Cyber Bullying: What’s the Big Deal?

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Patricia Agatston, Ph.D., co-author, Cyber Bullying: Bullying in the Digital Age

Parents, educators, and youth acknowledge that bullying is a serious problem in our schools, yet some adults still find it difficult to take the more recent phenomenon of cyber bullying seriously despite research that suggests up to one third of teens have been targeted by cyber bullying. In order to truly understand cyber bullying and its effects, it is important to understand the similarities and dissimilarities between traditional bullying and cyber bullying.

Bullying involves an aggressive action that intentionally targets another person, is repetitive in nature, and involves an imbalance of power. The action can be physical or verbal, indirect or direct, and can involve relational aggression (such as gossip, rumors, exclusion) which harms an individual’s social relationships. Cyber bullying involves using technology to engage in bullying behavior toward another. Like traditional bullying, the behavior is aggressive and is typically repetitive. Though it is not physical, cyber bullying may include threatening messages that may cause the targeted student to feel anxious and afraid. Cyber bullying can be a very effective method for engaging in relational aggression.

In addition the nature of technology often allows for even a onetime instance of cyber bullying to be viewed or disseminated over and over. The power imbalance in traditional bullying may involve a student who is older, bigger, stronger, or more popular picking on a youth who is younger, weaker, or who has fewer friends.

The power imbalance in cyber bullying has more to do with the ability to reach such a wide audience and humiliate, cause fear, or virtually destroy the reputation of another with a single click of a mouse or the send button on a mobile phone. It is very difficult to defend oneself from cyber bullying when the audience is vast and the perpetrator is often anonymous. At least with traditional bullying the bully is typically known, can possibly be avoided at times, and his or her reach is usually limited to the school day. The Internet and mobile phones allow access to the target virtually around the clock.

It is well documented that bullying causes serious affects among targeted individuals. Children who are targeted by bullying are more likely than non-bullied children to experience anxiety, depression, and low self-esteem. They are also more likely than other children to consider taking their own lives[ii]. Preliminary research on cyber bullying has also found that youth who are involved in cyber bullying experience higher levels of anxiety, depression, lower self-esteem, and higher levels of school absences than uninvolved youth – and that the experience may be intensified due to the pervasiveness of cyber bullying.

So how do we prevent cyber bullying? We know that traditional bullying increases where there is less adult supervision. As more and more youth socialize online, away from the eyes of the adults in their lives, it makes sense that we would see an increase in cyber bullying. Therefore it is critical for parents, educators, and youth to work together to address cyber bullying. One thing that parents can do is to set basic guidelines with their children around the appropriate use of technology and treating others with respect both online and offline. Monitoring software can assist parents in supervising their children’s behavior online and making sure their family guidelines are being followed.

Parents should also let their children know that they can come to them if they are being targeted by cyber bullying, without fear of losing access to technology. This will keep the lines of communication open, which is one of the most important methods for preventing bullying and cyber bullying.

  • Lenhart, A. (2007). Cyber Bullying: Pew Internet and American Life Project
  • Rigby, K. (1996). Bullying in schools: And what to do about it. Briston, PA: Jessica Kingsley Publishers
  • Kowalski, R. and Limber, S. (2009). in submission. Ybarra (2006). Examining characteristics and associated distress related to internet harassment: findings from the second youth internet safety survey. Pediatrics Vol. 118, no.4, pp.1169 – 1177.
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