Cyberbullying and Digital Peer Aggression

February 12, 2012

What is Cyberbullying/Digital Peer Aggression?

Cyberbullying is a form of online peer aggression that is delivered in a high tech way to support deliberate, repeated, and hostile behavior by an individual or group that is intended to harm others emotionally, psychologically, and even physically.

Although traditional bullying has really only affected our youth while at, or traveling to and from school, modern technology has now enabled those who bully to extend their reach of peer aggression no matter where the intended target may be located. As Dr. Hinduja and Dr. Patchin stated in their excellent book on the topic, “Bullying, Beyond the Schoolyard:”

“While power in traditional bullying might be physical (stature) or social (wit or popularity), online power may simply stem from proficiency with or the knowledge or possession of some content (information, pictures, or video) that can be used to inflict harm. Anyone with any of these characteristics or possessions within a certain on-line context has power, which can be wielded through some form of cyberbullying. Indeed, anyone who can utilize technology in a way that allows them to mistreat others is in a position of power, at least at that moment, relative to the target of the attack.”

Current research has found that cyberbullying/peer aggression is most often committed by someone the intended target knows, loves, or trusts and is the most frequent threat and challenge that youth face today – both online and offline. Of concern to us as parents and caregivers, recent research has shown that 60% of those targeted do not tell an adult. According to Dr. Hinduja and Dr. Patchin, there are two primary reasons why our youth are not disclosing:

1. Victims don’t want to be blamed for the behavior and are often afraid that parents will simply remove the source of the problem (their computer or cell phone), and

2. Victims feel that adults are ill equipped or unwilling to intervene on their behalf in a calm and rational manner, to resolve the situation.

Why has cyberbullying become more frequent?

  • Technology: given how our youth have embraced technology in all its forms, it’s not that surprising to see peer aggressors using this same technology to target others. Also, given the viral nature that a message can be sent to a large number of people in a short period of time, it makes such technology a useful launching platform.
  • Anonymity: A peer aggressor can hide behind the anonymity of a computer or cell phone to send a message thus reducing the chances of being caught.
  • Disinhibition: Anonymity breeds disinhibition, which frees the peer aggressor to say whatever they want in the digital world that they would never think about saying face-to-face.
  • Lack of Supervision: Chances are slim to none that anyone will see the peer aggressor sending the message, thus decreasing the chance of being identified.
  • Pop Culture: Teens often take their cues from pop culture; just look at the shows South Park and Family Guy (popular shows with our youth) where the characters are constantly targeting those who are fat, homosexual, or disabled. Some youth will mimic these behaviors online.

Another big reason why cyberbullying has become more frequent is because the cyberbully does not immediately understand or internalize the very real consequences of their actions until it is too late. As I have stated before, youth live for the here and now and rarely think about the future. This is why it is so important to educate our youth about the harmful consequences of cyberbullying, and share with them the story of Ryan Halligan.

There have been several bullycide/cybercide cases reported in the media both in Canada and the United States. One such case involved a young teenager by the name of Ryan Halligan. Ryan, during the summer before his eighth grade, began an online relationship with a very popular girl from his school. Once school began however, this girl told Ryan that he was a loser and only wanted to befriend him because she thought it would be funny to pretend to like him and to share their texts with her friends so that she could embarrass him publicly at school. Because of this type of peer aggression, Ryan became depressed and visited web sites that promoted suicide. On October 7, 2003, Ryan committed suicide. After his death, Ryan’s father located a message on Ryan’s computer dated October 6th, where he stated that he was considering taking his life the next day. Ryan’s message got a reply from another visitor stating, “It’s about fucking time”.

Cyberbullying has become known as the “new bathroom wall” of the “We” or “Y” generation and one U.S. internet study of high school students found:

  • 53% said harmful things while online with other students.
  • 58% said they had someone say harmful things to them while online.
  • 42% said they had been bullied while online.
  • 33% said they had received mean or threatening e-mails.

