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Cyberbullying Explained

By: , Posted on: December 10, 2015

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Compared to the turn of the twenty-first century when few people had heard of cyberbullying, today hardly a week goes by that the topic of cyberbullying does not appear in the media in the United States. Indeed, prior to the shootings at Columbine High School in 1999, no states had legislation even related to traditional bullying and certainly not cyberbullying. As of 2014, 49 states (excluding Montana) have some type of legislation related to traditional bullying and 35 have legislation related to cyberbullying. Since the shootings at Columbine High School, research on the topic of bullying and, subsequently cyberbullying, has surged. While this rise in research has led some to suggest that the prevalence of bullying and cyberbullying has also increased in the recent past, a plausible alternative argument is that scholars, the media, and others are paying more attention to bullying in all its forms.

One reason for the increased media attention is that both traditional bullying and cyberbullying have been shown to be related to a host of negative consequences, including suicidal ideation and suicidal behavior. One such case involved Ryan Patrick Halligan. Ryan had been traditionally bullied at school for several years. Then, after befriending a popular girl whom he liked at school, he realized that she had been sharing his personal instant messaging exchanges meant only for her with some of their classmates. The girl also verbally confronted him in person telling him that her apparent interest in him had all been a joke. Ryan committed suicide in 2003 at the age of 13 (Kowalski et al.,

Although the instances of cyberbullying that end in suicide are relatively infrequent, many have been picked up and sensationalized by the media. Importantly, researchers have increasingly focused on a host of other negative consequences associated with cyberbullying, as explored below.

Defining Cyberbullying

Cyberbullying, also known as electronic aggression, has generally been defined as bullying that uses electronic communication technologies (e-mail, text messages, online gaming, Web sites, chat rooms) to bully others (Kowalski et al., 2012b). However, this is a very broad definition, and defining the more specific features of cyberbullying has proven somewhat difficult.

Categories of Cyberbullying

Because of all the different forms it may take (e.g., flaming, outing, and trickery; see Table 1), there is clearly not one monolithic form of cyberbullying. In many instances, different forms of cyberbullying have been studied together, and the relationship between the perpetrator and the victim not taken into account (see, however, Pyżalski, 2012; see Table 1). Several researchers have developed cyberbullying taxonomies to more fully examine the different ways in which cyberbullying occurs, as well as the different relationships between the victim and perpetrator involved in the cyberbullying incident. Two of these taxonomies are those developed by Willard (2007) and Pyżalski (2012). As shown in Table 1Willard’s (2007) taxonomy focuses on characteristics of the cyberbullying behavior (see also Kowalski and Whittaker, in press). Pyżalski (2012), on the other hand, developed a classification system that focuses predominantly on the relationship between the victim and the perpetrator as opposed to the behavior itself (seeTable 1). This taxonomy may be particularly useful in instances where the victim does not know who the perpetrator is, or when the victim and perpetrator do not know each other, which often seems to be the case with cyberbullying (Kowalski and Limber, 2007).

cyber bullying chart

Willard’s (2007) taxonomy can be incorporated within Pyżalski (2012). Any tactic listed in Willard’s (2007) taxonomy may be used to perpetrate cyberbullying against any of the targets mentioned by Pyżalski (2012). Given the number of ways in which cyberbullying can occur and the multitude of potential victims, these taxonomies provide a useful viewpoint for researchers to begin scrutinizing the question of who does what to whom under what circumstances and with what effect.

Comparison with Traditional Bullying

Conceptualizing cyberbullying has been further compounded by its perceived relationship with traditional bullying. Cyberbullying is often discussed in conjunction with traditional bullying, and the degree to which cyberbullying is similar to and different from traditional bullying, as well as the extent to which knowledge gained from traditional bullying research can be generalized to cyberbullying, are often part of this discussion. Traditional bullying is defined as an aggressive act (1) that is intended to distress or cause harm to the target, (2) that is usually repeated over time, and (3) that occurs among people among whom there is a power imbalance. This power imbalance can be physical, social, relational, or psychological (Dooley et al., 2009Monks and Smith, 2006).

Cyberbullying is believed to share these same three features in common with traditional bullying (Kowalski and Limber, 2007Kowalski et al., 2012bOlweus, 1993). Like traditional bullying, cyberbullying is an act of aggression; it occurs among individuals between whom there is a power imbalance; and the behavior is often repeated. However, although the power imbalance with cyberbullying can be of a physical, social, or relational nature, as with traditional bullying, it may also reflect differences in talents or abilities of the victim and perpetrator, such as technological expertise (Dooley et al., 2009). The repetitive nature of cyberbullying can take a number of different forms. A single aggressive text or message sent to multiple people, or posted where many people can see, is repetitive in nature, and a single aggressive post may be viewed repeatedly by the target. Finally, a target may ruminate on cyberbullying that has already been experienced as he or she anticipates when the next derogatory text message or the Internet message will be posted.

