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Being Bullied Online

New research looks at how young children respond to cyber bullying.

Though cyberbullying is becoming recognized as a serious problem for virtually anyone with access to the Internet, the impact that it can have on younger children is harder to measure.   And there is still the problem with “traditional” bullying that many children face in schools or other social settings where they can be threatened or intimidated. 

Still, while children can take refuge from traditional bullies by going home or asking for help, what protection is available from cyber-bullies who can strike at any time or place?   This has led to a relatively new phenomenon of cyber victimization.  Defined as “the receipt of any act of aggression through computers, cell phones, and other electronic devices”, cyber victimization can take the form of flaming (heated exchanges online), identity theft, harassment, ostracism/exclusion, stalking, or “happy slapping” (assaulting an unwitting victim while someone else takes a photograph or video later posted online).    Cyber bullying can happen through chat rooms, blogs, websites, social networking sites, text messaging and/or posting of inappropriate pictures.   Research studies looking at the prevalence of cyber bullying have given estimates ranging from 6 to 72 percent  but usually averaging between 20  to 40 percent of adolescents.

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The effect of cyber victimization on children and adolescents can be extreme including school conduct problems, carrying weapons for protection and/or retaliation, depression, social anxiety, and suicidal behaviours.   Since cyber victimization can often be combined with traditional bullying (face to face confrontation), the psychological harm is reinforced.   The bullying, whether traditional or online, can usually be seen as instrumental (i.e., as a means of accomplishing a given end) or reactive (as retaliation against the victim for some perceived transgression).   Researchers have also made a distinction between overt victimization (traditional threatening) and relational victimization, i.e., causing harm by damaging a victim’s social status or friendships.  Cyber bullying can happen in many different ways.

Research studies looking at cyber bullying and traditional bullying and the effect they can have on a child’s psychological functioning have usually focused on older children.  Researchers have also tended not to focus on protective factors that might make children less vulnerable to bullying, like number of friends or other social support networks in place.    While boys are more likely to experience traditional bullying than girls, the rise of cyber bullying has balanced the sex ratios in recent years. 

A new study published in Psychology of Popular Media Culture examined the complex relationship between traditional and cyber bullying in younger boys and girls as well as some of the protective factors that reduce victimization.  The researchers, Corrie L. Jackson of Arizona State University and Robert Cohen of University of Memphis, examined 192 children in Grades Three to Six at a university-affiliated elementary school.  The children (93 boys and 99 girls), completed different self-report measures of cyber victimization, loneliness, peer relationships, friendship networks, and social acceptability.   They also rated their fellow classmates for different social roles such as bullying and victimization to measure traditional bullying.  The data was collected in two group assessments at the end of the fall semester to give the children time to learn about fellow students.

Overall, a total of 29.7 per cent of the students reported experiencing some form of cyber victimization.  Being victimized online was also linked to feelings of loneliness, having few friends, or feeling socially rejected.    There also seemed to be little difference between boys and girls in likelihood of online victimization (though boys were far more likely than girls to be targeted by traditional bullying).    Cyber victimization and traditional victimization also did not appear to be significantly related.   In both cases, children who were highly victimized were more likely to be rated as less socially acceptable by other children.

While the researchers were careful in warning about problems in generalizing from their study of children from one elementary school, their results do show that cyber bullying can have a devastating effect on younger children, especially in children with poor self-image or social networks.    Surprisingly, the researchers did not find any relationship between traditional bullying and cyber victimization which may be due to differences in how aggression occurs in real-life versus online.   Since cyber bullying can happen anonymously, victimizing is often easier (and can be directed against total strangers as well as people known to the aggressor).  

For both types of victimization, the effect is often the same though.   The psychological impact of bullying can last for decades if proper intervention fails to happen.   While anti-bullying campaigns can help prevent many of the problems associated with traditional bullying, what can be done about the online harassment that many children experience?    Although parental support can help victimized children, more vigilance is needed by  social media sites to detect online harassment and help victims cope.  

As new anti-bullying networks are developed, better strategies are needed to help children being bullied and preventing them from developing the hostile “me against the world” mindset that keeps them from asking for help.   This is something that children of all ages are facing and the need to act is becoming more critical each day.  

Romeo Vitelli, Ph.D. is a psychologist in private practice in Toronto, Canada.

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