Research roundup: Cyberbullying

See highlights of a growing literature base that informs psychologists about cyberbullying and how to help perpetrators and victims

by Practice Research and Policy Staff

March 31, 2010 — While the definition of cyberbullying varies, it is generally characterized as using an electronic device for aggressive, repeated and intentional acts of bullying such as name calling, sending threatening emails, placing photos of persons on the Internet without permission and sending viruses.

Nancy Willard, MS, JD, of the Center for Safe and Responsible Use of the Internet, provides the following definition of cyberbullying in a document prepared for educators:

“Cyberbullying is being cruel to others by sending or posting harmful material or engaging in other forms of social aggression using the Internet or other digital technologies. Cyberbullying can take different forms: Flaming. Online fights using electronic messages with angry and vulgar language; Harassment. Repeatedly sending nasty, mean, and insulting messages; Denigration. “Dissing” someone online. Sending or posting gossip or rumors about a person to damage his or her reputation or friendships; Impersonation. Pretending to be someone else and sending or posting material to get that person in trouble or danger or to damage that person’s reputation or friendships; Outing. Sharing someone’s secrets or embarrassing information or images online; Trickery. Talking someone into revealing secrets or embarrassing information, then sharing it online; Exclusion. Intentionally and cruelly excluding someone from an online group; Cyberstalking. Repeated, intense harassment and denigration that includes threats or creates significant fear.”

Cyberbullying differs from traditional bullying, for example, due to the lack of physical and social cues. Some researchers argue that the traditional power imbalance is reduced in cyberspace. Cyberbullying, while popularly seen as an adolescent problem, also occurs among younger children and adults.

Although news reports on the occurrence and outcomes of cyberbullying incidents are frequent, researchers and other professionals are slowly building the literature base to help us understand the hows, whats and whys of cyberbullying. This in turn assists psychologists and other professionals with helping individuals who are perpetrators and victims of such behavior. Highlights and practical considerations related to several such articles appear below.

Cassidy W., Jackson, M., & Brown, K.N. (2009). Sticks and stones can break my bones, but how can pixels hurt me?, School Psychology International, 30, 383- 402.

Summary

In British Columbia, Canada, 365 middle school students between the ages of 11 and 15 completed surveys intended to capture the type, extent and impact of cyberbullying experiences. The majority of these students were of Asian ancestry, which was representative of the school district’s ethnic composition.

Students were queried about numerous areas of potentially problematic experiences. Without detailing all responses, thirty-five percent of students reported occasionally receiving inappropriate (vulgar, rude or angry) messages, usually via email and not text messaging. Approximately 25 percent had experienced someone else using their online identity, pretending to be them and tarnishing their reputation. Around the same percentage reported that other youth have posted sensitive or personal information about them online.

Additionally, over one-quarter of 12-14 year-olds reported perpetrating cyberbullying with smaller percentages of 11 and 15 year-olds reporting doing so. Those who reported cyberbullying indicated that they did so for a variety of reasons, including not liking the person (14 percent), the person had upset them (13 percent), and the person had bullied them first (10 percent).

Approximately one-fourth of respondents said they would not report experiencing cyberbullying to anyone. Students affirmed a variety of reasons for not reporting, including fear of retribution, others could not stop the bullying even if reported, they could get friends in trouble, or their access to the Internet would be restricted. However, if reporting could be done anonymously, over 75 percent indicated willingness to report cyberbullying.

The authors examined responses across age groups and noted that 14 year-olds seem to be particularly at risk for experiencing or engaging in cyberbullying. When asked about solutions to cyberbullying, students endorsed setting up anonymous phone-in lines and developing educational programs about cyberbullying and its effects. To a lesser degree, students also supported punishment and programs to develop positive self esteem as possible solutions.

Practical considerations

The study suggests that middle school years, perhaps peaking around age 14, may be a vulnerable age for exposure to cyberbullying. It occurs frequently enough among children that psychologists may want to assess to determine whether a child or adolescent has been either a perpetrator or victim. However, psychologists should anticipate that these experiences will be underreported.

The reasons students gave for engaging in cyberbullying provide some possible “hooks” for engaging students about the problems and possible strategies to address cyberbullying. Collaboration between students and educators to develop effective interventions and policies to prevent and eliminate cyberbullying in schools may prove fruitful. While educators can provide resources and support in efforts to reduce cyberbullying, students can play an equally important role, as they are usually more knowledgeable about computer technology and peer culture, and they may have first-hand experience with cyberbullying.

Twyman, K., Saylor, C., Taylor, L.A., & Comeaux, C. (2009). Comparing Children and Adolescents Engaged in Cyberbullying to Matched Peers. CyberPsychology & Behavior, 12, 1-5.

Summary

Fifty two children ages 11-17 exposed to cyberbullying were matched with children of the same age, race and gender who had not been exposed to cyberbullying in order to explore differences and similarities between the two groups of children. Victims of cyberbullying were more likely than their peers to have been victims and perpetrators of traditional bullying as well. Cyberbullies were also more likely to engage in traditional bullying but were not more likely than peers to be victims. However, a portion of cyberbullies did not engage in traditional bullying.

