Almost every adolescent has access to the internet nowadays and most of them have a mobile phone. Therefore it is not surprising that cyberbullying, or bullying through these new technologies, is increasing. To put cyberbullies to a stop it is necessary to know who they are, what they do, and why they bully. That was the reason for a study in which we interviewed adolescents on their experiences with cyberbullying.

Interviews through MSN-Messenger

Information about cyberbullies was obtained by interviewing 61 adolescents between 12 and 18 years old via MSN Messenger. Cyberbullies, cybervictims, adolescents who were both, and adolescents who had witnessed cyberbullying, all talked about a cyberbullying event.

The Cyberbullies

Digital communication has created a new way to bully. This may enable some adolescents to become bullies, who might not have been bullies otherwise. Are cyberbullies simply traditional bullies who use new methods to bully or are they a new group? Cyberbullying and traditional bullying are related.

  • Almost 70% of cyberbullies also bullied in real life (“allround bullies”). Of them, more than half bullied the same victim in both ways.
  • The remaining 30% of cyberbullies bullied only in the cyberworld (“pure bullies”). Cyberbullies do have experience with traditional bullying, however only as a bully; they had little experience with victimization.

What differentiated “pure cyberbullies” from “allround bullies”? Pure cyberbullies did not match the profile of a ‘typical’ traditional bully, who is often dominant, popular, but disliked. In addition, they were less dominant and deviant than allround bullies. These results support the idea that a different group of adolescents is able to bully in cyberspace. Pure cyberbullies do not have to be ‘tough’ to be able to bully. However, pure cyberbullies also shared characteristics with allround bullies. They did not differ in levels of empathy, social intelligence, relational aggression, or school achievement. Neither did they differ in the motives for their bullying behavior.

Even though cyberspace lends itself perfectly for bullying by unknowns, as in traditional bullying, many cyberbullies were peers close to the victim such as classmates, friends, and schoolmates. Cyberbullies were more often boys, while cybervictims were most often girls.

Why do Cyberbullies Bully?

Participants were asked why they thought the cyberbully engaged in his or her behavior. The perceived cyberbullying motives were divided in nine categories.

  • Peer acceptance and jealousy were common motives. For girls, jealousy was often related to cliques. A best friend would meet someone outside their clique; as a result the girl would cyberbully her together with the other girls of the group.
  • A revenge motive was also frequently mentioned, for example, to get back at someone who said something out of line at school to the cyberbully or a friend of the cyberbully. Friends or romantic couples took revenge after a rejection or break up of their relationship.
  • Entertainment and the need for resources were mentioned, but not often. Adolescents who were motivated by getting control over resources commanded their victim to make their homework.
  • Dominance, self-esteem, attention getting, and venting personal problems were mentioned very infrequently.

What do Cyberbullies do?

Although cyberbullies and victims know each other from school, cyberbullying begins after the school bell has rung. According to our study’s findings:

  • Every cyberbully in our sample bullied outside of school.
  • Only a handful bullied in school as well. In more than 95% of the cases, the cyberbullying occurred multiple times a week.
  • While the frequency was high, the duration was short. Most cases lasted a month or less. One third of the cyberbullies bullied longer than a month.

Participants were asked to specify which communication types were used to bully. This study found that a lot of cyberbullying is done through instant messaging; more than half of the cyberbullies bullied this way. Our study also found that:

  • Websites like Facebook were used rather frequently.
  • Emailing and text messaging were also common.
  • Phone calls, bullying through internet games, picture and video clip bullying through mobile phone, and chatroom bullying were mentioned but not regularly used.

The cyberbullies said, did, or sent something to bully their victims. In our study, we also found the following trends:

  • Name calling was often used.
  • The participants indicated the cyberbullies did not gossip much.
  • Cyberbullies in our sample almost never used ignoring and excluding.
  • Besides calling names, humiliation and down talking were used to hurt the cybervictim. Threatening a cybervictim was no exception.
  • Rumor spreading, displaying a humiliating picture or video, expressing sexually oriented messages, and using someone’s name or email address to harm them, were brought up sometimes.
  • No one mentioned sending email bombs or viruses, stealing and spreading information of someone else without permission, or hacking, as methods of cyberbullying.

Which Cyberbullies Do Most Harm?

Cyberbullying by allround bullies lasts longer (more than a month) than that of pure cyberbullies (a month or less). One reason for this difference may be that victims find it easier to block a pure cyberbully. Cybervictims who are also confronted by their online bully in real life are sometimes scared to block their cyberbully as it can have consequences for their real life interactions with them. Traditional bullies also get more positive reinforcement from their peers which instigates them to bully longer.

Cyberbullying events by typical bullies who are popular but disliked did not last longer than those of other cyberbullies. The victims felt less negative when they were cyberbullied by them than by other bullies. This means that these typical bullies, who are often seen as the cruelest ones, are not the worst cyberbullies.

One might suggest that unknown cyberbullies are the big issue in cyberspace today. However, our results indicate that, as in traditional bullying, friends and peers from school are the cyberbullies who have the largest impact. Cyberbullies who bullied a current or former friend generated the strongest negative feelings. Classmates had a high impact as well. Furthermore, cyberbullies who knew their cybervictim in real life bullied longer than bullies who did not.


To prevent adolescents from (cyber)bullying, gathering information about them and their unwanted behavior is important. It is interesting to compare pure cyberbullies with cyberbullies who also bully in real life. Many cyberbullies were traditional bullies also. However, there is a large group of pure cyberbullies as well. For allround cyberbullies, it is important to investigate whether their bullying started in real life or in the cyberworld.

Bullying in real life and cyberspace are often intertwined. Cyberbullies are mainly real life contacts such as classmates, friends, or schoolmates. Although some adolescents meet people online who they do not know or who they only know via a friend or acquaintance, cyberbullies are usually peers they known in real life. And cyberbullying by friends, classmates, and schoolmates had a more negative impact on the victims than cyberbullying by unknown people.

Our examination of motives shows that cyberbullying often has a purpose. Cyberbullies try to achieve a goal with their behavior, such as acceptance in a clique or higher status at their school. Anti-bullying programs can use this knowledge to prevent cyberbullying. For example, a school climate can be created in which social status and cliques are less important. Bullying rates might drop if it no longer serves peer acceptance or social status goals. These solutions can only be created when essential knowledge about cyberbullies and their motives is obtained and further researched.


Sanders, J. B. P., Smith, P. K., & Cillessen, A. H. N. (2010). Motives for bullying and a comparison between traditional bullying and cyberbullying. Manuscript in preparation.

Sanders, J. B. P., Smith, P. K., & Cillessen, A. H. N. (2010). Cyberbullies: Their characteristics, motives, and features of their bullying behavior. Manuscript in preparation.