Cyberbullying in New Zealand: A Look at Recent New Zealand Research

by Toni Bruce

With every new technology comes both pleasure and pain. Cyberbullying is one of the negatives that comes with the increasing interactivity (and often anonymity) of social media. And it is an issue that concerns many of us: teachers, youth, parents/whanau, schools and police, among others.

And the research community is responding.  A quick search of Google Scholar research (using “cyberbully” as the search term) turned up almost 1,400 research articles in the last five years. Limiting it to New Zealand articles still produced almost 150.

So what do we know about cyberbulling, particularly in schools, in Aotearoa New Zealand? For this blog, I looked at three very recent studies that explored youth perspectives.

For sure, we know that cyberbullying happens, and that many schools are not well prepared to deal with it.  As well, cyberbullying seems much less visible to teachers than physical or verbal bullying that happens face-to-face.

One recent study of 85 New Zealand adolescents found that 98% used their mobile phones to take part in “one or more cyberbullying behaviours, with an average frequency of 17 times per month” ( Carson, 2014, p. 2). This mean that, on average, they cyberbullied every second day.


cyberbulling Trulioo 2013

Although one study showed that 64% of teachers thought that girls were more likely to cyberbully (Mattioni, 2012), others suggest few differences between New Zealand boys and girls as either victims or bullies (Carson, 2014; Fenaughty & Harre, 2013; Harrison, 2013).

One study found that cyberbullying was not an issue for most students: 72% of 154 high school students were neither cyberbullies nor victims of bullying (Harrison, 2013). Overall, about one-quarter (24%) reported being cyberbullied at least once in the last 12 months. Only 10% reported bullying others and 6% of bullies were also victims. Almost one quarter (23%) had watched a friend cyberbully another friend. Cyberbullying was most common between the ages of 14 and 17.   In summary, Gillian Harrison reported the following:

  • Most people were bullied via social networking sites (76%), followed by instant messaging (14%), then chat rooms (3%)
  • 26% received bullying messages during school hours
  • 60% received bullying texts or images by mobile phone
  • In a similar pattern, 50% of cyberbullies reported using social media to bully, followed by chatrooms (13%)
  • 69% of bullies reported sending bullying messages or images by mobile phone

In another study, the most common form of cyberbullying was flaming, defined as “the sending of aggressive or vulgar messages about a person to an online group or to that person“, followed by denigration which involves sending “harmful, untrue, or cruel statements about a person” to others or posting them online, although both forms happened less than three times a month on average (Carson, 2014, p. 9).

In another study, over 70% of bullying took the form of angry, rude or nasty messages, followed by gossip, lies, rumours, harmful or cruel messages. However, some victims and bullies also received or sent messages over days or weeks that were meant to scare the recipient (Harrison, 2013).



IGNORE HARASSMENT – HOPE IT WILL DISAPPEAR: Ignoring was the most common response (70% phone, 76% Internet), but may not have been that effective, because many youth (61% phone, 46% Internet) also used other strategies to address the harassment if ignoring did not work (Fenaughty & Harre, 2013).

TRY TO SOLVE THE PROBLEM DIRECTLY: Take direct action against the harasser?  Yes and No. Confronting the harasser was the second most common strategy (51% phone, 44% Internet).

SOCIAL SUPPORT: Tell an adult?  Yes and No. Tell a peer? More likely.  In several studies (Fenaughty & Harre, 2013; Harrison, 2013) and in line with international research, except in cases of very serious harassment, most young people did not tell their parents or teachers – in fact adult help is sometimes seen “as a last resort” (Fenaughty & Harre, 2013, p. 243). The most common reasons they gave were:

  • fear of an overreaction
  • fear of parents removing access to mobile phone or Internet

Instead, most were more likely to turn to peers, who are seen as available and more likely to understand the situation (see Table from Harrison (2013, p. 55) below.  Nearly a third (30%) of cyberbullied young people sought social support from their peers (versus adults – only 17% to 23%)

Screen Shot 2015-05-19 at 11.36.35 am

 What is particularly concerning from a parent or school perspective, is the high percentage (62%) who did not tell an adult about the experience. Two main beliefs affected why they don’t tell adults: 1) the belief that peers can help more than an adult and 2) a culture in which telling an adult may be considered “ratting”. But there were other reasons too, which point to the complexity of the situation, reminding us how difficult it can be for young people to navigate the online world, or for adults to help them do so.

