The survey from 2013 found that 22 per cent of students age 12 to 18 said they were bullied. That's a 6 percentage point decline from two years earlier when 28 per cent of students said they'd been bullied. It's the lowest level since the National Center for Education Statistics began surveying students on bullying in 2005, the Education Department said Friday when announcing the results.
Educators and researchers praised the decline, but said the large numbers of students still reporting that they are victims reflects that the issue is difficult to understand and address, particularly in a world of rampant online social media where malicious statements can be made anonymously and shared quickly and broadly.
Among respondents, 9 per cent of girls and 5 per cent of boys said they'd experienced cyberbullying either in school or outside of school. Unwanted text messages were the most common way students said they were cyberbullied followed by hurtful information posted on the Internet.
Overall, bullying can be physical, verbal or relational — such as leaving someone out on purpose.
Respondents said the being made fun of, called names or being insulted was the most common way they were bullied at school. Being the subject of rumours or threatened with harm was also common.
Much of the effort in schools to tackle bullying has focused on helping victims understand they should come forward and will get support and educating bullies about how their actions affect others, said G. A. Buie, a longtime school administrator in Kansas and president of the National Association of Secondary School Principals.
"Our biggest goal is we have to give students a voice as they battle this bullying behaviour," Buie said.
Buie said one of the greatest challenges is that bullying behaviour by certain individuals doesn't typically stop after one meeting with an administrator.
"I hope that it stops," Buie said. "The reality is it's a learned behaviour from kids, and they are probably going to target someone else or go back and target the individual again."
Bullied students are more likely to struggle in school, skip class, abuse drugs and commit suicide, the department said research has found.
Education Secretary Arne Duncan praised the news of an overall decline but with a caveat: "Even though we've come a long way over the past few years in educating the public about the health and educational impacts that bullying can have on students, we still have more work to do to ensure the safety of our nation's children."
Among the survey findings:
—About a quarter, or 24 per cent, of girls said they were bullied, compared to 20 per cent of boys.
—A higher percentage of white students — 24 per cent — said they were bullied than black, Hispanic or Asian students. Twenty per cent of black students said they were bullied compared to 19 per cent of Hispanic students and 9 per cent of Asian students.
Shelley Hymel, a researcher at the University of British Columbia who has studied bullying globally, said the findings are fairly consistent with other research. Still, she said, the rates are too high.
"It seems we should be able to do better than that," Hymel said.
Parents should talk to their kids about reporting bullying and not participating — in school or online — because of how hurtful it is, said Katherine Cowan, a spokeswoman for the National Association of School Psychologists. Parents can also take other steps, such as limiting the amount of time their children are online and having them use computers while around adults, Cowan said. It's also important to look for clues that a child might be a victim.
"They need to able to open up a conversation with their children about it if they notice their behaviour seems to be changing, or they seem to be more stressed out or more anxious or less willing to go to school or their social patterns change in some way," Cowan said.
The survey is from the School Crime Supplement to the National Crime Victimization Survey. It is a nationally representative sample.
Follow Kimberly Hefling on Twitter: http://twitter.com/khefling