I guess it’s a sign of the times that a PsychInfo search on “bullies” returns 837 studies, most of which are rather recent. Bullies have always been among us, but their tactics now reflect the new technologies available to them. Traditional bullying includes physical, verbal, relational (social exclusion), and indirect (spreading rumors) . With the exception of the physical, these techniques can now be applied using technology, including cell phones and the Internet.
How have these technologies changed the bullying dynamic? Smith et al. (2008) report that cyberbullying is less frequent than traditional bullying, and more likely to occur outside of school than in school. While less frequent, cyberbullying appears to have the same impact on the victims, with video cyberbullying having the most negative outcomes. These cases involved the distribution of abusive photos or videos of the victim to a peer group. The cybervictims and cyberbullies had many of the same characteristics as traditional victims and bullies. A particularly disturbing aspect of the focus groups conducted by Smith et al. was the frequently stated belief that cyberbullies were motivated by the “entertainment” value of their bullying behavior.
Kowalski and Limber (2007) looked at cyberbullies in American middle schools, instead of the British 11-16 year-olds in the Smith et al. study. Many of the findings were similar . One of the interesting differences was in the anonymity of the bullies. In the British sample, only 20 percent bullied anonymously, but more than half of the Americans bullied anonymously. I have often believed that anonymous posting on message boards was likely to lead to deindividuation, which in turn would result in more antisocial behavior.
Both studies emphasize that cyberbullying is a significant and frequent phenomenon. Of the American middle schoolers, 11% reported being cyberbullied in the previous couple of months, 7% had been both bullies and victims, and 4% had bullied without being a victim.
Strategies for dealing with bullying, cyber or traditional, often seem inadequate to the task. Yes, we can raise adult awareness, and provide our children with strategies for dealing with the problem. But I don’t think we’re going to make it go away. As a parent, I found it very difficult to watch my daughter criticized harshly on track and field message boards not just by her peers, but by adults who should have known better. I kept thinking, “This is a kid.” But Karen simply waved her hand and dismissed them as jealous wannabees. I was very proud of her for being able to do that, and I think it made her much more confident and mature.
Smith, P.K., Mahdavi, J., Carvalho, M., Fisher, S., Russell, S., Tippett, N. (2008). Cyberbullying: its nature and impact in secondary school pupils. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 49(4), 376-385. DOI: 10.1111/j.1469-7610.2007.01846.x KOWALSKI, R., LIMBER, S. (2007). Electronic Bullying Among Middle School Students. Journal of Adolescent Health, 41(6), S22-S30. DOI: 10.1016/j.jadohealth.2007.08.017