The journal article is on the topic of cyberbullying. Cyberbullying is a prominent issue in Media Culture and stems from the topic transformative effects of web.20 on society and culture. This essay analyses the causes and effects of cyberbullying with reference to the psychological theories undergirding cyberbullying. It will also discuss the social media sites that are contributing to cyberbullying and who are targeted as victims. The first part of the essay will define cyberbullying and will be examine psychological theories with regard to why people cyberbully. These include the Self-Esteem Theory, The Social Norms Theory, Social Rank Theory, Routine Activity Theory and the General Strain Theory from authors such as Sameer Hinduja and Justin W. Patchin, Hawker and Boulton. The second part of the essay will look at different types of cyberbullying and examine the role of social media in cyberbullying, using statistics from surveys/reports as evidence. It will look at examples of young people who have been affected by cyberbullying. The third part of the essay will look at the issue of gender and give statistics on who is targeted and who are the bullies. It will conclude by summarising the findings of the essay and look at the implications of cyberbullying.
Cyberbullying is a form of bullying that occurs online, on the internet and through electronic texts. It is a phenomenon that has emerged from the rise of web.20 and interactive media technologies. This form of bullying gives people opportunities to enter digital portals, such as the internet, anonymously allowing them to get away with harming those who are not part of their social group. They can, for instance, go into a chat room which is not monitored. With the growth of Facebook, Twitter and MySpace and other advanced technology, cyberbullying behaviours are becoming more evident in high school and college populations. According to Amanda Lenhart (2007), ‘Research indicates that young people who use the internet and go online for a long period of time are at risk of being cyberbullied.’
The next few paragraphs will look at the psychological theories behind cyberbullying.
Hawker and Boulton (2001) utilise the Social Rank Theory and argue that ‘individuals who have aggressive behaviour hold power, higher rank or status within a social group’. Therefore bullying and aggression maybe strengthened and provide those individuals who are aggressive with a sense of belonging. Hawker and Boulton maintain that peer victimisation serves a number of roles. According to Warren Blumenfeld (2010): ‘First it establishes and maintains social hierarchy within a group (an ‘in group’) and secondly, it maintains differences between members of the in group, from members of other groups’ (‘out-groups’).
Tershjo and Salmivalli (2003, p.135) ‘argue that those who cyberbully achieve the social function of initiating and strengthening social norms.’ They discovered that students often rationalise bullying behaviors by blaming the victims of their attacks; bullies imply that victims deserve to be bullied or that their behaviour diverged from their peers’ social norms in some way. Bandura’s (1986) Social Learning Theory, also referred to as Social Cognitive Theory, proposes that ‘individuals learn by watching others behave.’ People’s principles, perceptions and attitudes are greatly impacted by peers and co-workers.
Psychologists refer to the term ‘Levelling effect’ to describe bullies who because of their own insecurities, want to degrade others so as to enhance their own egos. Therefore, the ‘Levelling effect’ has a psychological impact on bullies. In connection with cyberbullying, Suler (2001) refers to the ‘online disinhibition effect’. Blumenfeld (2010) states that ‘cyberbullying is a particularly cowardly form of bullying.’ Cyberbullies can conceal their identities and they have no fear of being punished as they will not be held accountable for their actions. The technology can also hide the user from feedback about the consequences of their actions which can result in minimum remorse and empathy for the victim. Those who engage in cyberbullying cannot see the reactions of the person receiving the message in terms of intonation and body language. Therefore they can inflict pain without having to see the effects. Blumenfeld (2010), referring to Bloombecker (1990) who had investigated cyber related crimes, noted that that ‘denial of responsibility was a significant factor leading to computer abuse.’
The Social Norms Theory is based on how behaviour is often influenced by the opinions, thoughts and actions of the social group. Social Norms Theory involves intervention methods that are meant to rectify misperceived social norms. According to Blumenfeld (2010) ‘Social Norms Theory in many contexts has proven to be effective in empowering those that oppose unhealthy or abusive behaviour, as well as empowering bystanders who are aware of negative behaviours but feel powerless to intervene.’ (Blumenfeld, 2010)
Both Rational Choice Theory and Self Control Theory have been used to explain cyberbullying. Sameer Veenstra (2011) argues that ‘Rational Choice Theory states that aberrant conduct is the result of costs and benefits whereby the benefits outweigh the costs. The research supports the theory that due to the low risks of bullying online, cyberbullies feel free from constraints on their behaviour.’ To establish why some young people make the decision to bully online while others do not, Self- Control Theory was used. According to Veenstra (2011) ‘this theory assumes that engagement in deviant behaviour depends on a person’s extent of self- control. Consistent with the theory, the results indicate that cyberbullies have less self-control than non-cyberbullies.’
