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What Makes Cyberbullying So Popular?

Who are the victims of cyberbullying? New research provides some answers.

When 17-year-old Rehtaeh Parsons hanged herself on April 4, 2013, it was meant to bring an end to the relentless cyberbullying that had made her life unbearable. Not only had she been the victim of gang rape by four local boys seventeen months earlier, but those same boys had taken lurid photographs of her and were distributing them online. Soon afterward, Rehtaeh was besieged by text messages calling her vicious names while numerous boys tried contacting her with offers of sex. Despite attempts at prosecuting the four boys involved, the case was dropped on the grounds of insufficient evidence.

With no legal recourse and with no relief from the endless cyberbullying, the teen decided to commit suicide in her mother's Dartmouth, Nova Scotia home. Though her parents managed to cut her down in time to save her life, brain damage resulting from hypoxia had left her in a permanent vegetative state. Her parents then made the agonizing decision to switch off her life support machine a few days later. In the months that followed, Rehtaeh's mother launched a Facebook page in her daughter's honour as well as seeking some form of punishment for the four boys she held responsible for her death. As a response to the tragedy, the Nova Scotia government passed new legislation to protect minors while several of the boys involved in the rape were later charged with distributing child pornography.

Aided by the rise of new digital communication technologies, as well as an Internet that allows messages and images to be distributed anonymously, episodes of cyberbullying have become much more common. According to a 2013 review of cyberbullying research, online harassment can take two primary forms: direct cyberbullying in which threatening or insulting messages or images are sent directly to the intended victim and indirect or relational cyberbullying which involves the spread of rumours and/or demeaning content behind the victim's back. And there are a variety of ways for cyberbullying to happen, including texting, emails, or through posts relayed through social media sites such as Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Despite the increased awareness of the damage that cyberbullying can have, it still isn't clear how prevalent this kind of harassment really is. Not only are many victims reluctant to come forward, but there is also considerable dispute over how cyberbullying can be defined. Not only do legal definitions vary widely across different jurisdictions, but the actual penalties vary widely as well. For that matter, even identifying who is responsible can be next to impossible in some cases due to the use of virtual private networks and other tricks to conceal the identity of the sender.

As for the question of whether females are more likely than males to be the target of cyberbullying, research to date has been inconsistent. Though most of the high-profile cases of cyberbullying reported in the media have involved female victims (such as Rehtaeh Parsons), no clear consensus has been reached on where there are significant sex differences in cyberbullying victims. Those differences that are found tend to vary widely depending on how bullying is defined, the measures used, where the study is carried out (eg., North America, Europe, or Asia), the age of the bullying victims, etc.

A new study published in the Journal of Media Psychology explores past research into cyberbullying and why these studies have often yielded conflicting results about who is being victimized. Shaojing Sun of Shanghai's Fudan University and Xitao Fan of the University of Macau examined over 1400 studies into cyberbullying published up to October 2013 from which they extracted forty studies providing enough data for their analysis.

While they found a small overall difference showing that females were more likely to be victimized than males, the studies that were examined varied widely depending on where the study was conducted. For example, male participants from Asia were far more likely to report being cyberbullied than North American and European males though the reasons for this difference remain unclear.

Other factors that were identified include:

  • Time frame used in the study — for whatever reason, studies using a longer time frame for reporting episodes of cyberbullying (i.e., a year or more) are more likely to report smaller differences in victimization between males and females than studies using shorter time periods (ie., three months or less) which showed females reporting more bullying than males. Sun and Fan suggest that sex differences in the recall of unpleasant experiences may be affecting study results.
  • Whether traditional bullying was measured along with cyberbullying — studies that measured other types of bullying along with cyberbullying were less likely to report gender differences. One possible explanation for this is that males are more likely than females to experience traditional bullying, including physical bullying. When asked about traditional bullying and cyberbullying together, gender differences in cyberbullying may become less clear due to the confounding effect of combining these experiences.
  • Whether the study provides a clear definition of cyberbullying — females are more likely to report experiencing cyberbullying when an actual definition is offered by the researchers. On the other hand, males were more likely to report being cyberbullied than females in studies in which formal definitions weren't provided. For example, some studies define cyberbullying as "an aggressive, intentional act carried out by a group or individual, using electronic forms of contact, repeatedly and over time against a victim who cannot easily defend him or herself." Also, studies that actually used the terms "bullied" and "cyber-bullying" showed more obvious gender differences than studies that didn't. Since bullying often has different meanings across different cultures, terms such as bullying and cyber-bullying may be interpreted differently by males and females depending on sex roles in their own culture.
  • How cyberbullying is measured — studies using bullying measures that were more binary (i.e., providing yes/no answers when asked about bullying experiences) tended to be less sensitive than items measuring how frequently cyberbullying occurred or the impact this harassment had. Using less sensitive measures meant overlooking some of the more subtle aspects of cyberbullying as well as determining the kind of impact online harassment has on victims.

So, what can we conclude from all of this? Unfortunately, while this study looked at victims of cyberbullying, it doesn't really say anything about who the perpetrators are. Previous research has turned up some surprising conclusions, including the role that victimization can play in cyberbullying. For reasons that are still not clear, cyberbullies are six times more likely to be victimized online than people who have never engaged in cyberbullying. Also, a surprisingly high number of known cyberbullies turn out to be females rather than males though this is often hard to tell for sure considering the anonymous nature of this kind of harassment. It's also important to recognize how cyberbullying can occur in different cultures (for example, there is no German word for bullying while the term, cyberbullying, is rarely seen on Chinese websites.

Considering that cyberbullying is becoming increasingly popular, especially as personal computers and other digital devices continue to spread around the world, cases such as Rehtaeh Parson will keep on occurring. While not all examples of cyberbullying will lead to suicide, the power that anonymous harassers have over people who are especially vulnerable already shows the need for real solutions. Learning more about the motivation behind cyberbullying may help us find those solutions as soon as possible.


Sun, S., & Fan, X. (2018). Is there a gender difference in cyber-victimization? A meta-analysis. Journal of Media Psychology: Theories, Methods, and Applications, 30(3), 125-138.