opposite is happening. Credit: Sara Hertwig for the Hechinger Report

Since the beginning of Covid-19, Wieczorek said the school he leads, Arrowhead Union High School, has seen a notable downturn in all forms of serious bullying, including cyber. This downturn started as kids migrated fully online in March 2020, and continued even as many elected to return to school in the winter and spring of 2021.

Wieczorek’s school may not be an anomaly — the limited research on the topic so far tends to reflect his experiences.

A quartet of Boston University researchers mined Google Trends to understand the terms people were searching for during the pandemic, and found that far fewer were researching all types of bullying than before. In the past, online searches have proven a useful data point when understanding how often bullying is occurring, according to the researchers who conducted the study.

Experts warn that students who are experiencing cyberbullying during the pandemic might be less likely to get help without access to an in-person counselor or friends. Credit: Jackie Mader/The Hechinger Report

Starting in March 2020, continuing through the fall and into the winter, ending at the close of February 2021, searches for terms related to bullying and cyberbullying dropped 30 to 40 percent. This trend started reversing once in-person learning began resuming in many communities.

“I was not so surprised overall bullying decreased as school shifted from in-person learning, however I was, and I think all of us probably were, surprised to see dramatic declines in cyber bullying as well,” said Andrew Bacher-Hicks, an assistant professor of education at Boston University, who worked on the study.

In Canada, a University of Ottawa study that surveyed students in grades 4 through 12 found that rates of cyberbullying dropped slightly — although rates of other types of bullying decreased dramatically. Before the pandemic, nearly 60 percent of students said they experienced some type of bullying, compared to roughly 40 percent who reported being bullied during the pandemic.

Online harassment also dipped: 13.8 percent of students reported experiencing “cyber victimization” prior to the pandemic, compared to 11.5 percent who reported the same during Covid. A separate Canadian UNICEF report cited by the researchers also found a 17 percent drop in cyberbullying during the pandemic.

“Although students are online more now than before the pandemic, this has not translated to higher rates of cyber bullying involvement. In fact, our results support the opposite conclusion,” the authors of the study reported, noting that this reduction might be in-part due to the hypervigilance of teachers and parents who closely monitored the issue.

Related: Early evidence of a ‘Trump effect’ on bullying in schools

Justin Patchin, co-director of the Cyberbullying Research Center and professor of criminal justice at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, has seen a similar trend play out. He received an initial flurry of emails at the beginning of the pandemic from families concerned about what their children were experiencing online. But as the months went by, fewer families seemed to need help dealing with serious cases of cyber-harassment.

Though Patchin believes the jury is still out on how exactly virtual schooling impacted cyber bullying, he wonders if run-of-the-mill teasing has remained, but is less likely to intensify into the harmful, repetitive behavior we define as bullying. While teasing can be a prelude to bullying, it can also be a one-off, and often lacks the same type of harmful relentlessness.

“Things can escalate online, but if kids don’t see each other the next day maybe it will be forgotten about,” said Patchin. “The problem is we just don’t have good data.”

“I was not so surprised overall bullying decreased as school shifted from in-person learning, however I was, and I think all of us probably were, surprised to see dramatic declines in cyber bullying as well.”

Andrew Bacher-Hicks, Boston University

The downward trend in bullying belies early hand-wringing that virtual learning could cause an epidemic of cyberbullying. Pre-pandemic research found a correlation between cyberbullying and time spent online and non-academic research picked up by media outlets suggested there had been an increase in cyber-harassment last year. Some experts warned of dire consequences from increased time spent online.

Researchers and school administrators have a few hypotheses about why these predictions were wrong. For one, cyberbullying is often compounded by an in-person component, and without face-to-face interaction, these incidents might have decreased in scale and strength. Online taunting and name-calling may be more easily forgotten when victims do not have to confront their tormentors in person in hallways and cafeterias.

Wieczorek believes that, within his school, there has been an increase in cyber teasing, or gentle prodding, about other kids’ academic performance or appearance. But this teasing, he believes, has remained just that, and serious incidents have become less common.

Studies have shown that during Covid-19, all types of bullying — including cyberbullying — have decreased as more students learned from home. Credit: Jackie Mader for The Hechinger Report

“When there’s cyberbullying going on it takes place in cyberspace but it manifests itself at school, where kids start teasing and multiple students are saying stuff to them. That’s when it has gotten serious and bad,” he said.

And in Wieczorek’s school, even when in-person class resumed last year for most students, the number of these types of incidents still trended lower than usual. Kids wore masks most of the day and social distancing was required in classrooms, changing how kids seemed to be relating to each other. Kids perhaps weren’t forming the types of social connections that facilitates both healthy and harmful interactions, he said.

That is, less school bullying might have had a cost: Fewer negative relationships can mean fewer positive ones, as well. Indeed, a 2020 survey from the American Psychological Association found that 81 percent of teenage students said they have been negatively impacted by school closures.

Educators say students have been less likely to form both positive and negative relationships during the pandemic. Credit: Jackie Mader for The Hechinger Report

“Kids were burned out last year. It was a rough year and a half. Maybe they just decided it wasn’t worth it,” said Wieczorek. “The types of normal social connections taking place were not as prevalent.”

The downward trend in online bullying hasn’t held everywhere. In Mississippi, teacher Cathy Gonzalez describes the worst of all worlds, with in-person students attacking kids attending school virtually.

The pandemic forced the alternative school where she teaches to quickly integrate technology into teaching — a big change at a school where cellphones are typically confiscated. Even though the school open for in-person classes since fall 2020, some kids, forced to quarantine at home for a time, are still learning on line. Those learning at home get the classes broadcast into their homes, live.

Gonzalez said she has witnessed in-person students make snide remarks about their peers at home, loudly enough to be heard through the computer, while their victims sit defenseless in their living rooms. Using chat boxes, kids sometimes insult each other’s appearance. Although many students spend more time online, they still regularly have to face in-person tormentors.

“Bullying has increased,” says Gonzalez, whose school is specifically for children who had trouble learning and behaving in the traditional public-school environment.

And in instances when bullying occurs, she watches as the “engagement of the virtual student just stops … As a teacher, all you can do is tell them to stop.”

Patchin, of the Cyberbullying Research Center, warned that even in places where cyberbullying has decreased, educators and families should remain vigilant as the nation heads into another year of disrupted education. Victims of cyberbullying may be less likely to receive the support they need, when separated from in-person counselors or friends who can help.

“Maybe bullying is happening less, maybe even cyber bullying is happening less, but is it impacting kids in a different way because they don’t have access to support that they might otherwise have?” said Patchin.

This story about cyberbullying was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.

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Rebecca Klein is the senior education reporter at The Huffington Post.

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