Bullying in Cyberspace- What’s the Difference?

A guest blog by Lucie Corcoran

In times gone by children and adolescents who were bullied by their schoolmate(s) could generally escape the abuse at the end of the school day. Although they may have had to endure various forms of aggression such as taunting, name calling, isolation, physical aggression, and malicious gossip whilst travelling to and from school and on school grounds, home at least provided a refuge from such torment. Weekends and school holidays would have served as a merciful break from the repeated contact with those carrying out the bullying behaviour. In 2014 however, those harassed in school are often denied these welcome escapes, as the multiple methods of accessing mobile networks and the world wide web leave them open to harassment around the clock. “Cyberbullying” or cyber aggression can leave those targeted feeling overwhelmed and helpless as they can be subjected to an onslaught of abuse. However, before attempting to study this behaviour, or examine the psychology of it, or attempt to prevent it, an important first step is to gain a clear understanding of what exactly bullying is and how bullying and aggression manifest in a cyber setting. Although a wealth of research exists in relation to cyber-based aggression and bullying, defining such behaviour still poses a problem to researchers.

What is bullying?

Bullying is a social form of aggression, in that it tends to happen in situations where people are in regular contact with one another, such as the workplace or school. However, there are a number of ways that we can differentiate bullying from other types of behaviours, which are as follows:

  1. Intent – like other forms of aggression, bullying is conducted with the intent to cause hurt / harm. It is not simply a joke.
  2. Repetition – generally one incident of aggression would not be considered bullying. Bullying is a behaviour that happens on an ongoing basis. However, some experts would argue that a one off incident can be severe enough to be regarded as bullying if it causes an ongoing sense of fear or intimidation.
  3. Power imbalance – in a bullying situation it is difficult for the targeted person to defend himself / herself. It may be that the person doing the bullying has some characteristic that gives them a real or perceived form of power such as larger physical size, social support in the form of friendship, or superior intellect.


What is cyberbullying?

Many experts regard cyberbullying as having the same characteristics (i.e., intent, repetition, power imbalance) as bullying with the additional component of electronic communication.   However, there are some key differences which set abuse in cyberspace apart from abuse in the school setting, such as:

  • Repetition – in a cyber setting such as Facebook, a person may only take one negative action, such as posting a humiliating picture of a classmate. However, if this picture is ‘liked’ and ‘shared’ by 20 people, or if 10 people post nasty comments in relation to the picture, then it could be said that the targeted person is experiencing repeated victimization. So, it is clear that repetition sometimes takes a different form in a cyber setting, as the wider group can play a more central role to create a “bullying” situation.
  • Potential audience – School-based bullying is somewhat contained in that in many cases it tends not to spread too far beyond the school community. One of the characteristics of the world wide web is that it allows for content to spread rapidly and widely (repetition), and once widely disseminated, malicious content can be difficult to recapture. This can add an extra element to victimization, as a young person may feel that their humiliation is intensified by the difficulty in containing nasty content.
  • Power imbalance – perhaps physical size does constitute a very important form of power in cyberspace. Some researchers would argue that anonymity would be a more important form of power as the ability to hide one’s identity may cause suspicion and fear in the targeted person. For example, if I do not recognise the phone number of the texter sending me threatening messages ten times a day, will I become suspicious of all those around me? Other researchers suggest that advanced technical skills can constitute power in cyberspace. For instance, perhaps excellent Photoshop skills will allow me to manipulate pictures of a classmate with greater credibility in order to embarrass him / her.
  • 24 / 7 access – Unlike school-based bullying, aggression and bullying in a cyber setting can be perpetrated with greater ease outside of school hours. It is no longer the case that children and adolescents are necessarily spared such abuse within the confines of their own homes. If one has access to the Internet or a mobile network there is the possibility to attack the target directly or indirectly in any place and at any time. This can really cause a young person to feel overwhelmed and powerless, as though there is no safe space.
  • Detachment from the victim – in many cases, school-based bullying allows the perpetrator(s) to see the effect of their behaviour in some way. Try as one might to hide his / her feelings, if a classmate’s nasty remark cuts deep, the voice, facial expression or body language will possibly convey the hurt or humiliation felt by the targeted person. However, some experts believe that those who behave in a nasty way in a cyber setting do not always understand the impact of such abuse as they seldom see the target’s face or hear their voice as they are affected by a comment or picture. Therefore, they may not feel the same level of empathy or guilt in a cyber setting.


What’s the answer?

The key differences outlined in this blog pose important questions for the research community who continue to debate the definition of cyberbullying. Indeed, even the term “cyberbullying” is open to criticism as it implies the same criteria as traditional forms of bullying. So, if we are in fact mislabelling peer-based cyberbullying, and applying the wrong definitional criteria, this would mean that we are conducting research, building intervention and prevention programmes, and implementing policy on unsound foundations. So, if the research community are to advance measures to prevent and intervene in cyber-based aggression, we must also continue to progress the conceptualisation of this behaviour. This presents an interesting challenge in an age where the goal posts constantly shift in line with new technologies and emerging forms of expression and communication.

See more from Lucie on her website.

[divider scroll_text=”Back to Top”]