Routine Activity Theory (RAT) was used to explain victimisation. The RAT theory states there has to be a connection of likely offenders and targets and an absence of parents/guardians for cyberbullying to occur. Veenstra (2011) states; ‘first, the results indicate that motivated bullies are present in cyberspace. Furthermore, victims seem to be suitable targets: they spend significantly more time online and use Instant Messaging significantly more than non-victims. Finally, parents of victims are less able to protect their children from cyberbullying than parents of non-victims.’
The theory around self-esteem and bullying has systematically found that victims of bullying tend to have lower self-esteem than non-victims. Downs and Leary (1995) imply that ‘self-esteem is an inner depiction of dismissal and social non-acceptance and a psychological instrument recording the degree to which an individual is excluded vs included by others.’ These two concepts undermine the fact that self-esteem is seen as a perception – a person’s belief about their personal value is affected by their participation in the social world – where often interpersonal disputes occur that lead to behaviour such as bullying. The connection between bullying offending and self-esteem is much less systematic. According to Hinduja and Patchin (2010), ‘Studies have found evidence to suggest that bullies tend to have higher 7, 8 and lower 9, 10 self-esteem levels than non-bullies’. There is also research indicating that there are no significant distinctions between bullies’ self-esteem and that of victims. Hinduja and Patchin (2010) also maintain that ‘research has constantly found that bullies’ relationship to self-esteem is less strong than among victims.’
Another popular contemporary theory found in criminology and used by many sociologists is the General Strain Theory (GST). This offers what is known about the elements connected with both online and offline bullying. The General Strain Theory implies that individuals who are experiencing strain and therefore feeling frustrated or angry, are more at risk of engaging in criminal or aberrant behaviour. Young people who reported anger/vexation or strain were more likely to engage in bullying and cyberbullying. Hinduja and Patchin (2010), referring to Agnew (2000), suggest that experiencing strain ‘makes us feel bad; that is, it makes us feel angry, frustrated, depressed, anxious, and the like. These bad feelings create pressure for corrective action; we want to do something so that we will not feel so bad.’ According to Hinduja and Patchin (2010), ‘bullying online or offline is one such corrective action that youth who experience strain might consider and acquire’. The General Strain Theory argues that individuals who experience strain and its effects of negative emotions are more likely to engage in aberrant behaviour such as bullying and cyberbullying.
The next paragraph will look at traditional bullying in non-virtual spaces and cyberbullying in virtual spaces.
Two surveys conducted by Smith et al., (2008) in the UK found that ‘cyberbullying was more common outside of school than in school and less prevalent than traditional bullying.’ Traditional bullying was easier to tackle by teachers in non-virtual spaces such as school playgrounds than cyberbullying. Due to the increase of social media, more young people are using virtual spaces such as the internet as a mechanism to bully beyond the school gates. The virtual space has become a new world for cyberbullies and victims.
The next paragraph will look at the different types of cyberbullying.
‘Happy Slapping’ is one of the UK’s most popular forms of cyberbullying. It involves groups of adolescents hitting and beating victims, filming these actions and posting them online. Other forms of peer cyberbullying include denigration, impersonation, outing and trickery, exclusion/ostracism and cyber stalking. Cyberbullies sometimes create bulletin boards and websites containing photos of a classmate and inviting demeaning insults, sexual comments and ratings to be posted and viewed by an infinite cyber audience. Another form of cyber bullying is taking pictures of victims or filming them, modifying the images to represent sexually graphic images, uploading them online and then inviting comments from a worldwide audience.
The next few paragraphs will be examining the role that social media plays in cyberbullying.
The Daily Express (2013) said that, ‘The report, published by national anti-bullying charity, Ditch the Label, sampled 10,008 young people aged between 13 and 22 and found that levels of cyberbullying were much higher than previously reported; 69% of youth are targeted by cyberbullying.’ This shows that more young people are facing cyberbullying crimes on the internet. The survey found that Facebook, Ask.fm and Twitter were the most likely sources of cyberbullying, and ‘54% of those using Facebook reported cyberbullying on the network.’ The national anti-bullying survey (2013) confirmed these findings.
