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.
Impact of Cyberbullying
Victims of cyberbullying most commonly report feelings of frustration, anger and sadness (4, 9) also report that victims feeling worried, threatened and distressed. Smith et al. (2) asked participants to rate the harm caused by differing cyberbullying media in comparison to the effects of traditional bullying. Although most forms of cyberbullying were rated as having a similar impact, picture video clips were perceived to cause much greater harm than traditional bullying.
A common theme in research on bullying has illustrated how victimized children often show a reluctance to seek help. Cyberbullying appears to show a similar trend. Smith et al. (2) reported that, among victims of cyberbullying, only 56% sought help by telling someone. Those children that did tell were most likely to turn to a friend or parent, while teachers were rarely informed of the situation. When asked to recommend coping strategies, most students (75%) suggested ‘blocking messages or identities’ as the best way to stop cyberbullying, followed by ‘telling someone’ (63%), ‘changing email addresses or phone numbers’ (57%), and ‘keeping a record of offensive emails/texts’ (47%). Currently, it is not yet clear whether the recommended strategies are actually effective in either ending cyber bullying or effectively coping with its impact.
What Can Parents and Educators Do About Cyberbullying?
Anti-bullying interventions, classroom materials and school policies need to address cyberbullying by making staff and pupils aware of the problem, and provide help for those who experience it. Parents and staff may be unaware of the full range of technologies used by their children. Efforts are needed to enhance their knowledge, of the dangers as well as benefits associated with such technologies. Such awareness and guidance should include information on relevant legal issues and on ways of contacting mobile phone companies and internet service providers. New technologies are already being used in some schools to report both bullying and cyber-bullying behavior (e.g., school websites, bully inboxes, www.textsomeone.com), and Peer Mentors are being used in virtual situations (e.g. ChildLine call centres or the B-Friend 4 U project). In this way, the anonymity that is afforded to the bully can be used more constructively to provide both help and support for victims of cyberbullying. In addition, advisory and support materials need to be circulated widely among schools and communities, as cyberbullying can take place anywhere and anytime. Publications such as the DCSF cyberbullying guidance and ‘Cyber bullying: Bullying in the digital age’ by Kowalski, Limber and Agatston (1) give useful suggestions as to how both schools and communities can work in unison to reduce the threat of cyberbullying among children and young people.
Take home message: Cyberbullying is a whole-school and community issue.
- Kowalski, R. M., Limber, S. P., & Agatston, P.W. (2007) Cyber bullying: Bullying in the digital age. Malden, MA, Blackwell Publishing. ISBN 978-1-4051-5991-3
- Smith, P.K., Mahdavi, J., Carvalho, M., Fisher, S., Russell, S. & Tippett, N. (2007, in press). Cyberbullying, its forms and impact in secondary school pupils. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry.
- Willard, N.E. (2006). Cyberbullying and cyberthreats. Eugene, Oregon: Center for Safe and Responsible Internet Use, is a comprehensive source with a North American slant.
- Ybarra, M.L. & Mitchell, K.J. (2004). Online aggressor/targets, aggressors, and targets: a comparison of associated youth characteristics. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 45, 1308-1316.
- Patchin & Hinduja (2006). Bullies move beyond the schoolyard: A preliminary look at cyberbullying. Youth Violence and Juvenile Justice, 4, 148-169.
- Smith, P. K. & Brain, P. (2000) Bullying in schools: Lessons from two decades of research, Aggressive Behaviour, 26, 1–9
- Raskauskas, J. & Stoltz, A.D. (2007). Involvement in traditional and electronic bullying among adolescents. Developmental Psychology, 43, 564-575.
- Noret, N., & Rivers, I. (2006). The prevalence of bullying by text message or email: results of a four year study. Poster presented at British Psychological Society Annual Conference, Cardiff, April.
- Hinduja, S. & Patchin, J.W. (2007, in press) Cyberbullying: An exploratory analysis of factors related to offending and victimization. Deviant Behavior.
Smith, P.K. & Slonje, R. (in press), Cyberbullying: the nature and extent of a new kind of bullying, in and out of school. In S.R. Jimerson, S.M. Swearer, & D.L. Espelage (Eds.) The International Handbook of School Bullying. New York: Routledge. Provides an international literature review of research on cyberbullying. In England, guidance for schools and parents on cyberbullying has been produced by DCSF/Childnet (2007), available at: www.teachernet.gov.uk/publications [search using the ref: DCSF-00685-2007]. Copies of this publication can also be obtained from: DCSF Publications, PO Box 5050, Sherwood Park, Annesley, Nottingham NG15 0DJ, England Tel: 0845 60 222 60; Fax: 0845 60 333 60; Textphone: 0845 60 555 60. Quote reference: 00685-2007LEF-EN; ISBN: 978-1-84775-043-3.