Research roundup: More on cyberbullying

This issue’s roundup builds on a previous PracticeUpdate article on cyberbullying, and highlights more recent research and effects on youth

By Practice Research & Policy staff

January 26, 2012—Cyberbullying is generally characterized as the use of the Internet and related technologies such as mobile phones to torment, harass, threaten, embarrass or otherwise harm another person. Technology allows bullies to hide behind anonymity and separate themselves from their targets, while sending or posting harmful text or images to wider audiences. This differs from traditional bullying or “school yard bullying,” which typically refers to the physical, verbal, or social abuse of an individual.

According to the National Crime Prevention Council, cyberbullying can have the same debilitating effects as face-to-face bullying, including depression, decreased academic performance, loss of self-esteem, suicide and violence. As technology becomes increasingly more accessible, researchers and other professionals are working to increase the knowledge base about cyberbullying.

This issue’s roundup builds on a previous PracticeUpdate article on cyberbullying, and highlights new research about cyberbullying and its effects on youth.

Patchin, J. W., & Hinduja, S. (2011). Traditional and nontraditional bullying among youth: A test of general strain theory. Youth & Society, 43(2), 727-751.

Summary

According to the contemporary General Strain Theory (GST), when a person experiences strain, i.e. failure to achieve goals, the loss of a positive stimuli or the presentation of negative stimuli, he or she is more likely to experience negative emotions that, in turn, lead to deviant behavior. In order to determine if traditional bullying and cyberbullying were deviant outcomes of negative emotions caused by strain, the authors conducted a survey on the occurrence of both types of bullying, as well as the experience of strain and negative emotions. The sample consisted of approximately 2000 middle school students from one of the largest school districts in the United States. Results indicated that both forms of bullying were directly associated with strain and the experience of negative emotion. However, contrary to the GST, the experience of negative emotions did not mediate the relationship between strain and either type of bullying. Rather, strain and negative emotion’s influence on bullying seem to be independent of each other.

Practical Implications

It is clear from this study that both strain and negative emotions influence the likelihood of bullying. To prevent youth from attempting to cope with strain and negative emotions in an unconstructive or deviant manner, for example, through bullying, clinicians can help youth recognize what triggers problematic behavior and develop more positive coping methods. This could be in the form of encouragement to participate in physical and mental extracurricular activities that occupy students’ time and help them find satisfaction and self-assurance. Furthermore, actions could also be taken to diminish the causes of strain among youth in different environments. Clinicians should keep in mind that some sources of strain among youth, such as broken romantic relationships or parental divorce, may not be evident as an antecedent to bullying at first. Identifying and alleviating these sources of strain may also prove fruitful in reducing corresponding experiences of negative emotions and resulting bullying.

Bostic, J. Q., & Brunt, C. C. (2011). Cornered: An approach to school bullying and cyberbullying, and forensic implications. Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Clinics of North America, 20(3), 447-465.

Summary

To shed light on the developmental, legal and mental health issues surrounding the occurrence of bullying and cyberbullying, this article provides an overview and case examples of the different types of bullying situations, participants and tactics to thwart bullying. Most recently, bullying and cyberbullying have become more visible problems due to the increase of high profile school violence and suicide incidences associated with bullying victimization.

Accordingly, 32 of the 48 states with anti-bullying legislation have added a section on cyberbullying to enable school administrators to respond to these situations that occur outside of school. The authors note that bullies are more likely to develop or have an externalizing disorder, such as ADHD, while victims are more likely to suffer from anxiety or depression. Moreover, by their early twenties, over half of male middle school bullies have been convicted of some sort of criminal offense.

Cyberbullying is differentiated from traditional bullying by the greater potential for escalation, due to the lack of physically present barriers, and expansion of the conflict to “cybergangbullying.” The authors introduce a continuum of bullying inclusive of the bully, the victim, and the bystander(s), i.e. accomplices and defenders. By providing a functional assessment of the factors that sustain each of the participant’s behaviors, the authors are able to address the long-term negative effects of bullying, which include the development of conduct disorder for bullies and PTSD for the victims and potentially observers. Furthermore, developmentally sensitive strategies for avoiding and responding to bullying-type situations are provided to assist individuals and their support systems to foster an environment that precludes involvement in bullying-type situations.

