The ways that cyberbullying occurs are diverse: calling people offensive names online, posting embarrassing content (including photos and videos), discrediting or posting false information, ostracism and exclusion, stalking or harassing via phone or web, impersonating someone, sexually harassing, threatening and intimidating.
Over the last 10 years these hazards of our online environment have gained more attention and, unfortunately, research also indicates that these types of harassment have become increasingly common (although this increase is relatively modest despite some media portrayals; Duggan, 2017).
These experiences occur across different online platforms, with the most common including social media, comments sections of articles, email, messaging and chat services, online gaming, and dating platforms.
In the research on this topic, a distinction is often drawn between online harassment – one-off experiences of these behaviours – and cyberbullying – the repeated and ongoing experience of these online actions.
While the experience of harassment online itself can be harmful, the repeated nature of cyberbullying can be especially damaging by creating a sense of dread, leaving the victim wondering ‘what will the bully do next?’.
Most commonly, cyberbullying is talked about as a problem for pre-teens and adolescents. Among those aged 10 to 18, 27% report being victims of cyberbullying at some stage in their lives (Cyberbullying Research Centre, 2016).
Those young people who experienced online bullying were also much more likely to experience ‘traditional’ (i.e., schoolyard) bullying (Twyman et al., 2010). As a result, young people may be subjected to bullying in person during the school day which then continues online after they go home, preventing any reprieve from the bullying.
The problem is also more common among adults than you may think. Research published in the U.S. in 2017 found 41% of adults had personally experienced online harassment, with 18% reporting being victims of more serious cyberbullying behaviours (physical threats, harassment over a sustained period, sexual harassment, or stalking: Duggan, 2017). While these rates were highest among those aged 18-29, people in all age groups had experienced harassment online.
In New Zealand, research from NetSafe found that in 2017 alone nearly a third of Kiwi’s had received unwanted digital communication, with 9% reporting that these experiences negatively affected their ability to perform daily activities.
What are the effects?
Like traditional ‘offline’ bullying, cyberbullying can have a substantial impact on victims. The repeated nature of bullying and associated anxiety can be problematic, leading to avoidance of situations where there is the risk of further bullying.
This avoidance can result in changes to behaviour both online (e.g. changing or deleting accounts, not using platforms previously enjoyed) and offline (avoiding certain places such as going to school).
While approximately one third of school aged children who experienced cyberbullying reported that they weren’t bothered, others reported feeling sad, angry, and frustrated.
The most common consequence for cyberbullying victims was stress, which often has flow on consequences, such as difficulty concentrating at school or work. Bullying can also damage people’s self-esteem, and lead to feelings of hopelessness.
At the extreme end, cyberbullying can lead to clinical anxiety and depression, self-harm behaviour, eating disorders, suicidal thoughts and attempts. Especially for those who experienced more severe online bullying, common consequences include problems with friends, family or romantic partners, damage to their reputation, problems at school and work, financial loss, and even trouble finding a job.
One important difference from offline bullying is the difficulty escaping online bullying. Given the constant presence of technology in people’s lives, it can be almost impossible to avoid the online environments where bullying can occur.
The nature of the online world also means that the audience for embarrassing content or misinformation can be much larger, and the spread of information much quicker than in previous generations.
Given the variety of ways cyberbullying occurs, and the constantly changing nature of the online environment, it can be hard to know when an online experience becomes bullying, with a lot of victims expressing uncertainty about whether they have been bullied or not.
This uncertainty can prevent people from seeking support, adding to feelings of self-doubt and isolation.
What is clear is that cyberbullying is a real problem, which can have significant impacts on the lives of victims and bullies, and can happen to all those of us who use digital communication, regardless of age.
Cyberbullying Research Centre (2016). Summary of Cyberbullying research 2004-2016. Accessed at cyberbullying.org on 12 September 2018.
Duggan, M. (2017). Online Harassment 2017. Pew Research Centre. Accessed at cybersmile.org on 12 September 2018.
Kowalski, R.M. & Limber, S.P. (2007). Electronic bullying among middle school students. Journal of Adolescent Health, 41, 22-30.
Netsafe (2018). Harmful digital communications in New Zealand: Annual Population Survey 2017. Wellington, NZ: Netsafe. Retrieve from https://www.netsafe.org.nz/annual-populationsurvey-2017
Twyman, K., Saylor, C., Taylor, ,L.A., Comeaux, C (2010). Comparing children and adolescents engaged in cyberbullying to matched peers. Cyberpsychology, behavior, and social networking, 13, 195-199.