|In This Special Report:|
When most people think of bullying, they envision the schoolyard thug verbally or physically threatening hapless victims on the playground or on the school bus.1-3 The past few years, however, have witnessed a new type of bullying—cyber bullying—also known as electronic bullying or online social cruelty.1,4 Although sharing certain features, traditional bullying and cyber bullying are distinct. Furthermore, because of the anonymity surrounding much cyber bullying, the consequences are at least as bad if not worse than those associated with traditional bullying (Kowalski and Limber, unpublished data, 2008) as we discuss later in this article.
Cyber bullying refers to bullying that occurs through instant messaging, e-mail, chat rooms, Web pages, video-gaming, or through images or messages sent via cellular phones.1 It can take a number of forms (Table).1
Although anyone with access to technology can be a cyber bully, most individuals who are cyber bullies and who are cyber bullied are in middle school. Instant messaging is the most common venue.5 This reflects communication patterns among adolescents, who are more likely to spend their time online “IMing” their friends than engaged in other types of online activities.6 However, as the nature of online activity changes, so, too, in all likelihood will the venue by which cyber bullying occurs.
Prevalence of cyber bullying
In part because of the relatively recent research on cyber bullying, investigators have yet to reach a consensus on how to define cyber bullying and what time parameters to impose when assessing prevalence (within a couple of months vs lifetime prevalence). Thus, it is not surprising that reports of cyber bullying show considerable variability.
Victimization rates range from 4% to as high as 53%.7,8 Rates of perpetrators of cyber bullying vary as well and range from 3% to 23%.8 In one US study of 3767 middle-school children, 18% reported being targets of cyber bullying within the previous 2 months, and 11% said they had cyber bullied someone at least once within the previous 2 months.5 Similar statistics were found in a follow-up study of 931 individuals in grades 6 through 12 (Kowalski and Limber, unpublished data, 2008).
Regardless of the exact percentage, however, statistics point to an increasing and pervasive problem that calls for attention from both researchers and practitioners.
Characteristics of perpetrators and targets of cyber bullying
To date, there is little research on the specific characteristics of people who are cyber bullies and those who are cyber bullied. Although it might be reasonable to assume that people who cyber bully have certain features in common with those who engage in traditional bullying (eg, more accepting of violence, little compassion), there are probably unique characteristics of those who cyber bully. Research shows that boys are more likely than girls to engage in traditional bullying (ie, physical and verbal acts that hurt another person, that happen repeatedly, and that make it difficult for the victim to defend himself or herself).1,9-13 Boys are also more likely than girls to engage in direct, physical forms of bullying whereas girls are more likely to engage in indirect forms of bullying (eg, ostracism and gossiping). Not surprisingly, girls (13%) more than boys (9%) report perpetrating cyber bullying—an indirect form of aggression.5 Importantly, more girls (25%) than boys (11%) report being targets of cyber bullying.5
In addition to gender differences in cyber bullying, personality variables also moderate the frequency with which people experience cyber bullying. Heightened levels of social anxiety have been observed among perpetrators of cyber bullying.1 Furthermore, among individuals who cyber bully, those who do so most frequently report the highest levels of social anxiety.1 Importantly, however, even among respondents who frequently perpetrated cyber bullying, targets of cyber bullying still reported higher levels of social anxiety.
Traditional bullying versus cyber bullying
As tempting as it is to assume that our knowledge of traditional bullying carries over easily to cyber bullying, this does not seem to be the case. Although traditional bullying and cyber bullying share certain features, they are distinct phenomena. Both types of bullying are acts of aggression, are repeated, and involve a power imbalance between the victim(s) and perpetrator(s). However, the same individuals are not necessarily involved in the 2 types of bullying.
In a survey of more than 3700 youths in grades 6 through 8, among traditional bullying victims, 23% were also victims of cyber bullying, and 9% were perpetrators of cyber bullying. Among perpetrators of traditional bullying, 19% were also targets of cyber bullying with 20% perpetrating cyber bullying. Among individuals not involved with traditional bullying, only 9% were targets of cyber bullying and only 5% perpetrated cyber bullying.1,5
Furthermore, unlike traditional bullying, the identity of the perpetrator of cyber bullying is often unknown. In one study, close to half of the targets did not know the identity of the perpetrator.5 The increased level of anxiety in the victims is not surprising given the unknown status of the perpetrator.1
In addition, traditional bullying typically occurs on school grounds or on the school bus. Thus, at least within their home, targets of traditional bullying are safe. With cyber bullying, targets are accessible 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. There is no time when messages cannot be left on cellular phones or sent in an e-mail.
More individuals are potential cyber bullies than potential schoolyard bullies. People will say and do things anonymously that they would not say and do directly or in front of someone. This disinhibition effect increases not only the number of potential perpetrators of cyber bullying but also the magnitude of threats, taunts, and so on, that they are willing to deliver.1 This effect is further compounded by that, in the virtual world, interactants are not privy to one another’s emotions. When people tease or bully face-to-face, they use off-record markers (winks, smiles, etc) to indicate the intent behind their behavior.13 With the exception of emoticons (smiley faces to convey positive affect), such nonverbal accompaniments are not available in the virtual world. Thus, perpetrators cannot see the emotional toll that their cyber bullying may be taking on the target; similarly, targets cannot read the off-record markers accompanying the perpetrator’s behavior. Thus, targets cannot know if the perpetrator really is “just kidding.”
That cyber bullying and traditional bullying are, in fact, distinct has implications for treatment. Although cyber bullying can be an indication that a youngster may also be traditionally bullied at school, psychiatrists should focus on each as a unique experience.