Microsoft study shows bullying remains an issue with 4 in 10 teens involved; adults, too

a child sits alone and upset

The new school year is beginning for many across the globe and, although COVID-19 continues to necessitate at least some distance-learning, the realities of bullying – both online and off – remain. A new Microsoft study shows 4 in 10 teens in 32 countries report being “involved” in a bullying incident and, perhaps surprisingly, nearly the same percentage of adults, as well.

Some 40% of teenagers in 32 countries1 say they’ve been involved in a bullying incident as the target of the bullying, someone who displayed bullying behaviors or as a bystander. Meanwhile, 37% of adults said they were involved in a “bullying” incident. Combining both teens and adults, 38% of respondents say they were involved, with 19% identifying as the “target,” 21% as a “bystander” and 1% each as both “contributor” and “bully.” Respondents were asked about both online and offline bullying, and adults were asked about “bullying” (perhaps better termed “harassment”) both inside and outside the workplace.

Interestingly, those who admitted to either contributing to or exhibiting bullying behaviors responded overwhelmingly that they felt social pressure to act (68%) and they said that they regret their actions (79%). Among those who felt significant pressure to act, regret was even higher at nearly 9 in 10 (89%).online bullying graphs

The findings are from Microsoft’s latest research into aspects of digital civility ­– encouraging safer, healthier and more respectful online interactions among all people. The study, “Civility, Safety and Interaction Online ­­– 2020,” polled teens ages 13-17 and adults ages 18-74 about their exposure to 212 different online risks. This latest research builds on similar studies undertaken annually from 2016 to 2019. Previous years’ projects polled the same demographic groups in 14, 22, 23 and 25 countries, respectively. A total of 16,051 individuals participated in this latest study, and we have surveyed more than 58,000 people over the last five years. Full results from this latest installment will be made available on international Safer Internet Day 2020 on Feb. 9.

Most common response: block “bullies”

For nearly a decade, young people around the world have been advised to “Stop, Block and Tell” when it comes to online bullying, and that was the predominant response reported in this study. Two-thirds of respondents (66%) said they blocked the instigator while more than half (54%) said they talked to a friend, and more than 4 in 10 either ignored the person (44%) or told a trusted adult (42%). Sadly, given the importance of reporting unwelcome behavior to tech companies to help keep online communities safe and collegial, less than a third of respondents (30%) said they told a service provider, such as a social media company, about the incident.

We’ve all seen various webforms and online tools for reporting instances of cyberbullying, harassment, or other forms of digital abuse to tech companies. But how many of us have experienced or witnessed cruel or malicious treatment online or stumbled upon harmful content and actually submitted a report? In addition to specific in-product or service links to report abuse or concerns to Microsoft, we also make available a series of topic-specific webforms to report non-consensual pornography (unartfully referred to as “revenge porn”), terrorist content and hate speech. These issues, as well as bullying, harassment and other inappropriate behavior are all violations of Microsoft’s Code of Conduct as detailed in the Microsoft Services Agreement. On the other hand, if consumers feel their content was removed or their account was closed in error, they can complete this form to request reinstatement.

Microsoft and other online service providers have a business interest in protecting our customers and the integrity of our services by removing illegal and harmful content and addressing prohibited conduct. Furthermore, customer-reporting plays an important role in achieving those aims. So, we encourage people who participate in our communities to make us aware of content that is illegal or violates our code of conduct. General research shows that many users are reluctant to report terms-of-service violations because they feel their reports will go unnoticed or they would simply prefer to let someone else do the reporting.

At Microsoft, reports are reviewed, evaluated and actioned as appropriate. Depending on the severity of the offense, different Microsoft consumer services undertake different enforcement actions.

So, as the new – largely virtual – school year begins, pledge to be an “upstander.” Embrace the Microsoft Digital Civility Challenge and, if it’s safe and prudent to do so, stand up for yourself and others online who may be targeted for abuse or cruel treatment. Make use of technology companies’ reporting features, and promote good digital citizenship and digital civility in all communities.

To learn more about responding to online bullying and harassment, consult this resource, and for more on digital safety and digital civility generally, visit our website and resources page.

1 Countries polled in 2020 were: Argentina, Australia*, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Denmark*, France, Germany, Hungary, India, Indonesia*, Ireland, Italy, Malaysia, Mexico, Netherlands, Peru, Philippines*, Poland, Russia, Sweden*, Singapore, Spain*, South Africa, Taiwan, Thailand*, Turkey, U.K., U.S., Vietnam. *Indicates country was added (or re-added) to the study in 2020

2 The 21 risks span four broad categories: behavioral, sexual, reputational and personal/intrusive. Specifically: Reputational – “Doxing” and damage to personal or professional reputations; Behavioral – Being treated meanly; experiencing trolling, online harassment or bullying; encountering hate speech and microaggressions; Sexual – Sending or receiving unwanted sexting messages and making sexual solicitations; receiving unwanted sexual attention and being a victim of sextortion or non-consensual pornography (aka “revenge porn”); Personal/intrusive – Being the target of unwanted contact, experiencing discrimination, swatting, misogyny, exposure to extremist content/recruiting, or falling victim to hoaxes, scams or fraud.


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