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What is Cyber Bullying?

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Updated February 21, 2012

Question: What is Cyber Bullying?
I've heard of kids getting depressed and becoming suicidal because of cyber bullying. But how can someone bully you through the internet? Can't you just switch your computer off?
Answer:

Cyber bullying is a type of bullying that is conducted through online means. Common ways that cyber bullying can take place are through social networking websites, such as Facebook and Friends Reunited, through direct email, and through online chat using message boards, chat rooms, or text or video chat platforms. And while you can switch your computer off, that doesn't stop other people from writing things about you, posting pictures of you, or excluding you from social connections with others.

There are several ways that cyber bullying is similar to in person bullying. For example, both individuals and groups can be either bullies, or the targets of bullying. The forms of bullying can be similar, for example, verbally attacking, threatening, harassing or excluding the person or group targeted. And while cyber bullying is not in itself physically abusive, physical abuse can be threatened, planned, and posted up in picture or video formats online.

There are other ways that cyber bullying is different from in person bullying. For example, the bully or bullies can remain anonymous much more easily with cyber bullying than with in person bullying. Online methods can be used to humiliate the targets of bullying more easily than in person, for example, cyber bullies can post up humiliating pictures or videos of their victims, for example, videos of real life physical bullying, or pictures of videos selected to embarrass the victim or make them look foolish. Common forms of cyber bullying among adolescents, such as using the Internet to harass or embarrass other people, appear to be carried out more willingly than the same acts, face to face.

Cyber bullying may seem harmless, because after all, it takes place in the virtual world, not the real world. In the same way that online infidelity may not seem like real cheating, online bullying may not feel like real bullying. But it is, and the consequences can be just as serious.

A common misconception is that cyber bullying only affects adolescents, and adults in uncontrolled environments, such as chat rooms. In reality, cyber bullying, as with in person bullying, can happen between children, between adults, from adult child or child to adult. Although the terms "cyber bullying" and "cyber harrassment" are often referred to interchangably, for legal purposes, cyber bullying refers to electronic harassment or bullying among minors within a school context, whereas cyber harrassment refers to threatening or harassing email messages, instant messages, or to blog entries or websites dedicated solely to tormenting an individual. Cyber stalking refers to more extreme online behavior.

Teachers, for example, may be the target of mass bullying by pupils and ex-pupils, particularly through websites such as Friends Reunited and RateMyTeachers.com. As with a child who is being bullied at school, a teacher who is being cyber bullied by students has to return and face their tormenters, day after day, leading to an accumulation of stress.

Cyber bullying can also happen in the workplace, sometimes inadvertently. Because it is difficult to communicate tone of voice in an email message, a superior’s message can come across as overly harsh and critical when delivered electronically rather than in person. And some bullying bosses ignore the rules of netiquette and use email as a power trip, for example, by writing messages in all caps, the email equivalent of yelling. Another example is the practice of forwarding an interaction intended to be a one on one communication to colleagues, even the whole organization, which can humiliate an individual.

Sources

Dowell, E., Burgess, A., & Cavanaugh, D. "Clustering of Internet Risk Behaviors in a Middle School Student Population." Journal of School Health 79:547–553. 2009.

Hartney, E. Stress Management for Teachers. London: Continuum. 2008.

National Conference of State Legislatures. Cyberstalking, Cyberharassment and Cyberbullying Laws. Last updated January 26, 2011.

Young, K. & Nabuco de Abreu, C. (Editors). Internet Addiction: A Handbook and Guide to Evaluation and Treatment. New York: Wiley. 2011.

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