Peer Victimization Versus Bullying

Peer victimization is an umbrella term, under which bullying is classified.  Both bullying and peer victimization involve the intentional infliction of harm from one or more students to another

Bullying:  involves repeated victimization and a power imbalance between the bully and the victim (1, 2). 

Peer victimization: involves victimization that occurs only once or repeatedly over time and those who are victimized are not necessarily less powerful than their aggressors.  
Both bullying and peer victimization occur in three main forms: 

  • Overt victimization: involves direct taunting, teasing, threatening, or acts of physical harm.  
  • Relational or social victimization:  involves both direct and indirect behaviors that inflict harm on a person by attacking the victim’s friendships, social status, or inclusion in peer groups (3).  Some types of relational victimization involve rumor spreading, purposely excluding the victim from a social situation, telling the victim’s secrets, and attempting to cause rifts in the victim’s existing friendships.  
  • Cyber victimization:  involves new and popular cyber-technologies such as text messages, social networking sites, web pages, and email.  Cyber victimization can involve behaviors seen in overt victimization (teasing and threatening) and relational victimization (rumor spreading and divulging secrets) (4).

Do Students Who Experience Cyber Victimization Report More Anxiety and Depression?

Students who are victims of various forms of traditional bullying and peer victimization report feeling more isolated, anxious, and sad than other students (5).  Do students who report being targets of cyber victimization also experience more anxiety, depression, and social isolation? In a sample of 1,600 students in four middle schools (grades 6 through 8) (6), we found answers to these questions:

(1) Is cyber victimization different from traditional forms of peer victimization?

  • Yes, students reported this as a separate type of behavior.

(2) What is its prevalence of cyber victimization among middle school students?

  • Although participating students were from a rural community, 14% reported that they were victims of cyber victimization via email, text/instant messages, and posts on social networking websites and/or other web pages.

(3) Do youth who are victimized in cyberspace also report increased problems with functioning, such as symptoms of depression and social anxiety?

  • These students did experience symptoms of social anxiety, but not depression.  One possible interpretation of this finding is that children who are victimized online by their peers worry about social situations and being evaluated negatively by peers. Alternatively, another potential interpretation is that students who already experience social anxiety or shyness may also be targets for cyber victimization.

Parents and educators should both take extra care with youth who are socially anxious or shy when they get introduced and involved in online social media.  And, parents and educators should also look for increases in social anxiety as a possible sign that a student is being victimized in cyberspace.


1. Olweus D. Peer harassment: A critical analysis of some important issues. In: Juvonen J, Graham S, editors. Peer harrassment in shcool: The plight of the vulnerable and victimized. New York: Guilford; 2001. p. 3-20.

2. Elinoff MJ, Chafouleas SM, Sassu KA. Bullying: Considerations for defining and intervening in school settings. Psychology in the Schools. 2004;41:887-97.

3. Crick NR, Grotpeter JK. Relational aggression, gender, and social-psychological adjustment. Child Development. 1995;66:710-22.

4. Willard NE. Cyberbullying and cyberthreats: Responding to the challenge of online social aggression, threats, and distress. Champaign, IL, US: Research Press; 2007.

5. Prinstein MJ, Boergers J, Vernberg EM. Overt and relational aggression in adolescents: Social-psychological adjustment of aggressors and victims. Journal of Clinical Child Psychology. 2001;30(4):479-91.

6. Dempsey AG, Sulkowski ML, Nichols R, Storch EA. Differences between peer victimization in cyber and physical settings and associated psychosocial adjustment in early adolescence. Psychology in the Schools. 2009;46(10):962-72.