The Psychology of Cyberbullying

Woman being bullied on the Internet.

Getty / Justin Paget

Cyberbullying refers to the use of digital technology to cause harm to other people. This typically involves the use of the Internet, but may also take place through mobile phones (e.g., text-based bullying). Social media is one of the primary channels through which cyber bullying takes place, including Facebook, Instagram, Tik Tok, Snapchat, and more.

Cyberbullying has been deemed a public health problem, with the prevalence of cyberbullying doubling from 2007 to 2019, and 59% of teens in the United States reporting that they have been bullied or harassed online.

In general, cyberbullying is a recent issue with increasing numbers of people using the Internet. For this reason, it remains not well understood. In addition, much of the focus is on how cyberbullying affects the victim, without a lot of focus on how to cope with cyberbullying, how to reduce cyberbullying, or what to do if you are a cyberbully yourself.

What Is Cyberbullying?

Cyberbullying is the repeated and intentional use of digital technology to target another person with threats, harassment, or public humiliation.

Cyberbullying makes use of digital technology, which means that most people bully or are bullied through their mobile devices, tablets, or computers.

Cyberbullies can appear through social media, inside of apps, in forums, during gaming, and more. However, more personal cyberbullies will operate through email, texting, or direct messaging.

It has been argued that cyberbullying arises in light of five criteria: intention, repetition, power imbalance, anonymity, and publicity.

Intention

Cyberbullies generally have the intention of creating harm when they engage in online bullying. However, bullying can still take place without intention if a victim perceives actions to be harmful.

Repetition

Repetition is a hallmark characteristic of cyberbullying. This refers to repeated actions on the part of the bully, but also the fact that material that is shared on the Internet could last much longer than the original bullying. This is especially true in the case of sharing personal information or photos as a form of cyberbullying.

Power Imbalance

One of the other hallmark traits of cyberbullying is that victims are in a power imbalance situation with their bully. This can be especially true if the bullying takes place in a public forum.

Anonymity

Some cyberbullies make use of anonymity to hide behind their computer screen when they engage in bullying. In this case, there is no need for a power imbalance in the relationship between the bully and the victim.

Publicity

Finally, another trait of some cyberbullying is that it involves the use of publicity. This is especially true for those who choose to publicly humiliate or shame someone as their form of bullying.

Forms of Cyberbullying

What are the various forms of cyberbullying? Below are the types of cyberbullying that exist.

  • Flaming: Flaming refers to using inflammatory language about someone or broadcasting offensive messages about them in the hopes of eliciting a reaction. One example would be Donald Trump's use of the phrases "Crooked Hilary" or "Sleepy Joe Biden."
  • Outing: Outing involves sharing personal or embarrassing information about someone on the Internet. This type of cyberbullying usually takes place on a larger scale rather than one-to-one or in a smaller group.
  • Trolling: Trolling refers to posting content or comments with the goal of getting people to have embarrassing online reactions. In other words, a troll will say something derogatory or offensive about a person or group, with the sole intention of getting people riled up. This type of cyberbully enjoys creating chaos and then sitting back and watching what happens.
  • Name Calling: Name-calling involves using offensive language to refer to other people. Reports show that 42% of teens said they had been called offensive names through their mobile phone or on the Internet.
  • Spreading False Rumors: Cyberbullies who spread false rumors make up stories about individuals and then spread these false truths online. In the same report, 32% of teens said that someone had spread false rumors about them on the Internet.
  • Sending Explicit Images or Messages: Cyberbullies may also send explicit images or messages without the consent of the victim.
  • Cyber Stalking/Harassing/Physical Threats: Some cyberbullies will repeatedly target the same people through cyberstalking, cyber harassing, or physical threats. In that same report, 16% of teens reported having been the victim of physical threats on the Internet.

Why Do People Cyberbully?

Why do people engage in cyberbullying? There can be numerous different factors that lead to someone becoming a cyberbully.

Mental Health Issues

Cyberbullies may be living with mental health issues that relate to their bullying or make it worse. Examples include problems with aggression, hyperactivity or impulsivity, as well as substance abuse.

In addition, those with personality features resembling the "dark tetrad" of narcissism or psychopathy may be at risk for cyberbullying. These individuals tend to have a low level of empathy for other people and may bully others as a way to increase their sense of power or worth.

Victims of Bullying

Cyberbullies sometimes become bullies after having experienced cyberbullying themselves. In this way, they may be looking to feel more in control or lash out after feeling victimized and being unable to retaliate to the original bully.

Result of Conflicts or Breakups

Cyberbullying that takes place between two people that were previously friends or in a relationship may be triggered by conflicts in the friendship or the breakdown of the relationship. In this way, this type of cyberbullying might be viewed as driven by revenge or jealousy.