Most (65%) felt an adult might over-react or that the incident wasn’t enough to share (50%).  Almost half (45%) were afraid their parents would tell other people.  Another 40% either feared their parents would ban them from using their phones/Internet, or feltIt’s not the ‘done thing’ to tell an adult about these kinds of problems (Harrison, 2013, p. 56). Around one-third:

  • felt it might make the situation worse if the bully found out,
  • that their friends could help more,
  • were too embarrassed to tell, or
  • didn’t want adults to know about it

Some blamed themselves (25%), were too scared to tell an adult or feared they wouldn’t be believed.  Many believed an adult wouldn’t be able to stop the bullying (30%) or to help them (10%). These students were asked about whether they thought teachers could provide help – the main responses fell into 5 groupings:

  • a teacher’s ability to help depended on individual circumstances
  • it would be difficult for teachers to monitor mobile devices
  • the teacher would need to care enough to become involved
  •  it would be difficult to help if cyberbullying happened outside school, but
  • that just talking to a teacher might help the victim



So what do the students think schools and teachers should do to best deal with cyberbulling?

Student views involved 1) protecting confidentiality and student safety, 2) providing appropriate discipline, and 3) the need for school-wide awareness of anti-bullying procedures. These views offer valuable feedback with the potential to inform current anti-bullying programmes.

For the bullied student, the most important is confidentiality: 82% of students want a promise that the conversation will stay private and the bully won’t know who reported him/her; 71% suggested that schools provide a dropbox so reports can be made anonymously.  As well, 65% wanted schools to ask the student what will make him/her feel safe, and 59% suggested offering counselling.

For the bully, the students suggested that schools should try to find out who did the bullying, talk to his/her parents/caregivers, talk to the bully about reasons for doing it and/or discipline him/her. Only just over half (52%) wanted a restorative justice, face-to-face, meeting to try to resolve the problem.  Indeed, the challenge of this approach was clear in one student’s comment that:

  • restorative meetings are embarrassing and doing so (as well as talking to the cyberbully about why they do it) will cause more issues and harassment for the victim because [the bully] will know who ‘squealed’ about them” (Harrison, 2013, p. 64).

Most (70%) felt the school had a responsibility to make all students aware of the steps it would take against cyberbullying (which suggests that even if schools have policies, students are not aware of them), and wanted the school to play a role in educating parents. In terms of critical media literacy, students demonstrated a desire to:

  • be explicitly taught how to be safe online (58%)
  • be explictly taught how to behave online (52%), and
  • receive guidelines for what to do if bullied (57%)

The researcher concluded that schools should:

  • have a policy specific to cyberbulling that is regularly reviewed and updated
  • clearly define for students and teachers what is, and is not, acceptable
  • develop guidelines for teachers/staff for how to address cyberbullying in the moment (short-term) and to monitor it over the long-term

If the idea of cyberbullying is new to you or you love video as a way to understand information, check out this 10 minute clip from Netsafe New Zealand featuring John Fenaughty.

Screen Shot 2015-08-05 at 9.15.00 pm

If you want to get a sense of what it feels like from the inside, see the story written by Grace King, about a friend:


Carson, R. (2014). Adolescent cyberbullying in New Zealand and the implications of parenting styles. Unpublished Masters thesis. Christchurch: The University of Canterbury. URI: [a study of 85 New Zealand adolescents]

Fenaughty, J., & Harre, N.  (2013). Factors associated with young people’s successful resolution of distressing electronic harassment. Computers & Education, 61, 242-250. [a study of 8 focus groups with 36 youth aged 13-16; surveys at 5 high schools; total of 1,673 responses (approx. 54% of invited students with majority females); 344 reported mobile phone (203) or Intenet (311) harassment that was distressing]

Harrison, G. M. (2013). Should I tell on my peers? Student experiences and perceptions of cyberbullying. Unpublished Masters thesis. Palmerston North: Massey University. URI: [a survey of 154 students aged 13-18 in the Bay of Plenty which contains several Tables with complete lists of student suggestions]

Mattioni, L. (2012). School staff’s perceptions and attitudes towards cyberbullying (Unpublished master’s thesis). Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand.

Image references

[I CAN RUIN UR LIFE]. From Gillam, M. (2015, March 25). Anti-cyber bullying bill progresses. Thompson & Torensen.

[Anonymity = bad behavior]. From Trulioo (201e, October 25). Invisible Online: How anonymity affects cyberbullying.  Tulioo blog.

[Cyberbully free zone] Rosehill Secondary College (no date). Cyber bully free zone resources.

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