Practical Implications

Expanding and distinguishing the individual roles in social interactions will help clinicians better understand the dynamics of the bullying situation and identify the residual effects bullying has on each participant, including bystanders. Identifying the different roles individuals may play in cyberbullying situations may determine different intervention strategies and coping mechanisms.

Additionally, clinicians must be mindful of the duality of bullying roles in that one person might be in more than one role at different times. Clinicians may also need to identify their state’s legislation on traditional bullying and cyberbullying to inform their decisions regarding necessary actions to help parents intervene or prevent the cyberbullying.

The importance of contextual factors surrounding bullying is emphasized, illuminating the need to consider the systemic and environmental factors when addressing bullying. Finally, although different mental health problems are associated with bullies as compared to victims, treating those problems in full recognition of the impact of bullying on the individual bully’s life may serve to both improve the mental health disorder as well as reduce the likelihood of future bullying.

Bauman, S., & Pero, H. (2011). Bullying and cyberbullying among deaf students and their hearing peers: An exploratory study. Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education, 16(2), 236-253.

Summary

Deaf and hard-of-hearing (HOH) youth face unique challenges when faced with bullying and cyberbullying. Communicative technology, such as text messaging and online social networking, has expanded Deaf/HOH youth’s ability to socially interact, while at the same time potentially increased their likelihood to experience and engage in cyberbullying. Some literature suggests that hearing-impaired youth may be more vulnerable to bullying and cyberbullying victimization due to more limited ability to pick up on verbal social cues, as well personality traits, such as social immaturity and low self-esteem, often detected in Deaf/HOH youth. On the other hand, Deaf/HOH youth may feel empowered by the technology and use it as a means to bully others.

To determine whether or not differences in the experience of bullying and cyberbullying existed between Deaf/HOH and hearing youth, a survey was administered to 30 secondary students (grades 7-12) in a charter school for the Deaf/HOH and a matched group of 22 hearing students on the same campus. In particular, the authors sought to compare access to/use of technology, the prevalence and relationship between the two types of bullying, the cognitive processes surrounding bullying and the willingness to disclose incidences among the two groups.

Minimal differences were found suggesting that Deaf/HOH and hearing students share similar experiences of bullying and cyberbullying. One notable difference was that hearing students were more likely to own a cell phone and have a MySpace account. Additionally, there was an observed trend toward Deaf/HOH students being more involved (as a bully or victim) in conventional bullying and more likely to report incidences of cyberbullying to a parent or teacher, though these differences were not statistically significant.

Practical implications

Even though the generalizability of this study is limited due to the small and non-randomized sample, this study provides a good first step for investigating the bullying/cyberbullying dynamic within the Deaf/HOH community. Although there were few significant differences found between Deaf/HOH and hearing students, it is possible that Deaf/HOH students experience bullying and cyberbullying differently based on their functional status. Clinicians may want to gather information on Deaf/HOH youth’s environmental adaptions, fluency of American Sign Language (ASL), familial fluency of ASL and ability to lip read in order to inform interventional decisions. Given that Deaf/HOH students appeared more likely to report incidences of bullying, building on this trend may be another mechanism for identifying and reducing the incidence of bullying among Deaf/HOH youth.

Patchin, J. W. & Hinduja, S. (2010). Cyberbullying and self-esteem. Journal of School Health, 80(12), 614-621.

Summary

The abundant literature assessing the constructs of traditional bullying consistently links low self-esteem to bully victimization. Low self-esteem as it relates to the perpetration of bullying, however, has a more variable relationship. Specifically, studies have found negative, positive and neutral relationships between low self-esteem and bullying offending. To assess whether similar relationships exist with regards to cyberbullying, this study examined results from a self-report survey on Internet use and cyberbullying experiences completed by a random sample of 1,963 sixth, seventh and eighth graders from 30 schools.

In a preliminary descriptive analysis gauging the prevalence of cyberbullying, the authors found that about 30 percent of respondents reported that they had experienced cyberbullying two or more times in the previous 30 days and 22 percent of respondents admitted to participating in cyberbullying at least two or more times in the previous 30 days. This finding demonstrates that cyberbullying represents a repeated behavior, not just a singular incident. In terms of low self-esteem, both the victims and the perpetrators of cyberbullying had significantly lower self-esteem when compared to those who had not been involved in cyberbullying. These relationships persisted even after controlling for demographic variables, though the relationship was stronger for cyberbullying victimization.

