As technology advances, so too do the problems that come with it. In 2008, Jessica Logan, 18, of Ohio, committed suicide after sexting (sending a nude photo to her boyfriend) led to the posting of the photo for all to view when they broke up. In 2009, 12-year-old Sarah Lynn Butler hanged herself after numerous derogatory MySpace posts. In 2012, Iowan Kenneth Weishuhn, Jr., 15, was tormented by an anti-gay Facebook page created by his classmates, something that led him to suicide. (You can read their stories, among others, at http://bit.ly/TccPSq.)
There are countless tragedies linked to what is commonly known as cyberbullying. With our growing dependence on technology as a source of socializing comes a new vulnerability to the darker aspects of social behavior.
Bullying was once something that primarily occurred at school or local hang outs for youth. Now it infiltrates our homes 24 hours a day. Cybervictims do not have to act inappropriately, make the wrong friends, be in obviously dangerous environments, or even know their bully. For cyberbullying, the only criterion is that you are connected.
Texting, social networking, e-mail, blogs, and other technological avenues make us all vulnerable to emotional battery and degradation of esteem. Every person connected is a potential victim, but it is children that are most affected because they are at the crossroads of intense developmental change and self-exploration, and because they are at the forefront of technological socializing.
Epidemiology of Cyberbullying
The epidemiology of cyberbullying and cybervictimization is poorly defined. Reported prevalence is highly variable between studies and country to county. What remains consistent is that cybervictimization appears more prevalent than cyberbullying. In the US, the prevalence of cybervictimization is 9% to 72% and cyberbullying is 4% to 36% (Suzuki K et al, Int J Adolesc Med Health 2012;24(1):27-35).
The association with gender is also unclear. Some studies indicate there is no gender difference, while others suggest that more males are cyberbullies and more females are cybervictims or dual bully-victims (Suzuki ibid; Bauman S et al, J Adolesc 2013:36(2):341-350). One gender difference that may affect cyberbullying susceptibility is that females tend to engage more in emailing and perhaps other forms of technological communications, while boys tend to spend more time playing online video games. In addition, girls often multitask, allowing them to have a greater exposure to risk.
Regarding age, trends remain vague. Most studies focus on middle and high school. Some of these studies suggest that there is an inverse relationship between age and cyberbullying, while other studies suggest the opposite holds true (Suzuki op cit; Heirman W & Walrave M, Psicothema 2012;24(4):614- 620).
Cyber Versus Traditional Bullying
Lack of supervision creates an environment for cyberbullying to thrive. it can be carried out discreetly and quickly. Moreover, technology is accessible nearly everywhere and at any time of day. With traditional bullying, the majority of acts occur on the school grounds where supervision is relatively well developed. Aside from texting, cyberbullying tends to occur off school grounds. This creates not only an issue with supervision, but also confusion for victims as to where to bring their problems.
In addition, the qualities of anonymity and broad publicity are available through technology in a way that they are not in the schoolyard. With anonymous bullies, the victim loses the ability to anticipate the act, which lends to a sense of helplessness and constant fear. (Anonymity can be preserved through unrevealing screen names.) Research has shown that among cyberbullies, 84% knew their victims personally, whereas only 31% of cybervictims knew their perpetrators (Ybarra MI & Mitchel KJ, J Adolesc 2004:27(3):319-336). Consequently, interactions with others may be compromised by a nagging concern about who the faceless perpetrator might be.
Publicity obviously means more observers, and reduced control over how many people will witness the aggression. Once posted, material remains accessible for long periods of time and by many observers. Dehumanization of others is also easier when one is not in the presence of environmental and social cues that one would experience in traditional bullying, and this could potentially allow for greater escalation of acts with little thought of impact or consequence (Suzuki op cit). One study found that people who cyberbully primarily do so because it is “fun” (38%), for retaliation (25%), or because they have a negative self-image (6%) (Kiriakidis op cit).
Identification of Potential Perpetrators and Victims
Cybervictims may fail to come forward in part because policies regarding cyberbullying are often lacking or unenforceable, making efforts to report the abuse appear meaningless. Because it happens “in the ether,” it can be hard for victims to know to whom to report. Studies also seem to indicate that adults are often seen as uninformed or impotent to address the cyberbullying.
There are character traits associated with both victims and bullies. Those who are perpetrators of cyberbullying tend to use computers and the internet frequently, are savvier with technology, have poor academic performance, and are commonly also cybervictims (Heirman & Walrave op cit). Cyberbullies typically have increased levels of undesirable behaviors, aggression, hyperactivity, and substance abuse. They also often have less social support and have negative views towards school (Suzuki op cit).