Boredom or Trying Out a New Persona

It has been suggested that some people engage in cyberbullying due to boredom or the desire to try out a new persona on the Internet. This type of cyberbullying would typically be anonymous.

Loneliness or Isolation

Cyberbullies may also be people who struggle with feeling isolated or lonely in society. If they feel ignored by others, they may lash out as a way to feel better or vent their rage at society.

Why People Become Cyberbullies

While some people are bullies both in real life and online, there are others who only become bullies in the digital space. Why is this the case? Why would someone bully others online when they would never do that in their everyday life? There are multiple possible explanations for this behavior.

Non-Confrontational & Anonymous

The first reason why people may become bullies online when they would not bully in their everyday life has to do with the nature of the Internet. A person can bully others online and remain completely anonymous. Clearly, this is not possible with traditional bullying.

In addition, online bullying can be done in a non-confrontational way, particularly if it is anonymous. This means that a cyberbully may skip about the Internet leaving nasty comments and not stick around to hear the replies.

No Need for Popularity or Physical Dominance

In order to be a bully in real life, you typically need to have some advantage over your victim. This might mean that you are physically larger than them. It might mean that you are more popular than them. Or, it might mean that you have some sort of power imbalance over them.

In contrast, anyone can be a cyberbully. There is no need to have physical dominance or popularity. This means that people who want to bully can easily do it on the Internet regardless of their status in their real life.

No Barrier to Entry

Similar to the concept of there being no need to be dominant or popular, there is also a very low barrier to entry to becoming a cyberbully. Anyone with access to the Internet can get started. Friends are defined loosely online, which creates a situation that makes it very easy to bully others.

No Feedback From Victim

Finally, the last reason why people who do not bully in real life may engage in cyberbullying has to do with a lack of feedback from their victim. Cyberbullies usually engage in bullying over an extended period of time, largely because there is not generally feedback from the victim like there would be in a face-to-face interaction. Someone, who in real life would see the impact on their victim and back off, may not do the same in the case of cyberbullying.

How Cyberbullying Differs From In-Person Bullying

In the case of cyberbullying, the victim generally has no escape from the abuse and harassment. Unlike real life encounters, online bullying and the Internet never really shut down and bullying may be unrelenting.

This can make victims feel as though they have no escape, particularly if the bullying involves sharing of their personal information or when something posted about them goes viral. This type of bullying can go on for an extended period of time.

Effects of Cyberbullying

There are numerous effects that may be seen in those who are dealing with cyberbullying. It can be helpful to know what to expect to see in a victim, as this can be one way to identify when someone is being bullied online.

Some of these effects are even stronger than what is seen with traditional bullying, as the victim often cannot escape the abusive situation. They may include:

  • Feelings of distress about the bullying
  • Increased feelings of depression and mood swings
  • Increased feelings of anxiety
  • Problems falling asleep or staying asleep (e.g., insomnia)
  • Suicidal ideation or suicide attempt
  • Increased feelings of fearfulness
  • Feelings of low self-esteem or self-worth
  • Social isolation, withdrawing from friend groups, or spending a lot of time alone
  • Avoiding doing things that they used to enjoy
  • Poor academic performance
  • Problems in relationships with family members and friends
  • Symptoms of post-traumatic stress
  • Self-harm (e.g., cutting, hitting yourself, headbanging)
  • Substance abuse
  • Increased feelings of anger, irritability, or angry outbursts

Characteristics of Victims

There are indeed some common aspects of the victim that tend to repeat themselves including the following characteristics:

  • Teens and young adults are the most at risk.
  • In the case of spreading false rumors and being the recipient of explicit images, girls are more likely to be victims.
  • People who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender may be victims more often.
  • Those who are shy, socially awkward, or don't fit in easily may become victims.
  • People from lower-income households are more likely to be victims.
  • People who use the Internet constantly are more likely to be victims of online bullies.

How to Deal with a Cyber Bully

There are many ways to deal with a cyberbully as an adult and as a parent if your child is being bullied on the Internet. Let's take a look at each of these issues separately.

As a Parent

If your child is being bullied online, the best course of action is to instruct them not to respond to the Internet bully. In addition, tell them to document each instance of cyber bullying by saving text messages, emails, photos, and any other forms of communication. This can be done using screenshots if necessary. Ask your child to forward this information to you so that you have records of everything.

Next, if the bullying is originating from a school contact, report the instances of cyberbullying to the teacher, principal or administrative staff at your school. In the case of extreme bullying or threats, you should also report the bullying behavior to the police.