In a 2007 research study conducted by the Canadian Kids Help Line where they interviewed 2,474 Canadian students:

  • Over 70% reported being bullied online.
  • 44% reported having bullied someone online at least once.

Just like traditional bullying has lead some youth to commit suicide in Canada (Dawn Marie Wesley, 14; Gary Hansen, 16; Travis Sleeve, 16; Hamed Nastoh, 14), there have now been several reported cases of “bullycide/cybercide” (such as Ryan Halligan) that have been directly linked to cyberbullying. Remember when we were younger we heard the phrase, “sticks and stones may break your bones but names will never hurt you?” We as parents, educators, and youth need to change this phrase to, “sticks and stones may break your bones but cyberbullying can hurt, or even kill, others.”

Here’s another very important keystone that was reported out in the 2009 “Youth Violence Project” specific to cyberbullying:

“Online or offline, the environment when it comes to cyberbullying is almost always school life and not the internet.”

The Four Types of Digital Peer Aggressors (Cyberbullies): does a great job of breaking down peer aggressors/cyberbullies into four different typologies:

1. “The Vengeful Angel:” Here, the youth doesn’t see themselves as a bully, but rather as a support mechanism to stand up for a friend or “right the wrong” done to someone they know.

2. “The Power Hungry:” Here, the youth wants to show they control others and usually need an audience to do so in such places as social networks.

3. “Mean Girls:” Here, the attack is ego based and sometimes the youth is just bored and wants to stir the pot. Youth here usually plan their schemes in a group to target an individual.

4. “The inadvertent Cyberbully:” Here, the youth typically don’t see themselves as a bully and are usually just responding to a situation without thinking about the consequences.

So what can cyberbullying be?

Mediums through which cyberbullying often occur include cellular voice mail, emails, chat rooms, voting/rating sites, blogging sites, web sites, virtual worlds, texting and online gaming. No matter what the medium, cyberbullying includes:

1. Direct IM text messaging of threats or harassment. This could also include something called a “text war,” where the intent is to have a group of individuals target one person with an overabundance of text messages.

2. Stealing passwords. This can allow the cyberbully to have access to your accounts and pretend to be you while online. Once a person has your password, they can change your profile that could include sexual or racist remarks.

3. Inappropriate blog or web site creations that can contain nothing but lies about you, or even questionable pictures, but that are available for all to see.

4. Purposely sending inappropriate “morphed” (doctored) pictures to others, including friends and family.

5. Internet Polling/Voting Booths. Most online polling programs are free and others can start a poll asking, “Do you think Jane Doe is easy to get into bed? Yes or no?” or “who is the ugliest, fattest, or dumbest person in the school?” One such site to be aware of as a parent is

6. Outing. This is where the peer aggressor will share someone’s secret or embarrassing information online with others.

7. Purposely sending malicious software (viruses and Trojans) to your computer.

8. Purposely sending porn and spam to your e-mail.

9. Physical threats to do you or others harm.

So what can you do if a cyberbully is targeting you or a friend?

  • Know what cyberbullying/violence can be and tell an adult you trust that you are being targeted.
  • Ignore all cyberbullying attempts. If you bite, it will only get worse.
  • Restrict those who can communicate with you via e-mail, DMs, IM, and text.
  • Restrict others from being able to add you to their buddy list, which can usually be done in your privacy setting.
  • Google yourself and see what is out there on the WWW about yourself or a family member, the results may shock you.
  • Block the sender, most IM and SMS apps have this feature.
  • Report the issue to the sender’s internet service provider (ISP). Most ISP’s have strict rules surrounding this issue.
  • If happening during school hours and from a fellow student, notify the school administrator immediately.
  • Remember to record, copy, and save everything and take legal action where appropriate to do so.

What parents should do if your child is being targeted by a cyberbully:

Earlier, I noted that according to Dr. Hinduja and Dr. Patchin, there are two primary reasons why our youth are not disclosing that they are being targeted:

1. Victims don’t want to be blamed for the behavior and are often afraid that parents will simply remove the source of the problem (their computer or cell phone), and

2. Victims feel that adults are ill-equipped or unwilling to intervene on their behalf in a calm and rational manner, to resolve the situation.

