Brandy Vela, a sweet faced 18-year-old with cascading brown locks, smiles radiantly in her picture (not the one shown here). A good student, with lots of friends, this Houston area high school student sent an email to her family, informing them she was going to kill herself. When her father hurried home, Brandy had a gun pointed at her chest, and despite her father’s pleas, pulled the trigger. Brandy was another victim of relentless cyber-bullying. Months of harassing emails, mostly focused on her weight, were soon followed by fake Facebook accounts, complete with her picture and phone number, offering free sex. When she changed her phone number, the cyber-bullies soon found her again. The source was an untraceable cell phone. Despite reporting the harassment to school and police, the authorities could do nothing.
With the explosion of social media channels, the proliferation of screens and the rapid increase in screen time, children are more exposed than ever to cyber threats. In a 2015 survey, 92 percent of teens said they go online daily and one in four reported being online “constantly.” It is no exaggeration to refer to cyber-bullying as an epidemic. Yet, psychologists are just now beginning to address its extent, determinants and consequences.
What constitutes cyber-bullying? Bullying in general involves negative, aggressive acts designed to harm another, usually someone perceived as weaker and more vulnerable. Cyber-bullying includes posting harassing or threatening texts, tweets, or emails; posting or commenting aggressively about pictures, often photo-shopped or otherwise doctored, to social media, online impersonation and identity theft, outing someone who wishes to keep personal information private; “trolling” (i.e., continuously posting offensive comments); and “griefing” (bullying in online gaming communities). In some cases, cyber-bullies even successfully hound their victim to commit suicide. Although harassment using phone calls is generally not included in cyber-bullying definitions, it is another way to mediate aggression through technology.
As social media platforms proliferate, so do the varieties of cyber-bullying. The very freedom of the internet, enshrining free speech, makes texting, tweeting and emailing threatening, aggressive content more likely and less taboo, as those online habituate to it. In addition, the current political climate, with extreme polarization, demonization of the “other,” and the modeling effects of powerful politicians tweeting threats, may contribute to a “normalization’ of aggressive messaging using social media.
How frequently does cyber-bullying occur? The answer is imprecise, since definitions and assessment methods vary. For example, in a 2012 UK survey of 325 children in grades seven to nine, 11 percent of the children said they were victims of cyber-bullying. A U.S. survey, conducted in six schools with third to fifth graders, one-third of whom had their own cell phones, found that nearly 18 percent reported victimization. Another survey of one Midwestern high school found that 35 percent of the teens said that they had been cyber-bullied at least once. As digital and mobile devices proliferate in the hands of ever younger children, the likelihood of cyber-bullying increases.
Getting a handle on the prevalence of cyber-bullying is difficult, for a number of reasons. First, the rapid dissemination of digital media makes studies conducted a few years ago already outdated. Second, children vary in what they consider cyber-bullying. In the UK study cited above, 29 percent of the children said that they had gotten an email or text that “made them feel bad” but they did not consider it cyber-bullying. Thus, children, as well as parents and teachers, may have differing implicit ideas about what constitutes cyber-bullying and different thresholds for labelling messages. For example, children may not consider an isolated threatening or demeaning message to be “cyber-bullying,” until it becomes part of a recurring pattern. Thirdly, we currently lack systematic population level statistics on the incidence of being a victim of bullying. Most studies have small samples that preclude generalization to larger populations. Finally, we continue to define cyber-bullying narrowly, in terms of direct victimization. This means that we know little about second-order effects. In the above UK survey, one-third of the children said they knew another child who was the victim of cyber-bullying.
It would be useful to reframe cyber-bullying as a social network, rather than an individual, phenomenon. In the former perspective, one would look for contagion effects, impacts of witnessing or even talking about cyber-bullying, and effects of peer group norms. In this way, one could map the ecology of cyber-bullying.
Child characteristics. Being a victim of cyber-bullying has been associated with risk factors, such as social isolation, developmental difficulties and economic stress. In a comprehensive review of studies conducted from 2008 to 2014, Livingstone and Smith concluded: “Children who are already vulnerable offline are likely also to be vulnerable online” (p.646). Adolescents who are overweight and LGBTQ teens are especially vulnerable as targets. Spending more time online, regardless of other risk factors, is associated with both receiving and perpetrating cyberbullying, along with other harmful online activities, such as sexting, contact with strangers, pornography and identity theft.
Bullies and their victims are not necessarily two distinct groups. Risks for bullying include sensation-seeking, low self-esteem, psychological problems and poor social support. Victims of bullying may retaliate and become perpetrators, locked in a negative cycle.
The social ecology of cyberbullying. Like face to face bullying, the cyber variety does not take place in a vacuum. Child characteristics may make some vulnerable to being victims, bullies, or both, but the social climate can nurture or help extinguish cyberbullying. Schools, youth groups and families differ in their views. In assessments of social norms surrounding bullying, children have been asked to respond to questions like: “Kids who get picked on usually deserve it.” When children assent to statements like this, they are more likely to be involved in bullying, as perpetrators, victims or both.
The social climate is implicitly indicted when we look at how children respond to being victims or witnesses of cyber-bullying. In the survey of third to fifth graders cited earlier, nearly 40 percent of victims knew the identity of the bully, but half did nothing about it. Of those children who told someone, it was usually a friend, almost never a teacher. In the UK survey of seventh to nineth graders, children reported deleting messages or responding in kind (and thereby engaging in retaliatory bullying).Fewer than half showed the messages to anyone else.
What can be done? Firm anti-bullying policies in schools can help change the social climate. Because most cyberbullying takes place outside of school, few schools have clear policies in place. This can inadvertently send a signal that such bullying (and other forms) is just part—albeit a painful part—of growing up. Families, particularly parents and older siblings, can make clear that bullying in all forms has zero tolerance. Parents can monitor and control online time more closely. Currently, this is especially difficult, as aggressive, demeaning and threatening tweets have entered public discourse and appear implicitly, if not explicitly, to be endorsed by many adults and authority figures as refreshing candor, “telling it like it is.” Previous studies have found that many children feel that telling parents or other family members “will only make it worse.” It is likely that such feelings are more prevalent now. In this way, cyberbullying joins the list of harmful secrets that burden childhood.
Taking cyber-bullying seriously, without infringing on free speech, is more important than ever. This is a toxin infecting the trust and support that all children should feel. It corrodes public discourse, transforms communications into arm-wrestling matches of strong against weak, and legitimizes intimidation. Those are not the lessons that children should be learning online.
Ackers, M. J. (2012). Cyber bullying through the eyes of children and young people. Educational Psychology in Practice 28, 141-157.
Bowes, L., et al. (2010). Families promote emotional and behavioral resilience to bullying: Evidence of an environmental effect. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry 51, 809-817.
DePaolis, K., & Williford, A. (2014). The nature and prevalence of cybervictimization among elementary school children. Child & Youth Care Forum 44, 377-393.
Livingstone, S., & Smith, P. K. (2014). A nnual research review: Harms experienced by child users of online and mobile technology: The nature, prevention and management of sexual and aggressive risks in the digital age. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry 55, 635-654.