Cyberbullying: Who Hurts, and Why

January 29, 2016

The research on electronic aggression among college students indicates that it is highly prevalent, with over 93% of college students reporting some negative effects due to electronic victimization.

Mobile and online forms of communication have become common avenues for aggression and bullying among young people. Moreover, electronic media such as text messaging, social networking sites, and email-used frequently by college students-are being employed intentionally to harm others. Vario

Mobile and online forms of communication have become common avenues for aggression and bullying among young people. Moreover, electronic media such as text messaging, social networking sites, and email-used frequently by college students-are being employed intentionally to harm others. Various labels for hurtful electronic behaviors include electronic aggression, cyberbullying, cyber aggression, and online harassment. Domains or types of common electronically aggressive behaviors include hostility (eg, insults, threats), humiliation (eg, posting an embarrassing picture), obsessive monitoring or control (eg, intrusive texts), deception (eg, use of a fake profile to interact with another), and exclusion (eg, un-friending).

[[{"type":"media","view_mode":"media_crop","fid":"45068","attributes":{"alt":"© SpeedKingz/","class":"media-image media-image-right","id":"media_crop_9592073142912","media_crop_h":"0","media_crop_image_style":"-1","media_crop_instance":"5102","media_crop_rotate":"0","media_crop_scale_h":"200","media_crop_scale_w":"120","media_crop_w":"0","media_crop_x":"0","media_crop_y":"0","style":"float: right;","title":"© SpeedKingz/","typeof":"foaf:Image"}}]]Although many of these behaviors overlap with traditional, in-person, psychological and relational aggression, electronic aggression may be particularly pernicious. With electronic media the victim can be accessed at all times and from any location, and power differentials can be minimized; this allows people to anonymously exhibit aggression that they may not otherwise show in face-to-face circumstances. Electronic conflicts may also escalate more quickly.

The ease of fast-paced messaging and instantaneous social media posting allows individuals to act quickly on their impulses. Such impulses are compounded by the lack of facial and vocal cues often present during face-to-face conflict, which increases the risk for ambiguous cues to be misinterpreted as hostile. Furthermore, social media provides opportunities for humiliation on a wider, more public scale, which increases the negative effects of unwanted postings, pictures, and videos.

Estimates of the prevalence of cyberbullying among children and adolescents in middle and high school generally fall between 10% and 40%, although the actual prevalence may be much higher.1 Less is known about the prevalence and impact of electronic aggression among college students, but there are several important reasons to examine its occurrence in this population rather than assume an upward extension from the child and adolescent literature.

For many young adults, college represents the first time they are away from home for a significant amount of time, and thus they may have a weaker support system to buffer the negative effects of victimization. Research shows that perceived support and parental involvement are negatively related to electronic perpetration and victimization-and college students have much less oversight by parents, teachers, and administrators compared with high school students.1

Because the onset of psychological disorders often occurs in young adulthood, the potential for negative mental health effects increases during the college years. More independence also means greater prospects for engagement in risky behaviors, such as substance use and unsafe sex. Thus, not only are college students vulnerable to engagement in electronic aggression, but the consequences of such aggression may be particularly deleterious.

In this article we examine demographic and contextual factors that play a role in electronic aggression, discuss the impact on college students’ mental health, and identify opportunities for prevention and intervention. Although not a comprehensive review of the electronic aggression literature as it pertains to college students, this article highlights pertinent studies.

Prevalence of electronic victimization in college students

A burgeoning literature indicates that young adults commonly engage in hurtful online behavior as both perpetrators and victims. Prevalence estimates can vary considerably depending on the time frame sampled (eg, past 6 months, past year, ever in one’s lifetime), the individuals involved (eg, strangers, acquaintances, friends, dating partners), and the items being measured (eg, asking youths if they have engaged in electronic aggression versus a questionnaire measuring a range of specific acts).