The next paragraph will look at examples of cyberbullying victims.
The psychological effects of cyberbullying can be life threatening. Several teens have committed suicide due to the embarrassment and ridicule they suffered as victims of cyberbullying. One example is that of Phoebe Prince; an Irish girl who immigrated to the US, she committed suicide after enduring months of cyberbullying by her peers on social networking sites. The suicide of Georgia Vale, who died on 22 October, is another example. Georgia moved to the UK from Ireland and was targeted by her peers who left hurtful and disrespectful comments on various social networking sites.
The next paragraphs will investigate the role of gender in relation to cyberbullying according to the findings of surveys.
Gender differences exist in the way teenagers perceive cyberbullying. Initial research indicates that ‘boys may be more likely to hack into others’ systems and engage in online name calling’. Dehue et al. (2008) argue that ‘girls on the other hand, are more likely than boys to gossip in cyber space and to spread rumours online.’ Initial evidence for gender differences in forms of cyberbullying comes from examining emotional responses to cyberbullying. Hinduja and Patchin, (2009) found that ‘girls are more likely to feel frustrated whereas boys are more likely to feel scared following cyberbullying’ and they suggest that this difference may result from ‘boys being subject to more online physical threats’.
In terms of different media forms used to cyberbully, girls more often reported being bullied through text messages and email than boys. Luke Gilkerson (2012) states that ‘38% of girls report being bullied online compared with 26% of boys. In particular, 41% of older girls (15-17) report being bullied—more than any other age or gender group’.
According to Smith et al, (2006), ‘In June/July 2012, a questionnaire in the UK was designed and returned by 92 students aged between 11 and 16 years across 14 different London schools’. The questionnaire looked at the different types of cyberbullying experiences in and outside school by distinguishing between seven forms of cyberbullying. These included bullying by text message, phone call, email, picture/video clips, through instant messaging and via websites. The questionnaire found that ‘girls were significantly more likely to be cyberbully victims than boys especially by text messages and phone calls. Girls were more likely to be both cyberbullied and bullied in school than boys’ (Smith et al., 2006). In all cases, girls reported a greater degree of victimisation than boys and girls were more exposed to cyberbullying via text messages and phone calls, the two methods of cyberbullying found to be the most dominant among school children.
Cyberbullying among girls was shown to be consistently higher than among boys, with girls reporting greater victimisation through all cyberbullying mediums with the exception of website and picture/video clip bullying.
The next and final paragraph will look at examples of adults and celebrities who have been affected by cyberbullying.
Increasingly, we are hearing examples of people whose entire life has been displayed on social media. Cyberbullying does not only affect young people by young people; it can affect anyone at any age. For example, a mother in the US who posted pictures of her baby daughter on Facebook received some horrible comments and remarks about her baby girl from other mothers. Many celebrities such as Ellen Page, Melanie Griffiths, Australia’s next top model host, Charlotte Dawson, and singer Cheryl Cole have all been attacked on Twitter by threats from internet trolls who made rude comments about their physical appearance, etc. This shows that cyberbullying occurs almost anywhere – in homes, at work, in the neighbourhood, across the globe and from all different types of people.
In conclusion, this essay has examined the psychological theories behind why people cyberbully and the role that social media and gender plays in cyberbullying. It was found that Facebook was one of the main platforms used by cyberbullies to target their victims and that the Social Norms Theory, Rational Choice Theory, Self-Esteem and the General Strain Theory seemed to give some understanding of why and how bullies and victims respond to cyberbullying. The conclusion drawn from the analysis of these theories was that cyberbullies seemed to have more personal and psychological issues themselves such as lower self-esteem, less self-control and deviant behaviour than victims. These lead to them becoming cyberbullies and concealing their identities in the digital world. Another factor is Web.20; being ungoverned it allows people the freedom to say what they want; therefore cyberbullies can act without compunction. Cyberbullies have power and control over a victim. The victim can never escape as social media and the internet will always be around.
Cyberbullying has no limits and to monitor and to censor cyberbullying is very difficult. It will become even more challenging to tackle due to the rise of new social media platforms in the future.
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