Research on Cyberbullying: Key findings and practical suggestions

By — Bullying Special Edition Contributor
Updated on Apr 23, 2014

Cyberbullying can be defined as

‘bullying through email, instant messaging, in a chat room, on a website or gaming site, or through digital messages or images sent to a cellular phone. Although sharing certain features in common with traditional bullying, [...] cyber bullying not only looks and feels a bit different than traditional bullying, but presents some unique challenges in dealing with it’ (1).

Cyberbullying is a relatively new research topic, following the rapid increase in use of mobile (cell) phones and the internet.  Several characteristics distinguish cyberbullying from other forms of bullying, such as:

  • Students who are victimized have no place to hide, and can be targeted anytime and anyplace.
  • Cyberbullying can involve a very wide audience (e.g., through the circulation of video clips on the internet), although the bully may not be aware of the audience’s reactions.
  • Students who cyberbully others are relatively protected by the anonymity of electronic forms of contact, which can safeguard them from punishment or retaliation.
  • As with some indirect traditional bullying, students who cyberbully do not usually see the response of the victim, changing the satisfactions or inhibitions normally generated by bullying.

Extent of the Problem

Studies, mostly over the last five years, provide varying accounts of the number of students experiencing cyberbullying, mainly resulting from differing samples of participants and methodological techniques. As a rough approximation, the number of children who report being cyberbullied is a significant minority, perhaps about one third of those who are victimised through traditional forms (2). This equates to around 1 in 10 children having experienced being cyberbullied.

Unlike traditional bullying, many incidents of cyberbullying occur outside of school (2), which could be expected given that many schools place restrictions on mobile phone and internet use during school hours. Although much of this cyberbullying is reportedly done by school peers, cyberbullying is an issue not only for schools, but also for families and communities (3).

Forms of Cyberbullying

Much research has focused on one or two forms of mobile or internet bullying. Smith et al. (2) distinguished seven forms of cyberbullying: mobile phone calls, text messages, picture/video clips, email, instant messaging, chat-rooms and websites. Of these, phone calls, texts and instant messages were the most commonly reported. Technologies which can be used to cyberbully continue to be improved and developed. Recent guidance from the Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF, 2007) on cyberbullying provides a comprehensive list of types of cyberbullying, including virtual worlds, social networking sites and virtual learning environments.

Who is Involved in Cyberbullying?

Bullying behaviors tend to show a decline with age. However, some studies show that the likelihood of being involved with cyberbullying, as either a victim or perpetrator, increases with age (e.g. (2, 4)); although other studies report no difference between age groups (e.g. (5)). This differs significantly from traditional bullying as older students seem more likely to be involved, possibly because they have greater access to mobile phones and the internet.

Studies on traditional bullying indicate males show greater involvement and a physical approach, whereas female bullying is more indirect and relational, such as through rumor spreading and social exclusion (6). Gender differences in cyberbullying are less researched, and show inconsistent findings. In the US, no differences have been found (4, 7), although some data from the UK suggests girls may be more involved with cyberbullying (2, 8). While the technological aspect of cyberbullying might appeal more to boys, the indirect, non-physical aspect might appeal more to girls.

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