Notably, research on college students’ electronic aggression tends to focus on aggressive acts in the context of existing relationships with dating partners and peers. In contrast, most research on cyberbullying in children and adolescents focuses on acquaintances or strangers. Thus, the reliability of prevalence estimates is affected. In a study of college students’ electronic victimization by friends and romantic partners, nearly three-quarters of the sample reported experiencing behaviors indicative of electronic hostility (72.3%), intrusiveness (73.5%), and humiliation (73.2%) within the past year. Almost half experienced exclusion (42.6%).2

Estimates of electronic perpetration range from 3% to 42%; they are somewhat lower than those reported for victimization.3 Parallel to the literature on face-to-face aggression, electronic perpetration is highly correlated with electronic victimization. The specific types of electronic acts may vary depending on the relationship in which they occur. For example, within romantic relationships, electronic aggression may be most commonly perpetrated in an attempt to control the partner, whereas friends may be more likely to attempt to humiliate.

Gender may be an important factor to consider in electronic aggression among young adults, although the overall patterns are not clear. There is some evidence that men report higher rates of electronic victimization than women.4,5 Other studies have found no gender differences in electronic victimization, specifically in dating relationships.6,7 Women tended to electronically aggress against dating partners more often and men against friends2; men reported more perpetration than women.5

Further research is needed on gender differences at the level of specific behaviors because much less is known. For example, one study found that men were more likely to report that their partner had shared compromising or intimate information about them.8 Gender may also intersect with the context in which aggression occurs-another emerging research area. For instance, jealousy and retaliation are common motivations for perpetrating electronically aggressive acts, as are humor for men and self-protection and privacy for women.9

There is limited research on the rates of electronic aggression among various demographic groups. Findings are mixed about whether LGBT students experience differential rates of electronic aggression. Some studies found similar electronic victimization rates for heterosexual and LGBT young adults.10,11 Others suggest higher rates of victimization for LGBT students compared with non-LGBT students, and higher rates of engaging in perpetration using deception.8

A limited literature indicates that a history of electronic aggression in adolescence is associated with later electronic victimization and perpetration during college. For example, students who experienced electronic aggression in high school were more than 3 times more likely to both receive and perpetrate electronically hurtful behaviors in college compared with students who did not engage in cyber aggression during high school.12 These results suggest a continuity of electronic victimization and perpetration into young adulthood, and also call for further longitudinal investigation of potential pre-existing risk factors for electronic aggression in college.

Electronic aggression, distress, and mental health problems

Electronically aggressive behaviors are associated with a wide range of negative outcomes for victims and perpetrators, which include mental and physical health problems and impairments in social and behavioral functioning. Most commonly, studies have found electronic victimization to be linked with psychological distress-women report more distress about electronic victimization than men.8

An important point is that while most forms of electronic aggression are at least somewhat distressing, some specific behaviors appear to be less upsetting to some individuals. For example, about 15% of male college students reported that intrusive monitoring by a friend or exclusion such as un-friending or blocking by a friend or dating partner was “not at all” upsetting.2 Furthermore, although electronic humiliation has the potential for large-scale public embarrassment, both men and women found it to be only just as distressing or even less distressing than other forms of electronic aggression.8 Nonetheless, drawing overall conclusions that electronic aggression creates low distress should be avoided, particularly when considering its specific impact on individuals. Tragic cases in the media highlight that what one individual intends as harmless, another might experience as so traumatic as to lead to suicide.

