An Australian study involving more than 20,000 students undertaken by ECU researchers has revealed that one in six high school students experience covert bullying on a regular basis.
Covert bullying refers to subtle forms of aggression such as spreading rumours, sending hurtful text messages and personal attacks using social networking applications such as Facebook and MySpace.
Covert bullying is likely to become more prevalent among students due to young people's increasing use of information and communications technology to connect with their peers.
The Australian Covert Bullying Prevalence Study (ACBPS) was conducted by the Child Health Promotion Research Centre (CHPRC) at Edith Cowan University (ECU), for the Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations.
The study was commissioned to address the lack of current, reliable evidence about the nature and prevalence of covert bullying in Australia, and to determine the most effective policies and practices to address this problem.
The study, led by ECU's Professor Donna Cross, examined existing evidence, retrospective data from 13,330 students aged eight to 14, and cross-sectional quantitative national data collected from 7,410 students aged eight to 15 years, as well as 456 school staff.
The ACBPS found that covert bullying is a fairly common experience among Australian secondary school students, with one in six students (16 per cent) reporting that they were bullied covertly every few weeks or more often in the past term and up to 10 per cent reporting they bully others covertly.
Researchers also found that covert bullying has the potential to result in more severe psychological, social and mental health harm than overt bullying, and also has the capacity to inflict social isolation.
According to Professor Cross, covert bullying by its very nature often goes unnoticed by adults and school staff, and it is becoming clear that students are less likely to report it.
"Many schools have clear, standard policies for staff to follow in cases of overt bullying, but not covert bullying," she says.
"The teachers that took part in the study expressed the need for more information and training to help them to understand and deal with covert bullying in schools.
"By developing and implementing clear national and state guidelines for policy and practice addressing covert bullying in schools, we can take the first important steps in reducing the prevalence and impact of the problem."
Though the ACBPS has shed light on a complex and widespread problem, Professor Cross says there is still some way to go.
"We are hoping to continue this research with ongoing input from students who are involved in and influenced by covert bullying in order to monitor and effectively address this behaviour.
ECU Vice-Chancellor, Professor Kerry Cox, says Professor Cross and her team are Australian leaders in research into bullying prevention.
"The research offers hope for victims, parents, teachers and schools in preventing and reversing the harm caused by covert bullying," he said.
Editor's Note: Original news release can be found here.