Bullying 2.0: Cyberbullying takes aggression online

What comes to mind when you hear the word “bullying?” Is it getting pushed around in the locker room? Tripped in the hall? Name-calling and whispers behind your back?

What about the buzz and glow of a cellphone, or the ping of a Facebook update?

“u r ugly haha :P”

“nobody likes u”

As communication technology has gotten faster and further-reaching, so has our ability to insult, threaten and harass. Modern tormentors are likely to use hurtful text messages and social media comments, “spam” a victim’s email account, or post private photos to public websites. Cyberspace opens up a massive, pervasive and at times devastatingly inescapable realm for inflicting hurt.

“Cyberbullying” is the newest fad in being mean.

Aggression upgraded

“Cyberbullying is the deliberate and repeated misuse of communication technology by an individual or group to threaten or harm others,” according to the book “Arguments, Aggression, and Conflict: New Directions in Theory and Research.”

Tony Roberto, an associate professor in the Hugh Downs School of Communication at Arizona State University, co-authored the book’s chapter on cyberbullying. Roberto has studied this topic for several years, and has been interested in aggression since his PhD dissertation at Michigan State University.

“From there it just kind of snowballed over the past twenty years into the stuff [I wrote] on cyberbullying, which is the most recent manifestation of aggressive behavior,” he says.

His studies follow two main lines of research.

“One line has been basically to try and figure out what variables are associated with cyberbullying victimization and perpetration, and the other has been to try to provide insights on what might help prevent cyberbullying—perpetration in particular but maybe cyberbullying victimization as well,” he says.

One thing that makes cyberbullying distinct from traditional bullying, Roberto says, is that there’s no clear escape.

Bullies have been a part of the dark side of social life for probably as long as social lives have existed. But before the last twenty years or so, bullying was typically confined to certain times and places: the schoolyard, the office, the neighborhood potluck. Escape was possible, for a little while at least, as victims could flee to wherever their bullies weren’t.

And then came the Internet. Email. Text messaging. Chat rooms and Facebook, forums and Tumblr. The constant connection of the Information Age includes our enemies as well as our friends.

Text messages can be sent and received anywhere. Facebook posts can be made and read and shared wherever an Internet connection exists. Harassment and bullying are no longer confined to any place at all.

“Bullying used to be an in-person thing, so it would be for a limited time or in a limited place,” says Roberto. “But again, because there's no safe space, you can really cyberbully anybody, anytime and anywhere.”

Consequences IRL

Bullying, whether in cyberspace or “real life,” is associated with numerous health problems. It can cause anxiety, trouble sleeping and problems with school in young victims. It is also associated with an increased risk for substance abuse, academic problems and violent behavior in perpetrators, according to the CDC.

Depression is the most consistently represented health issue for cyberbullying victims, although it’s unclear whether the bullying itself causes the depression or if people who are already at risk for depression make easier targets.

Not surprisingly due to its links to depression, cyberbullying has also been implicated in the suicides of many young people, including 13-year-old Megan Meier and 18-year-old Tyler Clementi.

Although the media tends to sensationalize cases like Clementi’s, Roberto doesn’t think the threat of cyberbullying has been overblown.

“It's hard to conclude causality when it comes to suicide but it seems clear [cyberbullying is] a contributing factor in at least some suicides that we're seeing,” Roberto says. Even when victims don’t commit suicide, he adds, the depression and self-esteem issues that can result are serious problems.

An up side to cyberbullying, if it can be called that, is that evidence can be collected easily. In-person bullying often relies on eyewitnesses or he-said-she-said arguments. Cyberbullying incidents can be saved using screenshots and printouts. Victims can keep a record of the harassment to build a case and get the help they need.

Unfortunately, while evidence of cyberbullying might be easier to gather, it doesn’t always reveal who the perpetrator is. Although most cyberbullying takes place between people who know each other, such as classmates, co-workers, or former girl/boyfriends, there are cases in which the perpetrators have been anonymous.

One well-known case of anonymous cyberbullying (which some theorists believe should be called “cyberstalking” or “cyberharassment” when it takes place between adults) is that of Anita Sarkeesian. Over a period of several years, Sarkeesian was terrorized for posting YouTube videos critically examining the role of women in video games. At one point she was even forced to leave her home due to violent threats and “doxxing” attacks (in which personal information, such as a home address, is published on the Internet).

Although most attacks on Sarkeesian were anonymous, she was able to identify some of the perpetrators.

“An interesting thing about [Sarkeesian’s] case is that it was often minors threatening an adult. I remember reading about how she actually contacted some of the kids’ parents to tell them about the rape threats their minor children posted,” says Roberto.

Learn more about how ASU researchers are addressing anti-feminist violence online.

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One way to combat cyberbullying, from insults and rumors to threats and stalking, is to learn about cybersecurity. Cybersecurity, or cybersafety, is all about keeping safe in an online environment, from handling bullies to avoiding becoming a target of criminals.

“Cybersafety is a little bit beyond the cyberbullying. I think cybersafety would protect you from cyberbullying, but more importantly it would protect you from sexual predators, home invasions or robberies, or identity theft,” says Roberto.

Some preventive techniques are quite easy, although surprisingly underutilized. These include being careful about whom you communicate with online and keeping certain information private. For example, Roberto recommends not sharing your birthday on your Facebook account.

“I see people putting their birthdays on there and it seems crazy to me because that's one of the pieces of information you need for identity theft, right? Two of the most important pieces of information for identity theft is mother's maiden name and date of birth,” both of which are frequently easy to find on social networking sites, Roberto says.

If bullying does occur, saving the evidence and not escalating the situation by retaliating are ways to handle it responsibly.

“There's clearly a relationship: if I've been cyberbullied I'm more likely to cyberbully somebody else. A lot of cyberbullying is reciprocal and then it kind of gets escalated more and more,” Roberto says.

Although educating Internet users of all ages about online safety seems like an important task, there is very little research to assess the effectiveness of cybersafety programs. Roberto is working to change that.

In 2013, he analyzed the effects of the Arizona Attorney General’s Social Networking Safety Promotion and Cyberbullying Prevention presentation. The one-hour program teaches middle-school students how certain online behaviors, such as accepting Facebook “friend” requests from strangers, can put them in danger or make them vulnerable to some form of attack.

“I went to see it and I couldn't believe it,” says Roberto. “[The presenter] would send friend requests out to the students before he would go there, and approximately half the students would accept his friend request even though they didn't know who he was.”

The presenter also showed students how adult sexual predators may disguise themselves as teenagers, and how a person’s house can be found through information discovered online.

In his study, Roberto found that students who viewed the presentation reported taking social networking safety more seriously than students who did not watch it. The viewing group said they intended to increase their own safety behavior, such as making sure their personal information was not available on their profiles. They also reported greater intentions to not retaliate in the case of a cyberbully attack and to tell a trusted adult about what was going on if they were being harassed.

Although these changes in perception and intention may seem small and might well be short term, they reveal that education can have a concrete effect on students’ online behavior and their reactions to hostile online interactions. Roberto’s overall results also highlight which areas educators should focus on the most when creating cybersafety programs.

“To me, the fact that a one-hour presentation changed a number of important variables is pretty impressive,” says Roberto. “You can only imagine what would happen if they tried to turn it into a six-week, maybe once a week for six weeks, program. I think it could become even more powerful,” says Roberto. “They're on to a very good start to a cyberbullying prevention program.”

In the future, Roberto will continue evaluating intervention programs and create program components others can use in their cyberbullying prevention curriculums.

Erin Barton