Early in the COVID-19 pandemic, there was a concern that cyberbullying incidents (online threats, mistreatment or harassment) would increase because children were spending more time online. Also, in the midst of a brewing firestorm, the politicization of the link between the COVID-19 virus and its presumed origination led to a pointed rise in sinophobia (anti-Chinese sentiment) and a documented increase in harassment, bullying, and even personal and property victimization against Asian Americans.
Until now, no research has explored the extent to which cyberbullying experiences increased generally among youth in the United States during the pandemic, and especially whether Asian American youth were disproportionately targeted.
Researchers from Florida Atlantic University and the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire conducted a first-of-its-kind nationally-representative study of 13- to 17-year-old middle and high school students in public and private schools in the United States. They investigated if these children experienced more cyberbullying during the pandemic compared to prior years. They were especially interested in whether Asian American youth were targeted more.
For the study, researchers tracked experience over time with general cyberbullying, as well as cyberbullying based on race or color. In the 2021 survey, respondents were asked whether they had been cyberbullied more or less since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Results, published in the Journal of School Health, showed that prevalence of cyberbullying victimization in general increased since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. Specifically, about 17 percent of all youth said they were cyberbullied in 2016 and 2019, but that proportion rose to 23 percent in 2021.
Notably, Asian American youth experienced significantly more cyberbullying than their counterparts since the COVID-19 pandemic began. In 2019, Asian American youth in the U.S. were the least likely to have experienced cyberbullying (fewer than 10 percent reported being targeted overall and only about 7 percent were targeted because of their race similar to white/Caucasian youth).
In 2021, however, 19 percent of Asian American youth said they had been cyberbullied, and approximately 1 in 4 (23.5 percent) indicated they were victimized online because of their race/color. Additionally, Asian American youth were the only racial group where the majority (59 percent) reported more cyberbullying since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Race-based bullying has been linked to traumatic stress, poorer mental health outcomes, and even neurobiological harm,” said Sameer Hinduja, Ph.D., co-author, professor, FAU School of Criminology and Criminal Justice within the College of Social Work and Criminal Justice, co-director of the Cyberbullying Research Center, and a faculty associate at the Berkman Klein Center at Harvard University. “COVID-19 racism against Asian Americans is associated with lower psychological well-being as well as problematic internalizing and externalizing behaviors. In fact, some experts say that this population may be more susceptible to internalizing harm stemming from online victimization because of cultural stigmas among Asian Americans about help-seeking and mental health needs.”
As more adolescents continue to spend more time online, cyberbullying victimization may increase across all racial groups. In the current politicized environment, Asian Americans may continue to be targeted because of their race.
“COVID-19 will likely not go away anytime soon,” said Hinduja. “We hope findings from our study will further spotlight the reality of cyberbullying experiences among Asian American youth in a way that compels additional actions in school policies, pedagogy, state and federal laws, messaging campaigns, and other program implementations so that these youth are more meaningfully supported.”
Study co-author is Justin W. Patchin, Ph.D., Department of Political Science, University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire and co-director of the Cyberbullying Research Center.