SALT LAKE CITY — Nearly 15 percent of students experience bullying over text, social media or other electronic means, according to a 2017 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
And while we know cyberbullying is an issue, we don't fully understand its cause.
Cyberbullying is often a misunderstood problem. Society has been confronting traditional, physical bullying for all of human history. While preventing bullying is a complicated and pernicious problem, we have a better grasp of the reasons behind it.
But cyberbullying is still in its infancy — still growing and evolving. While there are similarities in the causes and impacts between the two types of bullying, there are also significant differences.
What are the motivations of cyberbullies?
We often say bullies are jealous, unhappy or just unkind people. While there is some truth to those perceptions, the reality is more nuanced. Cyberbullying, in fact, can come from more mundane feelings, like boredom. Access and opportunity can also lead students to bully others online.
Forty percent of students who cyberbully say they do not feel any feelings of guilt or shame after the bullying, according to a large study of students published in the "American Journal of Orthopsychiatry."
Some students also reported that online bullying made them feel better. These students reported feeling "funny, popular and powerful" online. The study also explained that a natural desire for attention can cause students to cyberbully.
"We believe that competition for status and esteem represents one reason behind peer cyberbullying. Friends, or former friends, are particularly likely to find themselves in situations in which they are vying for the same school, club and/or sport," the study reads.
"In terms of dating partners, young people often have resentful and hurt feelings as a result of a breakup, and they may take these feelings out on a former partner via cyber aggression…(or) believe they can win back a previous boyfriend or girlfriend."
Who has the highest risk of being cyberbullied?
The most likely victim of high school cyberbullying would be a white, homosexual female in ninth grade, according to the CDC.
Girls are more likely to be both the perpetrators and victims of cyberbullying, the report explains, while freshmen in high school are more likely to be cyberbullied than those of higher grades. White students are also more likely to experience cyberbullying than other ethnicities, as are those who identify as homosexual.
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Who is most likely to be the cyberbully?
While more research is needed in this infant phenomenon, past studies can help us answer this question.
The same survey of students found cyberbullying was significantly more likely to come from former friends or dating partners. While anonymous strangers do bully, the bullies are more likely to be someone the victim knows — and often female.
Cyberbullying is also often a self-perpetuating cycle. Victims of cyberbullying are more likely to cyberbully others, according to a 2010 study comparing child and adolescent cyberbullies to their peers.
Another risk factor includes long and unsupervised access to technology, the study said. More access to technology allows children and teens more opportunities to bully. Some students with negative feelings may even use it as a coping mechanism by taking those feelings out on others.
Traditional bullies are often more likely to be male thanks to a power differential between the bully and victim, the CDC report reads. That power differential is still a reason for cyberbullying, but the motivations range.
How do you prevent cyberbullying?
For students who are bored, competitive or even happier when they cyberbully, how do you make an impact?
First, do not shame. If a student doesn't believe the behavior is wrong, and an adult comes in and tells them that what they're doing is hurtful, that student is more likely to become defensive than engage in self-reflection.
Empathy is often an answer to cyberbullying. A 2018 study published in "Frontiers in Psychology" found that activating empathy encourages cyberbullying bystanders to intervene. Feeling empathy and stepping beyond the screen to understand what others may experience is a strong protective factor. If a student can grasp that their behavior, while it may be funny or out of boredom, has real-world impacts on others, they are less likely to cyberbully.
Along with empathy, some other ways to prevent cyberbullying include:
- Getting adequate sleep
- Treating mental illness
- Developing coping skills when loss, like a breakup, occur
- Getting busy. Fill up those unsupervised hours with an afterschool program, hobby or sport.
The nonprofit STOMP Out Bullying recommends getting parents involved.
"The best prevention for a cyberbully is for parents to communicate and educate digital responsibility. The onus is on parents to ensure that their children are responsible and king when using digital devices," the nonprofit's website reads.
Parents, educators and the larger community all need to be part of the answer to cyberbullying.