This is why it is so important that when your child does disclose to you that they are a target of cyberbullying, you do not overreact as the parent by immediately banning your child from access to the internet via computer or cellphone? Although this may seem to be the easiest thing to do to deal with the issue, it does not ultimately deal with underlying issue that your child has been targeted. If your child believes that you will not react calmly in a rational manner to resolves the situation, disclosure will not take place and disclosure is the first step in the recovery process. Like it or not, internet access is an indispensible component to 21st century adolescence, and if your child believes that the banning of access will be the primary step you will take to deal with the issue, they will not disclose and continue to suffer alone.

So what should a parent do once the child has disclosed that they are being targeted?

  • Remain calm and use choice speech such as, “ I know that it must have been hard for you to come and tell me what is going on, but I am very glad you did, so let’s talk about how we are going to deal with this challenging issue.”
  • Ensure that your child is safe and that you will do everything in your power to keep them safe.
  • Figure out how far the bullying has gone.
  • Collect all evidence to support the fact that your child is being cyberbullied. (SMS texts, IM texts, DMs, voice mails, emails). This can be as simple as teaching your child to screen capture (screencap) and print (usually ctrl + print screen button) and then paste into a word document.
  • Is the targeted bullying something that can be handled by your child changing their behavior, such as not communicating with the bully or blocking the bully.
  • If the bullying took place on a website, report the abuse to that site. Remind your child how to block the person from contacting them online.
  • If they have had their email or social network hacked, have your child change their passwords.
  • Contact the parents of the cyberbully. I would recommend that this be done in person, and ensure that you bring copies of the evidence mentioned in bullet point #3 to support your allegations. Remember that the other parent will likely be defensive, so ensure that you stay calm and professional and explain that you want to work with them to identify a reasonable resolution to the situation. Dr. Englander, an expert in aggression reduction, recommends the following “script” to help reduce the inevitable defensiveness of the bully’s parent, “I need to show you what your son/daughter typed to my son/daughter online. He may have meant it as a joke, but my daughter was really devastated by the messaging. A lot of kids type things online that they would never dream of saying in person, and it can all be easily misinterpreted.”
  • Contact your child’s school and speak with the principal and let them know what is going on, what actions you have taken to deal with this issue, and the expectations you have of the school should the cyberbullying carry on during school hours.
  • Contact the internet service provider or cell phone carrier of the cyberbully and let them know that your child has been targeted using their service. Again, be prepared to provide copies of the evidence to support your allegations, which they may ask for.
  • If the content of the cyberbullying involves threats, criminal harassment or hate crimes then contact the police immediately. Again, be prepared to provide copies of the evidence to support your allegations.
  • Seek a civil legal remedy, if appropriate and reasonable to do so.

Cyberbullying Signs:

Although it is not uncommon for targets of cyberbullying not to tell others that they are being victimized, there are several behavioral signs that parents, teachers, and guardians should be aware of, to help identify a person who may need help:

  • A marked change in the youth’s computer or cellphone habits.
  • Appears angry, depressed, or frustrated after using the computer or cellphone
  • Won’t say who they are talking/texting to.
  • Trouble sleeping.
  • Stomach and headaches.
  • Fear of leaving the house.
  • Crying for no apparent reason.
  • Frequent visits to school nurse, wants to call mom/dad to come and get them.
  • Lowered self-esteem.
  • A marked change in attitude, dress, or habits.
  • Unexplained broken personal possessions, loss of money, loss of personal items.
  • Stories that don’t make sense.
  • Missing or incomplete schoolwork and decreased success in studies.

The Canadian Kids Help Phone conducted a research study on cyberbullying that was published in 2007, and it is a document that we highly recommend to all parents, caregivers, and teachers to further their knowledge on this very important topic. The report, “Cyberbullying: Our Kids New Reality” contains excellent information on the topic of cyberbullying that can be downloaded for free at:

Digital Food For Thought

Darren Laur

AKA #thewhitehatter

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