160,000 Students Stay Home from School Every Day Because of Bullying. Really?


At the Cyberbullying Research Center we strive to approach the issue of teen technology use and misuse from a data-informed perspective. Just to be clear, data doesn’t just mean bar charts. Over the last ten years we have formally surveyed over 12,000 middle and high school students, so yes, we have a lot of bar charts. But we have also spoken to thousands of teens in schools all around the United States (and abroad). We get emails and phone calls daily from teens, parents, educators, and others who care about the online behaviors of young people. We have done focused interviews with small groups of students. We also review research articles written by other scholars (both published and unpublished). All of these are valuable sources of data. Taken together, we can start to develop a more comprehensive understanding of what is really going on.

Some data sources are definitely better than others, and we take into consideration the quality of the source and the sophistication of the methodology when interpreting results. Randomly selecting participants from a known sample is much better, for example, than arbitrarily selecting people who happen to be at a particular place and time.

To illustrate, I was recently at a school where a teacher told me that *every* student at her school that she had talked to had “either seen or engaged in sexting.” When pressed, she admitted that this wasn’t a “scientific survey,” just a questioning of a few of the students coming out of the cafeteria one day. So she extrapolated that to estimate that “everyone” at her school was in some way involved in sexting. Of course this is ridiculous. I haven’t seen a sexting study report prevalence rates higher than 31% for receiving a “sext” and most studies put the rate in the teens. In fact the Crimes Against Children Research Center recently reported that only 7.1% of students between the ages of 10 and 17 had received a “sext” (and this was a nationally representative survey – about as good as you can get methodologically).

So whenever I find a particular statistic cited, the first thing I do is attempt to uncover the original source and then review the methodology. What was the sample? How were participants selected to be in that sample? What specific questions were asked? Take once again the issue of sexting. How exactly is “sexting” defined? If you ask teens whether they have *ever* seen a nude or semi-nude image of another person on a cell phone, the number who say yes will likely be very high (if they are being truthful). If you ask them, on the other hand, if they had seen a nude or semi-nude image of another student from their school in the last 30 days, the number will be much lower. This is the question that we asked in our research, but even it can be misinterpreted. I mean, what exactly is “semi-nude?”

This brings me to the original point of this post. I have seen too many times to count the statistic that “over 160,000 students stay home every school day due to bullying.” Here are some representative examples:

Bullying Statistics”

Facts About Bullying”

Bullied to Death in America’s Schools”

Things You Should Know About Bullying”

I have also seen it twice in the last week in summaries for bullying prevention programs being offered by experts. I even found it in a 1993 article in the New York Times. Interestingly, I see it most commonly cited in news reports and governmental reports. Do a Google search for that statistic and you will see it thousands of times. But where did it come from? It has been attributed to many different sources (ABC News, National Education Association, and several books). Most commonly, it is credited to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). At least one CDC report cited a book written in 1998 (Real boys: Rescuing our sons form the myths of boyhood by William Pollack) (reference to stat has since been removed). That book attributes the statistic to the National Association of School Psychologists, but doesn’t provide a specific citation to a specific study or source. So where did it come from? I have put the question to some of the brightest minds in the area of bullying prevention and research and nobody knows. So if anyone out there has a specific study that includes this statistic, I would love to see it.

There is no question that too many students stay home from school every day because of fear of bullying.  The exact number is difficult to really know.  But it does this field a disservice to mis-cite or simply report statistics without being able to substantiate them.  Bullying *is* a serious problem that warrants our attention.  But the case can be made for this using reliable and valid statistics, not hyperbole.


  1. Hi everybody, I know that my post is not related to the topic but I think that if you are a parent you may find this helpful.. Nowadays children live in a culture were hard core pornography abounds, it affects girls as well as boys and often leads to significant addictions and damage in their ability to form healthy relationships as an adult.. If you would like to keep your family safe from online dangers check out this safety software called computer parenting for more information (link defunct)

  2. Safe Schools/Healthy Students Albemarle/Charlottesville has been tracking this number annually in our community with 7,5000 students (grades 6-12) since 2009. Our last measure, which was the spring 2011 showed 6% of students who reported they did not go to school one or more days during the past 30 days because they felt unsafe at school or on their way to and from school.

  3. The number originally came from the Youth Risk Behavior Survey conducted by the CDC. This is the same survey I assume poster “Jjenkins” mentions conducting within their school district. The problem is this is what our youth are being asked (taken from 1993 survey):
    “During the past 30 days, on how many days did you not go to school because you felt you would be unsafe at school or on your way to or from school?”
    This question is clearly overly broad and in no way should be used to support the thought that 160,000 students stay home from school every day out of fear of being bullied. They could feel unsafe for a multitude of reasons. I would like to know from Jjenkins how their school district uses that specific question to positively affect their student’s environment/culture.
    There are some interesting quotes within this online article from Katherine Cowan, a spokeswoman for the National Association of School Psychologists, which is the organization who originally made the leap to create this statistic.
    I agree with the last sentence of Justin’s post “But the case can be made for this using reliable and valid statistics, not hyperbole.”

  4. Kathy Cowan, NASP Director of Communiations, here. This is a great blog and I want to reiterate what I tell everyone who inquires about the 160,000 number. The number was extrapolated from the YRBSS (1993) using other, at this point unknown, research. Although originally “published” through NASP (I am not sure who the author was), I can no longer find the original paper, article, or book chapter to confirm what other research was used or how the number was calculated. Even if the number was accurate at the time, it is completely out of date now and should no longer be used. I try to make this clear at every opportunity and have all of our directors on the lookout for its use by other organizations so that we can contact them.

    We do have numerous resources and articles on bullying prevention and intervention on our website http://www.nasponline.org/resources/bullying/index.aspx. NASP is highly committed to using quality research and providing valid information to professionals, policymakers, and the public. Unfortunately much of the media is not and this is a sound bite they have loved to keep alive.

  5. I noticed this 'statistic' as well. It is mentioned that Vail, K. (1999, September), Words that wound, American School Board Journal, pp. 37-40, wrote about it, but I can't access the article. Good luck and great to see someone looking behind the stats!

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