Cyber Bullying: Recognizing and Treating Victim and Aggressor
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the consequences are at least as bad if not worse than those associated with traditional bullying (Kowalski and Limber, unpublished data, 2008) as we discuss later in this article.Cyber bullying refers to bullying that occurs through instant messaging, e-mail, chat rooms, Web pages,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Similar statistics were found in a follow-up study of 931 individuals in grades 6 through 12 (Kowalski and Limber, unpublished data, 2008).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.
Approaches to treatment
One of the difficulties in treating children who have been cyber bullied is that they are reluctant to tell others about their victimization. Children and adolescents who are the targets of cyber bullying may be unwilling to speak out for several reasons, including:
- They fail to recognize that they have been cyber bullied.
- They fear that they will be further victimized if the perpetrator gets into trouble and retaliates.
- They fear that their parents will remove their computers or cellular phones in an effort to protect them.
Parents who remove the computer or cellular phone are depriving the victimized child of a lifeline of communication with their peers. In the absence of being directly told, parents, educators, counselors, psychologists, and psychiatrists need to be alert for other warning signs that cyber bullying is occurring.
The most common warning signs of electronic bullying include depression, anxiety, social isolation, nervousness after interfacing with technology (eg, the computer or cellular phone), lowered self-esteem, deficits in school performance, and impaired health.1,3 In a survey of more than 700 participants, those who had been cyber bullied reported feeling depressed, hurt, and confused. One reported feeling “meek and small, very alone, and helpless” (Kowalski and Witte, unpublished data, 2006).
Another survey of more than 900 youths in grades 6 through 12 demonstrated the harmful effects produced by cyber bullying (Kowalski and Limber, unpublished data, 2008). Participants were categorized into 1 of 4 groups based on their victim/perpetrator status (whether or not they had experienced cyber bullying at least once within the past 2 months): victims, cyber bullies, bully/victims (those who bullied others and were themselves bullied), and individuals not involved with cyber bullying at all. Individuals who were bully/victims displayed more anxiety, more depression, and lower self-esteem than individuals in the other groups. Interestingly, however, perpetrators of cyber bullying did not differ in their levels of depression, anxiety, or self-esteem from individuals who were not involved with electronic bullying. In addition, when compared with individuals who were not involved with cyber bullying, both cyber bullies and bully/victims reported more absences from school and lower grades.
As with traditional bullying, bully/ victims appear to be at particular risk for psychological and physical problems associated with bullying. This highlights the need for practitioners to assess the group status (bully, victim, bully/victim, and those not involved) of their patients as a means of determining the magnitude of effects that might be experienced and observed.
At the extreme end are children who commit suicide, in part, as a result of being cyber bullied. Two notable examples of this are Ryan Patrick Halligan and Megan Meier. Following Halligan’s suicide in October 2003, his parents discovered that fellow students had been mercilessly cyber bullying Ryan via instant messaging for months before his death. Unlike Ryan, who was bullied by his peers, Meier was cyber bullied by an adult, Lori Drew, who posed as a young man on the social network site MySpace. Drew, despite knowing Megan’s history of depression, wanted to observe any information Megan might report about her own daughter online. Drew was indicted in Los Angeles for conspiracy and unauthorized access to private computers.
Research into the effects of cyber bullying have yet to address the effects of cyber bullying on a critical third-party role played by bystanders. Because cyber bullying bystanders are often inadvertently drawn into the aggression in a form of cyber bullying known as indirect cyber bullying or cyber bullying by proxy, the effects on them are estimated to be more problematic than those on bystanders to traditional bullying.8 Much of the research on bystanders of traditional bullying has focused on those who are often called “puppet-masters” and who are seen as central in encouraging the perpetration of bullying behavior.14 Clearly, however, witnessing bullying, in the real or virtual worlds, can have detrimental psychological effects.
The first order of treatment is in assessing and treating the immediate psychological needs of the patient (anxiety, depression, low self-esteem). In addition, therapists should focus on strategies that will empower the patient in future situations in which cyber bullying might arise.
Conflict resolution is not a recommended strategy because such programs typically assume that both parties are at least partly to blame. The target needs to be empowered to understand that he or she is not at fault, and perpetrators need to accept responsibility for their actions. With traditional bullying, therapists typically work to teach targets of bullying skills that will enable them to protect and assert themselves should they find they are confronted with bullying behavior again.3 In the virtual world, however, the exact skills to teach are a bit more ambiguous.
Therapists working with patients who bully in either the real or virtual world, should focus on helping their clients understand the consequences of their actions on the victim.3 Particularly in cases of cyber bullying, where perpetrators are often unaware of the emotional impact of their behavior, therapists can work to help their patients develop empathy and insight to deter future bullying behavior. Unless there has been a direct cyber bullying threat against a specific person the therapist does not have a duty to warn. More research and case study reports are needed on interventions with cyber bullies because most of the research to date has focused on those who are victimized.
As of this writing, 36 states have passed legislation specifically related to bullying. Although only 6 of these include specific statutes related to electronic bullying (Arkansas, Idaho, Iowa, South Carolina, Washington, Missouri), the wording related to bullying in most other state statutes could be used to cover many instances of cyber bullying.15,16 Still, the legal tangle that many find themselves in with cyber bullying is defining the line between freedom of expression (ie, First Amendment rights) and protecting the well-being of those who are being defamed.4
In individual therapy, confidentiality issues with reports of cyber bullying can be a bit tricky. Because clinicians are mandated to report child abuse, any cyber bullying that takes the form of sexually explicit images of a minor must be reported to local law enforcement. If the cyber bully is passing along such images, then he is distributing child pornography, which would also warrant a report. As the prevalence of “sexting” (sex texting or the distribution of sexually explicit images via cellular phones) increases, therapists will be faced with increasing instances of the need to report.17
If the cyber bullying takes the form of cyber stalking (involving threats of harm), then parents of a minor would need to be notified in accordance with the duty to warn, as well as the police in most instances. It is often useful in these circumstances to seek the counsel and advice of a trusted mentor or colleague. Most confidentiality agreements signed by patients cover these issues, and patients are informed that particular circumstances may necessitate the sharing of their information with those in positions of authority. If, in therapy, a patient reports cyber bullying at school, then, with the client’s permission, the therapist should notify the school authorities so that appropriate action can be taken.
Researchers and practitioners are still in the initial stages of charting the path to understand and treat victims, perpetrators, and bystanders of cyber bullying. Although research on traditional bullying provides a useful starting point, it is important to recognize that cyber bullying is not the same thing as traditional bullying and that the individuals involved in the 2 types of bullying are not necessarily the same group of people. The effects of cyber bullying are serious and, in some instances, life-threatening. Given the frequency with which youths are engaged with technology, psychologists and psychiatrists need to be alert to the possibility that their patients may be targets, perpetrators, or bystanders of cyber bullying.
Dr Kowalski is a professor of psychology at Clemson University, Clemson, SC. He reports no conflicts of interest concerning the subject matter of this article.
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Kowalski,, R. (2010). Cyber Bullying: Recognizing and Treating Victim and Aggressor. Psych Central. Retrieved on February 13, 2016, from http://pro.psychcentral.com/cyber-bullying-recognizing-and-treating-victim-and-aggressor/00112.html