Although traditional bullying and cyberbullying share several features in common, there are fundamental ways in which the two types of bullying differ from each other. Although people are rarely as anonymous online as they believe themselves to be, perpetrators of cyberbullying often perceive themselves as anonymous, and research on deindividuation shows that people will say or do things anonymously that they would not say or do in face-to-face interactions (Diener, 1980). This perceived anonymity opens up the pool of individuals who might perpetrate electronic aggression, as those who would never bully another person face-to-face may find it easier to do so online. The perceived anonymity of the perpetrator can also leave the victim feeling powerless, as he or she is unable to identify who is behaving aggressively online. This feeling of powerlessness on the part of the victim plays into the power imbalance between the perpetrator and the victim.

The anonymity inherent in some of these interactions plays another role as well. In instances of traditional bullying, the impact of the bullying behavior on the victim can be directly observed, and, for some perpetrators, the recognition that they have hurt the victim is enough to discourage further instances of bullying. This direct observation of the effects of bullying on the victim is not possible in instances of cyberbullying because of the online nature of the interaction that impairs chances of empathy and remorse on the part of the perpetrator (Kowalski et al., 2014).

Another difference between cyberbullying and traditional bullying involves the accessibility of the victim. Traditional bullying typically occurs at school during the school day (Nansel et al., 2001), but cyberbullying can occur 24 h a day, 7 days a week. At any time, an individual who engages in cyberbullying can create malicious posts, send messages, or create mocking Web sites. Even if the target chooses not to view the messages, that does not mean that the perpetrator is not leaving them or that other people are not viewing them. In addition, because of the nature of the venues through which cyberbullying occurs, the cyberbullying has the potential to reach a much greater audience than instances of traditional bullying do. Thousands of people can view insults posted online, whereas a few dozen at most may be witness to a traditional bullying incident at school.

This may be compounded by the perceived uncontrollability of the Internet. Online communication is rarely regulated by a moderator who will intervene if an interaction becomes aggressive, whereas bystanders in a face-to-face situation may be more likely to intervene in a bullying situation (Kowalski et al., 2013b). The relative permanence of online posts also conveys a measure of uncontrollability to the Internet. Messages remain on certain types of media for extended periods of time, or until they are deleted. Even then, there is the possibility that someone has downloaded the message, or reposted it elsewhere without the subject’s knowledge. Once something is out there in cyberspace, there is no real way to control what happens to it.

To examine the degree to which traditional bullying and cyberbullying are related to one another, several researchers have empirically tested the relationship between the two types of bullying. Results of these investigations have been mixed. Some degree of overlap has been observed between the victims of traditional bullying and cyberbullying, as well as between the perpetrators of cyberbullying and traditional bullying (Gradinger et al., 2009Hinduja and Patchin, 2008). However, other researchers have observed weaker relationships between cyberbullying perpetration and traditional bullying perpetration (Varjas et al., 2007). A relationship between traditional bullying victimization and cyberbullying perpetration has been identified as well (Hinduja and Patchin, 2008), suggesting that some individuals may engage in cyberbullying to retaliate for prior traditional bullying victimization.

Much research still needs to be conducted on cyberbullying. As much as remains to be learned about risk and protective factors related to cyberbullying victimization, even more remains to be learned about predictors of cyberbullying perpetration. Additional research is also needed examining prevalence rates of cyberbullying across a wider age demographic than just middle school students. As children at younger and younger ages become exposed to technology, researchers need an understanding of prevalence rates of cyberbullying among preschoolers, for example. They also need to examine the forms that cyberbullying takes place among older populations, particularly within the workplace. Finally, a great deal of research is needed in examining the best way to define and measure cyberbullying.

For further details on Cyberbullying and the causes and consequences, take a look at the following articles:

International Encyclopedia of Social and Behavior SciencesThis excerpt was taken from the article Cyberbullying by Elizabeth Whittaker and Robin M. Kowalskian. The article provides an overview of cyberbullying, defining it,  examining prevalence rates, characteristics of victims and perpetrators, as well as consequences of involvement in cyberbullying. Read it here. The article is included in the Major Reference Work, the Enyclopedia of the Social and Behavioral Sciences, Second Edition, a transdisciplinary and authoratitative reference covering the broad fields of Social and Behavioral Sciences. The new edition covers an extensive selection of topics from, clinical psychology, education, ethics, GLBT and philosophy to politics and socially, take a look at the subjects covered here.


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