Both cyberbullies and cyberbullying victims were less likely to dine out with family and more likely to have a social networking page and/or a personal email account not accessible by parents than non-exposed peers. Cyberbullies and cyberbullying victims were also more likely to spend at least four hours per week with a boyfriend or girlfriend and at least four hours per week engaged in computer-based social activities such as email, instant messaging and chatting.

Practical considerations

Clearly, sheer time spent on the Internet can increase the likelihood that a child or adolescent will either be a perpetrator or victim of cyberbullying. And infrequent parental monitoring of online activities can also increase the risk of exposure. However, monitoring alone is not sufficient to protect teens and children, as some victims and bullies did have accounts accessible to parents.

Additionally, a portion of cyberbullies only engage in bullying behaviors online, so parents may not have many clues regarding their child’s behavior if parents are not monitoring online activities. Parents, children and teenagers may all need education about what cyberbullying is and how to respond appropriately. Helping parents not only establish rules for “safe” computing but actually developing strategies for monitoring children’s online behavior may be important. Additionally, simply establishing rules may not be enough; parents may need to engage in ongoing conversations with their children about Internet safety to reduce risk.

Patchin, J. W. & Hinduja, S. (In press). Bullying, cyberbullying, and suicide. Archives of Suicide Research.

Summary

Approximately 2,000 middle school students (mean age 12.8 years) were surveyed regarding their experiences with traditional and cyberbullying. Students who reported engaging in one or more specific behaviors two or more times in the previous 30 days were identified as bullies, and students who experienced one or more specific behaviors two or more times in the previous 30 days were considered victims of bullying. Data suggest that 34 percent of respondents engaged in traditional bullying behaviors two or more times in the previous 30 days while 44 percent of respondents were victims of traditional bullying. Additionally, almost 22 percent were cyberbullying offenders while 29 percent were victims of cyberbullying.

Twenty percent of respondents reported seriously thinking about suicide. Youth who had either engaged in bullying behaviors or been victims of bullying behaviors (both traditional and cyber) were more likely to report suicidal ideation, although being a victim was a stronger predictor of having suicidal ideation. Bullying victims and offenders (both traditional and cyber) were more likely to have attempted suicide than those who were not exposed to bullying. The researchers caution, however, that exposure to bullying (traditional or cyber, offender or victim) was only a small contributor to youth experience of suicidal ideation or attempt at suicide. The researchers noted that a variety of other factors also contributed to these outcomes.

Practical considerations

Just as traditional forms of peer aggression are known to be linked to increases in suicidal thoughts, cyberbullying is linked as well to increased suicidal ideation. Prevention and intervention programs related to cyberbullying may need to incorporate a component on suicidal thoughts and behavior. While cyberbullying itself may not lead to suicide attempts, cyberbullying may be another factor that adds to a young person’s feelings of isolation or hopelessness.

Note: Subscribers to PsycNet can read articles published in APA journals. Other articles may be accessible through Medline or other databases.

Websites with resources about cyberbullying

The following websites contain information about Internet safety, cyberbullying and general media literacy. The sites also contain information targeted specifically for parents, educators, other professionals and youth (often found under “resources”). Interested psychologists may download and use many of the documents and handouts with clients, in groups, at presentations and in waiting rooms.

  • Embrace Civility in the Digital Age: This website is geared towards teachers and schools but has a wealth of information for parents and clinicians. Specific guides for parents and students on cyberbullying can be downloaded. The site was created and is maintained by educator-lawyer, Nancy E. Willard.

  • WiredSafety.org: This website is dedicated to providing assistance to victims of cybercrime and harassment as well as information and education to the public, schools, law enforcement agencies and others regarding Internet safety, privacy and security. A section of the site is geared to different groups of children with specific programming to STOP cyberbullying.

  • i-Safe America: This website is run by a non-profit organization with a focus on all aspects of Internet safety. The foundation has extensive materials and curricula for educators and charges schools or school districts a subscription fee to access those materials. The site also includes free information and its target audiences include children and teens, educators, parents and law enforcement.

  • Media Awareness Network: This website is a Canadian resource designed to promote media and digital literacy. The site has educational materials for both parents and educators and the organization has developed innovative partnerships with various youth groups.

  • Cyberbullying Research Center: The website of the Cyberbullying Research Center is maintained by two professors with graduate degrees in criminal justice. The site is dedicated to providing up-to-date information about the causes and consequences of cyberbullying among adolescents.

Two additional articles regarding prevalence of cyberbullying

  • Dehue, F., Bolman, C., & Völlink, T. (2008). Cyberbullying: youngsters' experiences and parental perception. CyberPsyschology & Behavior, 11, 217-23.

  • Mesch, G.S. (2009). Parental mediation, online activities, and cyberbullying. CyberPsychology and Behavior, 12, 387-393.