Finally, it's important to reassure your child that they are not to blame for the bullying online. Some victims may feel that their behavior created the problem or that they are somehow to blame. For this reason, it's important to make sure your child knows that what happened is not their fault.

As an Adult

Many of the same principles as above will apply to your situation as an adult dealing with a cyberbully.

First of all, be sure to keep records of all instances of bullying, whether they come through your text messages, messenger chats, in Facebook groups, Instagram DMs, or other online sources. Take screenshots and keep folders on your computer with evidence of the cyberbullying.

Next, if you know the source of the cyberbullying, determine whether there is a course of action you can take with regard to that person. For example, if it is a work colleague or supervisor, is there someone in HR at work that you can speak to? If it is a family member, is there a way to bring up this issue to other family members to ask for their support? Finally, if it is someone you only know online, can you block and delete them from all your social media?

The best course of action will be to ignore the cyberbullying as much as possible. However, if you are receiving threats, then you will want to report this to the police, along with the evidence that you have collected.

As a Community

It is not enough for victims of cyberbullying to deal with their bullies and try to find solutions. Often times, these victims are emotionally distraught and unable to find help.

It is our job as a community to work toward establishing systems that prevent cyberbullying from taking place at all. Some potential ideas for initiatives are listed below.

Kids and teens who are cyberbullied are still learning how to regulate emotions and deal with social situations. Cyberbullying at this age could have lasting permanent effects. Mental health resources should be put in place to help victims of cyberbullying manage their mental health.

Cyberbullying thrives on status and approval. Cyberbullies will stop when social rejection of cyberbullying becomes so widespread and prevalent that they no longer have anything to gain. This means that every instance of online bullying that is witnessed (especially in the case of troll comments) should be ignored. In addition, there should be awareness campaigns that online bullying is not only not acceptable, but that it is a sign of weak social status.

Schools are the point of contact for parents trying to help their children who are being cyberbullied. For this reason, schools should have programs and protocols in place to immediately and swiftly deal with cyberbullying. Parents should not have to ask multiple times for help without receiving it.

What If You Are the Cyberbully?

What happens if you are the cyberbully yourself? If you are engaging in cyberbullying and want to stop, you'll need to take stock of your reasons for engaging in the bullying, as this will inform your best course of action. Let's consider each of these and what you could do.

You Are Struggling With a Mental Health Issue

If you feel as though your mental health is not in good shape and this might be contributing to your cyberbullying behavior, make an appointment with your doctor to discuss your options. For example, if you struggle with anger or aggression, you might benefit from an anger management program.

If you have low empathy for others or identify with the traits of psychopathy, then it will be harder for you to find insight and change. However, you could try to channel your energy into different pursuits.

For example, if you are cyberbullying someone because it gives you a thrill, is there a hobby you could take up or business that you could start that would give you a thrill without consequences for another person?

You Were a Victim Yourself

If you were once a victim yourself of cyberbullying, and that is the reason why you are now engaging in cyberbullying yourself, it's time to take a look at your options for change. It could be that you have unresolved anger that needs to be taken out in a different way.

You may also feel more powerful when you bully, which helps you to stop feeling like a victim. In that case, you may need to work on other ways to improve your sense of self so that you can stop feeling helpless and out of control. After all, you were once a victim yourself, and you know how that feels.

Rather than continue a cycle of bullying and victimhood, you have a chance to break the cycle and rise above your past. You'll likely need help to do that, most likely in the form of professional assistance to work through your past.

You Had a Conflict or Breakup

If you are cyberstalking someone because of a conflict you had with them or a bad breakup, it's time to re-evaluate your behavior. What do you hope to achieve from your cyberstalking? Again, you may need the help of a professional to work through your feelings that have led to this behavior.

You Are Lonely or Isolated

What if you are just lonely, and this is the reason you have resorted to cyberbullying? This type of bullying falls into the arena of people who may feel like the world has passed them by. Or that everyone else is out there enjoying life while you are alone.

In this case, find ways to start building up your in-person social connections. Join a club, volunteer somewhere, or take up a hobby to meet other people like yourself.

You Are Bored

If you are cyberbullying because you are bored (and you're not a psychopath), then you'll want to consider why you think it is acceptable to hurt someone else in exchange for making yourself less bored.

Certainly, lots of people are bored in the world but they never cyberbully. Take up a hobby, learn a second language, or find something to do.

A Word From Verywell

If you are a victim of cyberbullying, know that you are not alone and there are options to help. If you are struggling, you can visit the following.

Finally, if you are a cyberbully yourself, it's never too late to change. Examine your reasons for being a bully, and see if you can find some alternatives to stop the behavior.

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Article Sources
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