Studies have also found a connection between electronic aggression and depressive symptoms for victims as well as perpetrators. Victimization has been linked to more depressive symptoms for both men and women. Initial findings indicate that women prone to rumination were at increased risk for the development of depressive symptoms.13,14 Perpetration of electronic aggression was also associated with higher levels of depression, and anxiety may increase the likelihood of engaging in perpetration.5,15

Moderate associations between electronic victimization and substance use and risky behaviors have also been documented, although only limited research has focused on college students. Electronic victimization of women by friends and dating partners predicted higher levels of alcohol and substance use and risky sex.2 The effect for alcohol use was true even after controlling for the effect of other types of traditional victimization. There is also evidence that victims of electronic victimization have higher levels of phobic anxiety, paranoia, and suicidal ideation and attempts than their non-victimized counterparts.16

The negative consequences of this type of aggression include a number of short-term emotional outcomes such as crying, sadness, and self-blame. Over 93% of college students surveyed reported some negative effects due to electronic victimization.12 Notably, a limitation of the research is the lack of longitudinal studies. Further research is needed to determine whether these negative effects for college students are time-limited or more chronic in nature.

Prevention and intervention

From a prevention perspective, there are a number of signs that administrators, resident advisors, and mental health professionals need to be aware of. First, youths who were involved in the perpetration or victimization of electronic aggression in high school are at greater risk of continuing these behaviors; therefore, assessment of past experiences may help target prevention efforts.12 However, history alone is not enough to identify those at risk, because approximately one-third of college students may engage in electronic aggression for the first time during college.17 Screening tools, such as symptom checklists or intake questionnaires already used by mental health professionals, can easily be modified to incorporate questions regarding previous electronic victimization and perpetration during adolescence and any distress associated with past electronic aggression.

Education is a primary means of preventing aggression, and educational programming-although appropriate for all students-may be more closely focused on at-risk groups. Students who are members of marginalized groups on campus, such as LGBT students, as well as those who are engaged in campus social organizations, such as fraternity/sorority members, may be at increased risk. Education can include raising awareness of the rates as well as the types of behaviors considered aggressive, discussion of healthy versus unhealthy relationship behaviors, and tips for how to intervene with peers. In addition, mental health resources can be made available to students who experience distress related to victimization. Social skills training, including empathy-building and emotion-regulation strategies to manage distress, would be valuable for youths who have been either perpetrators or victims. Education can also include more practical targets, such as demonstrating how to adjust privacy settings for popular electronic applications, how to prevent others from “tagging” photos or videos on social media, how to block receipt of unwanted messages from strangers, and how to turn off GPS on applications to prevent cyber-stalking.

Health care professionals and university staff should stay well- informed regarding electronic media and communication platforms commonly used by college students. Given that the technological landscape is ever-changing, professional conferences and continuing education could be targeted toward training on current technology. In addition, leaders of campus organizations (eg, student government, clubs, fraternities, sororities) could benefit from education on how to identify victims and intervene in cases of cyber aggression. They may be uniquely positioned to detect and refer students in need of professional mental health services and may be instrumental in creating an environment where students can provide support for each other. College students identified several areas where campus administrators could intervene at a policy level to address cyberbullying: these ranged from having a section in course syllabi about respectful online communication to providing resources for all students at freshman orientation regarding assistance for electronic victimization.15

Universities should also regularly review and update their codes of student conduct and discipline-as well as policies on electronic communication, harassment, and discrimination-to ensure that they can adequately address issues related to electronic technologies used by college students. Because electronically aggressive behaviors by students may violate legal and/or institutional policies, institutions need a system for reporting and investigating instances of cyberbullying, for delivering disciplinary action, and for involving appropriate legal authorities when necessary.


The research on electronic aggression among college students indicates that it is highly prevalent, may have a variety of negative effects for both victims and perpetrators, and may look different across types of relationships and membership groups. Further research is needed to understand the contextual factors involved in electronic aggression, the factors influencing risk and resilience for adverse consequences, and the chronicity of negative effects. Given young adults’ nearly ubiquitous use of technology, clinicians and educators should be attuned to trends in social media and its potential for harm. Efforts, including university-level policies, should focus on prevention and early intervention to limit maladaptive outcomes for college students due to electronic victimization and perpetration.


Dr Ramos is a Research Associate with the Family Studies Project in the Department of Psychology at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. Ms Bennett is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Psychology at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. The authors report no conflicts of interest concerning the subject matter of this article.


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