The relationship between online bullies and victims in school is not always clear cut, making zero-tolerance policies on cyberbullying potentially more harmful than helpful, according to one of the authors of a new national survey of more than 5,400 students.

Close to 40 per cent of students who admitted to saying or doing something mean or cruel online say they themselves were the target of cyberbullying, according to a study published Tuesday by Media literacy advocacy group MediaSmarts.

cyberbullying

Girls were more likely than boys to share photographs or call others names online than boys, but were also more likely to be the target of online bullying. (CBC)

The group polled 5,436 Canadian students in 2013 from grades 4 through 11 in ten provinces and three territories. Students self-reported their behaviours and experiences based on 52 questions for children in grades 4 through 6 and 57 questions for youth in grades 7 through 11.

The study's authors say the results suggest conflict is often less an attack of a "bully' against a "victim" than it is "an ongoing part of the clashes that arise as part of the drama of teen life."

The findings are supported by the most common responses given for cyberbullying, said MediaSmarts director of education Matthew Johnson.

Most often students said they were mean or cruel online as a joke or because someone had been mean to them or a friend of theirs. Most of the cyberbullying reported is name-calling.

"A lot of the time we're looking at the same young people acting by turns bully, victim, witness and we know that by the motivation," said Johnson.

Students reluctant to report bullying to teachers

Johnson said zero-tolerance policies can actually prevent students from coming forward if they are being bullied.

An excerpt from Cyberbullying: Dealing with Online Meanness, Cruelty and Threats

For a significant number of boys and girls, meanness is seen as an appropriate response to conflict. Often, educational interventions encourage young people to stand up for someone when they are being bullied.

However, our findings suggest that we may need to nuance our messaging and encourage young people to take a “do no harm” approach when they intervene in peer conflict as opposed to automatically standing up for the person they see as the “victim”.

The survey found that while 62 per cent of students learn about cyberbullying from teachers, teachers were among the last people they would go to if they were being cyberbullied.

"Young people are reluctant to turn to teachers, because the teachers' hands are tied by zero percent policies, so students see it as escalating the situation and potentially making it worse," he said.

Johnson said about 11 per cent of students reported cyberbullying was a serious problem, and said when schools design interventions or policies they should tailor them to those cases.

Other findings of the survey:

  • While 62 per cent of students said their schools had policies on cyberbullying, the survey found no link between the existence of those policies and whether or not students said they had been a victim or perpetrator of cyberbullying.
  • About 23 per cent of students said they have said or done something mean or cruel online, while 37 per cent say they have been cyberbullied.
  • Boys were more likely than girls (28 compared to 20 per cent) to be cruel or mean online and were almost twice as likely (13 to 7 per cent) to be mean or cruel anonymously, according to the survey.
  • Girls were more likely (43 per cent to 33 per cent) to report they have been on the receiving end of cyberbullying.
  • The survey found boys were more likely to harass someone in an online game, make fun of someone’s race, religion, ethnicity or sexual orientation, sexually harass someone and make online threats, while girls were more likely to post or share an embarrassing photo or video.
  • When it came to spreading rumours, however, there was no significant difference between the two genders.
  • Boys were also more likely to make an online threat and be the targets of online threats.