Social networking sites are popular, particularly amongst teens, and for all generations there may be some beneficial effects in being able to connect with friends and colleagues online. But social networking sites also have a dark side, especially for those with less experience of human spitefulness. While cyberbullying can affect an individual of any age, it is teens that experience it the most. Cyberbullying is now a real and pervasive threat to the health and safety of today’s online youth.1

Some aspects of cyberbullying are nothing new for today’s teenagers. One study found that the content of cyberbullying incidents in 91% of cases related to relationship issues, such as break-ups, envy, intolerance, and ganging up.3 These are all just typical adolescent tensions- the difference lies in that they are playing out in a far more dangerous environment. Compared to the traditional bullying of the playground or the times of Flashman, the online environment is a place where bullying has instant, widespread, and permanent effects- and a place where a bully can attack their victim 24 hours a day.1 Because there is the possibility for the abuse to be spread by others and to continue online and because bullies may be able to maintain a higher degree of anonymity than in face-to-face encounters, there is concern that the intensity of cyberbullying is greater than that of traditional bullying.2

Although cyberbullying includes all electronic forms of bullying, such as instant messaging, chat rooms, email, text messaging, and intrusive or prank telephone calls, it is social networking bullying that is particularly insidious: the social networking environment amplifies the public nature of the act, creates more opportunities for anonymity of the perpetrator- and the bullying acts are left online permanently.

Just how common is cyberbullying through social networking platforms? In a review of 36 studies (58% were US samples; age range was 12-18 year olds), the prevalence of cyberbullying on social media was 23%, with a range of 5% to 74%.2 Between 5-11% of individuals reported being both victims and bullies. Common social media platforms for cyberbullying included social networking sites such as Facebook (4%-20%), message boards (26%), and blogs (5%).

Name-calling or insults, spreading gossip and rumors, and circulating pictures were listed as common forms of cyberbullying. The most hurtful or distressing situations reported involved pictures or videos, in which individuals were asked or coerced into sending pictures of themselves or were covertly filmed or photographed.

There is an apparent gender divide in the content of the bullying behavior: girls typically received messages criticizing their popularity or appearance, or alternatively they were excluded or isolated in the online environment, while boys often received homophobic messages or derisive comments about their physical abilities. Most studies found that girls were more likely to be cyberbullied than boys. Boys were more often cyberbullies than girls, more likely to be targeted by direct rather than indirect bullying, and more often bullied in dating relationships. Girls tended to be limited perpetrators while boys tended to be frequent perpetrators.

The most prominent themes describing the motivation behind cyberbullying, as reported by both cyberbullies and non-bullies, included a lack of confidence or the desire to feel better about themselves, a desire for control, finding it entertaining, and retaliation. While in most cases the recipients know the perpetrator, estimates of the prevalence of being cyberbullied by an unknown person ranged from 10% to 21%.

Adults, who normally would be supervising the lives of teens, are left on the outside – without the technological expertise or understanding of the environment to be of much help.3 Victims were most likely to tell friends, followed by adults (usually parents; 20%), and a significant minority (24%) didn’t tell anyone. A common theme was that adolescents were often hesitant to tell their parents about incidents of cyberbullying for fear that their computer privileges would be taken away. Findings indicated that adolescents lack awareness or confidence that anything can be done about cyberbullying; therefore, efforts should be made to increase education regarding how to address it and who to tell, focusing on both recipients and bystanders.

Social networking platforms have exploded in popularity in the past decade. Just six years ago, teen researchers likened the Internet for teenagers to the wild west- lawless and ruthless.3 Since then, we have implemented legislation and governance in order to protect youth online from cyberbullying- have we done enough? After all, it appears that here, at least, the screen world isn’t ‘just like’ real life.

References

  1. Stanbrook, M. B. (2014). Stopping cyberbullying requires a combined societal effort. CMAJ, 186(7), 483-483.
  2. Hamm, M. P., Newton, A. S., Chisholm, A., Shulhan, J., Milne, A., Sundar, P., ... & Hartling, L. (2015). Prevalence and effect of cyberbullying on children and young people: a scoping review of social media studies. JAMA pediatrics, 169(8), 770-777.
  3. Hoff, D. L., & Mitchell, S. N. (2009). Cyberbullying: Causes, effects, and remedies. Journal of Educational Administration, 47(5), 652-665.

About the Author

Susan Greenfield Ph.D.

Susan Greenfield, Ph.D., is a British scientist, writer, broadcaster and member of the House of Lords.

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