Practical implications

Being mindful that low self-esteem is a potential source or outcome of cyberbullying can assist health professionals and school officials in targeting both victims and offenders of cyberbullying with possible interventions. Presumably, if students, particularly in middle school, are able to raise their self-esteem, the occurrence of cyberbullying should decline. Clinicians can work with the students themselves, as well as their family members, to bolster the student’s sense of self-worth and therefore reduce incidences of cyberbullying. Health professionals can also teach students ways to deflect minor forms of cyberbullying, for example not retaliating when sent a defaming message or increasing privacy settings on social networking sites. Enhancing ways of gaining peer support is another avenue for increasing self-esteem, and clinicians can help students identify possible avenues to build their social support systems.

Bauman, S. (2010). Cyberbullying in a rural intermediate school: An exploratory study. The Journal of Early Adolescence, 30(6), 803-833. 

Summary

As cyberbullying continues to proliferate across the United States, it is essential to determine how it occurs across different individual, family and school variables. Two hundred and twenty one students (N=221) attending an intermediate school (grades 5-8) in a poor rural community were surveyed to elucidate these variables among an understudied population. The survey consisted of questions on student perceptions of the levels of cyberbullying in their school; parental technological behaviors; student involvement in cyberbullying and cybervictimization; the influence of self-blaming attributions and moral disengagement on cyberbullying and cyberbullying scenarios; and potential demographic predictors of cyberbullying.

Among the most important findings were that the majority of the sample reported cyberbullying occurred more frequently by cell phone rather than by computer, which coincides with the finding that participants reported using text messaging more often than other online communication tools. Students who were involved in cyberbullying were more likely to engage in risky online behaviors, and most likely to find that cyberbullying activities interfered with their school functioning. Additionally, there were no relationships between caregiver use of technology and child cyberbullying.

Of the students who were involved in cyberbullying, the vast majority were involved as both bullies and victims. Self-blaming attributions were predictive of unpleasant emotional reactions to a cyberbullying scenario but were not predictive of cybervictimization. Similarly, moral disengagement did not predict cyberbullying but did predict acting out in response to the cyberbullying scenario. On several variables, fifth graders differed from all other grades suggesting that sixth grade may be a critical period for increased involvement in technological activities and cyberbullying.

Practical Implications

The early education of students, as well as caregivers, on the benefits and dangers of activities involving technology could be a preventive strategy to reduce the incidence of cyberbullying among youth. Most intervention approaches to bullying recommend that the victim tell a teacher or parent; however, students rarely do so with cyberbullying in fear that their technological device will be taken away. Hence, increasing parental awareness of these issues and encouraging them to resolve them by means other than just removing the technological device may be a successful way to increase cyberbullying disclosure and prevention. Since the majority of students involved in cyberbullying were both victims and perpetrators, it may be that behaviors labeled as cyberbullying are actually reciprocal cyberconflict and these incidences need to be differentiated in order to better understand and minimize cyberbullying and cyberconflict.

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

Web sites with resources about cyberbullying

The following Web sites 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 the documents and handouts with clients, in groups, at presentations and in waiting rooms.

  • Center for Safe & Responsible Internet Use: This Web site 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: This Web site 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 Web site 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 Web site 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: The Web site 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.

Additional articles regarding prevalence of cyberbullying

Calvete, E., Orue, I., Estevez, A., Villardon, L., & Padilla, P. (2010). Cyberbullying in adolescents: Modalities and aggressors' profile. Computers in Human Behavior, 26(5), 1128-1135.

Kiriakidis, S. P., & Kavoura, A. (2010). Cyberbullying: A review of the literature on harassment through the Internet and other electronic means. Family & Community Health: The Journal of Health Promotion & Maintenance, 33(2), 82-93.  

Wade, A., & Beran, T. (2011). Cyberbullying: The new era of bullying. Canadian Journal of School Psychology, 26(1), 44-61.

2010 Practice Update article: Research roundup: Cyberbullying