Cyberbullying refers to the use of technological communication tools and devices to intentionally inflict harm on an individual or group. This emerging public health problem is increasing around the world. In this entry, characteristics and consequences of cyberbullying are described. The prevalence of cyberbullying, and the various ways in which cyberbullying is perpetrated, are presented. Legal issues are noted, and suggestions for prevention and intervention are offered.
Research shows that victimization by cyberbullying is associated with decreased learning at school and with depression and anxiety. Individuals may be targeted based on their membership in diverse groups. A recent study found that intolerance was the motive for 16% of cases of cyberbullying. Students were targeted for their sexual orientation (most common), gender, disability, and religion. Other research found that about 70% of high school students in all racial groups had witnessed online racial discrimination; 29% of African American, 20% of White, and 42% of multiracial/other had been directly victimized based on race.
Several characteristics of cyberbullying increase the potential for harm. The anonymity in cyberspace means perpetrators can post hurtful content without fear of being identified. They feel free to say things that are unacceptable in usual interpersonal interactions. Anonymity also elevates fear and anxiety for the target. If a target does not know the source of the cyberbullying, it is easy to become suspicious of everyone, even friends.
The perpetrator of cyberbullying can act at any time and from any place, which denies the target a safe haven from the torment. Particularly for young people—whose social lives are increasingly conducted via technology—disconnecting from technology means ostracizing oneself, and is not generally considered a viable option. Another potent feature of cyberbullying is the enormous size of the potential audience. Rather than being seen by a few classmates, the cruelty can be witnessed by a seemingly limitless audience, intensifying the feelings of humiliation.
Nonverbal gestures, tone of voice, and emphasis give the listener in face-to-face communication critical information, but these clues are absent in online and text communications. Some messages intended to be humorous or joking are received as insulting and insensitive. Furthermore, the perpetrator does not witness the target's reaction, which deprives the perpetrator of feedback that could encourage empathy, remorse, or regret. Finally, the absence of any authority overseeing cyberspace diminishes perpetrators' concerns about consequences. Face-to-face bullying at school incurs the risk of being observed by a teacher, or by another student who could tell an authority; such risks are absent in cyberspace
It is difficult to estimate the prevalence of cyberbullying. Different researchers use different surveys, different definitions of cyberbullying, and different time frames for reporting (e.g., ever, in the last school term, in the last few months, in the last 2 weeks), leading to different prevalence rates. In addition, some studies have sampled children in school, whereas others have recruited participants from websites popular with young people. Thus, although one study shows much higher rates than another, the difference is likely to be caused by these measurement issues rather than a real difference in behavior. Although there are no absolutely reliable figures, one recent study, using a nationally representative sample of students in Grades 6 to 10, found 14% were involved in cyberbullying. Another study of youth ages 10 to 17 reported that 19% had been involved. These studies indicate that a significant number of students are involved in cyberbullying. Although younger students also are affected, no data from a nationally representative sample have been reported.
Research has also been inconclusive on gender differences in cyberbullying. One study found that boys were more likely to be cyberbullies and girls more likely to be victims, others have found girls were more involved than boys, and still others did not detect any gender differences. It may be that future studies will resolve the issue, or that researchers will discover that certain types of cyberbullying are more likely to be used by boys or girls.
Cyberbullies can target others in numerous ways. Hurtful messages can be conveyed via e-mail, text message, instant message (IM), in chat rooms, and even in online games. Some cyberbullies create websites in which unflattering photos (often doctored from benign originals), derogatory comments, and other content are posted to humiliate the target. Others gain access to the target's passwords, and then send nasty messages or post offensive content that appears to come from the target. This tactic can severely damage the target's relationships and reputation, and is very difficult to sort out even if the target eventually becomes aware of how his or her identity has been misappropriated.
The almost ubiquitous presence of photo and video cameras on cell phones, coupled with the small size of these devices, allows embarrassing photos or videos to be taken easily and surreptitiously and spread via the Internet or the phones themselves without the target's knowledge or permission. One study found that this form of cyberbullying was the most upsetting to targets. An offshoot of this form of bullying is sexting. This begins when someone voluntarily (usually in response to persuasion) sends a nude or revealing photo to a person he or she trusts to keep the photo private. Later (often after an argument or break-up), the recipient of the photo sends it to many people. In several cases, victims of sexting became so desperate that they committed suicide. About 20% of teenagers admit to engaging in this behavior. Some young men who were found to have images of underage females on their devices (even if they were sent by that female voluntarily) have been convicted of possession of child pornography, a sex offense.
Online games can also be used to cyberbully. Particularly in multiuser games, players communicate with each other, and that communication can easily be derogatory toward an individual. Websites for young children are designed to be fun and entertaining for children. However, there are features within the games that allow players to chat. Although there are site moderators and filters, children quickly figure out what words are acceptable, and find ways to get negative messages across. Social exclusion—not allowing some members to join activities—is easy and common on such sites.
Although many states have now passed legislation prohibiting cyberbullying, the effectiveness of such laws is uncertain. These laws typically require school districts to create and publicize policies related to cyberbullying. Only a few require educators to be trained to deal with this issue. The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution protects free speech, which means even offensive and cruel speech is protected. For a school to take action, that speech must cause a “substantial disruption” of the educational environment. Existing laws against threatening someone's life, harassment, stalking, and impersonation can be used in some cases.
Cyberbullying emerged rather recently, and there has not been sufficient time to develop and test prevention programs. School districts interested in implementing programs are required to extrapolate from what is known about conventional bullying: whole school approaches are most effective, staff and students both need to be educated about cyberbullying, and the entire school community including parents and students need to be involved in shaping policies and planning programmatic changes. One hopes there will soon be rigorously evaluation studies of programs and curricula that will guide educators in their approach to this problem.
Digital Divide, Digital Learning, and Equal Access, Distance Education and Diversity, E-Inclusion and the Digital Divide, Free Speech and Diversity, Online Assessment and Diverse Learners
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