Are Children with Cell Phones Are More Likely to Be Cyberbullied?

Cell phone ownership is more strongly related to cyberbullying than to traditional bullying in third to fifth graders in US schools, show results of a study examining the rising trend for young school children to have cell phones and the associated social consequences.

Moreover, the observed relationships were stronger among younger children, that is those in fourth, and especially third, grade, reported Elizabeth K. Englander, Ph.D., Professor of Psychology at Bridgewater State University in Bridgewater, MA, and Director of the Massachusetts Aggression Reduction Center, Bridgewater, MA., who was presenting study results at 2017 American Academy of Pediatrics National Conference & Exhibition.

“Bullies and bully victims showed a relationship between cell phone ownership and being involved in bullying and cyberbullying. Victims did not show this relationship,” she said, adding that, “we found increased ownership of cell phones from 20% of third graders with cell phones in 2012 to nearly 40% of this age group [eight years] in 2016.”

Cell phone owners were also found to be bullies, cyberbullies and both, with results showing that approximately 4.2% of cell phone owners fitted this description versus approximately 1.8% of non-owners.

Cell phones and cyberbullying in elementary (versus middle and high school)

Previous research has focused on adolescents, but this study is believed to be the first to investigate the relationship between cell phone ownership and cyberbullying.

The purpose of the study was to examine how digital behaviors have changed over recent years. In 2012, Dr Englander and her colleagues surveyed elementary school students to find out what kind of devices were being used and how these children were developing socially. “This age-group [elementary school] is understudied with most prior research being carried out among adolescents,” she said.

“In this study we were interested in cyberbullying as opposed to just someone sending a mean message because they’re in a bad mood that day. With cyberbulllying it is repetitive abuse, and emotional damage,” explained Dr Englander. “Even though we focused on cell phones, the issue isn’t the device per se, although the research suggests that small mobile devices increase access to social media because it is on the child at all times, it caters to impulsivity, and changes how people use the Internet which is probably what was going on here.”

The study collected survey data on 4,584 students in grades three, four and five between 2014 and 2016 drawn from five states (Massachusetts, Virginia, Oregon, New York, and New Jersey). Schools self-selected to be included in the program.

Half of third to fifth graders have a cell phone

Ownership of a cell phone was 49.6% across all grades with older students being more likely to report owning a phone: 59.8% of fifth graders, 50.6% of fourth graders, and 39.5% of third graders.

With respect to cyberbullying, overall, 9.5%of children reported being a victim of cyberbullying. Children who owned cell phones were significantly more likely to report being a victim of cyberbullying, especially in grades three and four. Across all three grades, more cell phone owners admitted to having been a cyberbully themselves.

Overall, children across third, fourth and fifth grades showed that 11.1% of cell phone owners were cyberbullied versus 8% of non-owners (p<0.0000). Third graders showed the largest difference at 11.7% versus 7.2% (p<0.003) respectively. A difference was observed between boys and girls with 12.6% of boy cell phone owners being bullied versus 9.5% of boy non-owners (p<0.025), while 9.6% of girl cell phone owners were cyberbullied compared to 6.5% of non-owners (p<0.007).

Implications for physicians

“I think the implications for physicians are that digital behaviors are an important influence in children’s lives and they need to discuss the use of digital devices even with young children of elementary school-age,” asserted Dr Englander. “At the Massachusetts Aggression Reduction Center, we have a checklist and any physician can get this for free. It aims to aid physicians in assessing these problems.”

Dr Englander suggests that this research is a reminder for parents to consider the risks as well as the benefits when deciding whether to provide their elementary school-aged child with a cell phone. She discussed whether a young child such as a third grader should actually have a cell phone in the first place. “Judgment about whether a child should have a cell phone at such a young age can vary by circumstance. In some circumstances it is worthwhile, but with the exception of certain cases, it would probably be healthier for children in this age group not to have one.”

In addition to cyberbullying, Dr Englander highlighted that digital use displaces other forms of play. “Play is very important for children and I don’t want them to be using a device in the playground instead of playing. When everything is considered — displacement of play and social problems — overall I think it would be wiser to wait before having a cell phone.”

“At the very least, parents can engage in discussions and education with their child about the responsibilities inherent in owning a mobile device, and the general rules for communicating in the social sphere,” Dr Englander added.

Discussing whether the nature of bullying has changed, the professor of psychology said that a couple of decades ago, there was a shift from physical to psychological bullying and then around 2005 there was a shift to digital bullying. “Bullying is still an issue in schools but many more cases today are involved in both school interactions [non-cyber] and digital interactions,” she explained. “The older the children get, then the more likely that social problems will happen both through school and online.”

The next step will be to compare the data on elementary school students and older students with cell phones.

Presented at 2017 American Academy of Pediatrics National Conference & Exhibition. on September 18, 2017.

Abstract Title: Cell Phone Ownership and Cyberbullying in 8–11 Year Olds: New Research

The study of cyberbullying has most often focused on adolescents. This study examined survey data on 4,584 students in grades 3, 4 and 5, gathered between late 2014 and 2016, as schools opted to survey their students about bullying and cyberbullying. Most, but not all, schools participating were in Massachusetts. Altogether, 49.6% of students reported owning their own cell phone. Older students were significantly more likely to report ownership; 59.8% of fifth graders, 50.6% of fourth graders, and 39.5% of third graders reported owning their own cell phone. Younger children were less able to define the term “cyberbullying” correctly, but 9.5% of all children reported being a victim of cyberbullying. Cell phone owners were significantly more likely to report being a victim of cyberbullying, but this was only true for children in Grades 3 and 4. Although fewer students overall (5.8%) admitted to cyberbullying their peers, more cell phone owners admitted to cyberbullying, and this was true for all three grades (3, 4 and 5). When bullying in school was studied, only the third graders were significantly more likely to be bullied in school if they were cell phone owners, although both third and fourth grade cell phone owners were more likely to admit to bullying. Overall, cell phone ownership was more strongly related to cyberbullying (vs. traditional bullying) and the observed relationships were stronger among younger subjects (those in fourth, and especially third, grade).

By Becky McCall, contributing writer for Doximity

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