What is Cyberbullying?

In the digital age, it's more important than ever that cyberbullying be recognized. But too few of those in a position to assist victims of this type of intimidation and adverse attention witness or understand its power. The article below explores this phenomenon and offers answers to questions about what and where it occurs, potential targets, and long-term impacts of the behavior.

What and Where

Cyberbullying is a new spin on an old human behavior. Human groups evolved as cooperative, supportive systems, and bullying or ostracizing speech and action is a malignant aspect of the very traits that allowed the species to flourish. With the advent of the Internet, mobile technologies like texting and SMS, and social media, individuals who traditionally experienced bullying—school-aged children, marginalized or vulnerable communities, women, and those seeking admission to a profession or community who did not conform to in-group member expectations—became instantly and continuously accessible targets for the behavior.

Strictly defined, this type of abuse occurs via any digital devices, commonly on social media platforms and the associated instant messaging services provided. It's also perpetrated through text messaging, also known as mobile short message service (SMS), and e-mail.

Pervasive and Persistent

The United States government has officially codified this type of bullying because it has been identified as a gray area within the scope of local, state, and federal laws that protect one of the most vulnerable populations—children, according to StopBullying.gov. School-aged children experience bullying by peers. When perpetrated physically, most schools or the larger communities of which they are a part, have legal recourse to address and mitigate the behavior.

While children are not the only group that experiences this type of bullying, they are uniquely vulnerable to it. This sensitivity is due to several factors. Within a culture that overtly privileges the individual, coherence to peer group norms is a subtly influential force for behavioral regulation, especially with the young who are still forming identities and navigating the complex social negotiations of cultural affiliation.

Given the compartmentalization of social and cultural spheres within this particular society, online interactions of the young often represent an unknown to authority figures, parents, and even older siblings. When paired with the lack of experience of youth, popular focus on dark or cruel humor, the sense of affirmation individuals receive via any attention, and a failure to fully comprehend the impacts of social exchanges on others, cyberbullying can be profoundly impactful, leading to psychological damage, substance abuse, or antisocial tendencies. It can even be deadly, according to statistics compiled by the Megan Meier Foundation.

The need for peer advocacy for targets of bullying is equaled by the necessity for increased awareness by parents and teachers. Because elders are deliberately excluded from these forms of communication—a tendency far older than social media, which signifies the desire of youth to claim territories and modes of cultural expression that are uniquely theirs—they often cannot intercede before the situation becomes critical.

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The U.S. government estimates that more than 20 percent of children ages 12-18 directly experience this form of peer abuse. Other vulnerable groups may experience a more dispersed form of cyberbullying, which rarely escalates to personal persecution via text message or virulent and relentless campaigns of exclusion as does the type seen in schools. However, it is apparent that the tendency to view online communities as less real, and by association online interactions as less impactful, has contributed to the rise in prevalence of cyberbullying, and it must be addressed via advocacy, legislation, and re-education.