Cyberbullying Backgrounder


What is Bullying?

Bullying is a specific relationship characterized by recurrent abuse of power by a person (or group) over another person. Bullying is expressed differently depending on the age of the abuser. [1]

What is Cyberbullying?

As its name implies, cyberbullying is bullying through an electronic medium such as a computer or cell phone.


For the purposes of this document, those who are involved in cyberbullying are categorized as perpetrators, targets and bystanders.

Perpetrators: Although cyberbullying might appear to be simply another means used by “traditional” bullies to reach their target, the virtual attributes of the Internet have fostered a new type of bully: someone who capitalizes on online anonymity to initiate bullying behaviour.

Believing themselves to be anonymous, some young people feel free to commit acts online that they would never carry out in person. In addition, the frequency with which adolescents share online passwords provides perpetrators, when caught, with the ready excuse that someone else may have assumed their identity to send bullying messages.

In addition to anonymity, the absence of visual and auditory feedback online can also fuel hurtful behaviour. According to Nancy Willard, from the Responsible Netizen Institute, this type of technology can affect students’ ethical behaviour because they are not fully aware of the impact of their actions on others. This lack of feedback reduces feelings of empathy or remorse. “When people use technology, there is a lack of tangible feedback about the consequences of actions on others.”[2]

As such, students may write things online that they would never say in person because they feel removed from their own actions and from the person at the receiving end. As a student who participated in focus testing for Media Awareness Network’s Young Canadians in a Wired World research commented:

[With] the Internet, you can really get away with a lot more because I don’t think a lot of people would have enough confidence to walk up to someone and be like, “I hate you, you’re ugly.” But over the Internet you don’t really see their face or they don’t see yours and you don’t have to look in their eyes and see they’re hurt.

Targets: In this lesson series the term “target” is used instead of “victim.” The term “victim” implies powerlessness and passivity, whereas “target” is considered to be more neutral.

Although there is no physical violence, cyberbullying may be more frightening to targets because there are, potentially, an unlimited number of witnesses. When perpetrators are anonymous, targets don’t know which peers to watch out for or respond to - leading to feelings of helplessness. With no one to point to, targets may be less likely to file complaints.

The targets’ situation is compounded by the reality that the home, which traditionally offers respite to bullying, is no longer safe, with cyberbullying continuing on the home computer.

Bystanders: This important group forms the social consensus for bullying behaviour - online and offline. In a March 2008 study of 2095 students in grades 6, 7, 10 and 11 conducted by the Faculty of Social Work at the University of Toronto, 28% reported having witnessed cyberbullying. Of this percentage:

  • 9% became involved in the bullying behaviour
  • 32% watched but didn’t participate
  • 14% voiced their objection to the person doing the bullying
  • 21% tried to stop the bully
  • 11% left the online environment
  • 7% tried to befriend the bully, and
  • 7% reported the bully to someone who could help.[3]

In general, the longer the bullying persists, the more likely it is that the number of witnesses who are willing to join in will increase.[4]

Online Methods of Cyberbullying

There are several ways that young people bully others online. They may send e-mails or instant messages containing insults or threats directly to a person. They may also spread hateful comments about a person to others through e-mail, instant messaging or postings on Web sites and online diaries (blogs). Or they may steal passwords to e-mail or instant messaging accounts belonging to other youth and send out threatening e-mails or instant messages under an assumed identity. It’s not unknown for technically savvy kids to build password-protected Web sites to target specific students or teachers.

Increasing numbers of children and youth are being bullied through text messaging with cell phones. The use of cell phones is challenging the ability of adults to monitor and guide children because, unlike a computer placed in a public area of a home, school or library, mobiles are personal, private, connected—and always accessible. Kids tend to keep their phones turned on at all times, meaning that bullies can harass victims at school or even in their own bedrooms.

Built-in digital cameras in cell phones add a new dimension to the problem. In one case students used a camera-enabled cell phone to take a photo of an overweight classmate in the shower after gym. The picture was distributed throughout the school e-mail list within minutes.

Schools are struggling to address the issue of cyberbullying among students, especially when it occurs outside of school. When real-world bullying occurs in a schoolyard or classroom, teachers are often able to intervene, but online bullying takes place off the radar screen of adults, making it difficult to detect in schools and impossible to monitor off school property.

The Extent of the Problem

The Pew Report Cyberbullying and Online Teens (2007) reports that “about one third (32%) of all teenagers who use the Internet say they have been targets of a range of annoying and potentially menacing online activities, such as receiving threatening messages; having their private emails or text messages forwarded without consent; having an embarrassing picture posted without permission; or having rumors about them spread online.”.[5] As well, 38% of girls reported having been bullied online, compared to 26% of boys. The group reporting the highest rate of cyberbullying was girls 15 to 17 years of age, at 41%.[6]

In Canada, in its 2007 poll on the state of the teaching profession, Ontario’s College of Teachers found 84% of respondents reporting having been targets of cyberbullying by their students (a figure that rises to 93% for French-language teachers).

CyberBullying and the Law

Young people should be aware that some forms of online bullying are considered criminal acts. Under the Criminal Code of Canada, it is a crime to communicate repeatedly with someone if your communication causes them to fear for their own safety or the safety of others. It’s also a crime to publish a “defamatory libel”—writing something that is designed to insult a person or is likely to injure a person’s reputation by exposing him or her to hatred, contempt or ridicule.

A cyberbully may also be violating the Canadian Human Rights Act if he or she spreads hate or discrimination based on race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, age, sex, sexual orientation, marital status, family status or disability.

The Role of the School

Most bullying relationships are struck at school and, therefore, cyberbullying has a direct negative impact on the atmosphere at school or in the classroom. In her 2004 Educator’s Guide to Cyber Bullying, Nancy Willard recommends schools develop a comprehensive approach to address cyberbullying that includes:

  • engaging in participatory planning that involves current school-based programs (such as safe schools initiatives) and non-school participants - police, parents and community groups and social agencies
  • conducting a needs assessment
  • ensuring that an effective anti-bullying program is in place
  • reviewing existing policies and procedures (update bullying policy to include harassment perpetrated with mobile and Internet technology, and computer Acceptable Use Policy (AUP) to specifically prohibit using the Internet for bullying)
  • conducting professional development
  • providing parent education (organize parent education nights and workshops)
  • providing student education (integrate anti-bullying and cyberbullying education into existing curriculum, so it is not another ‘add on’)
  • evaluating the program to determine its effectiveness

Dr. Shaheen Shariff at McGill University emphasizes that schools have a responsibility “to adapt to a rapidly evolving technological society, address emerging challenges, and guide children to become civic-minded individuals.”[7] According to Shariff, schools must support a preventive approach to cyberbullying in order to promote equal opportunity learning. A reactive approach (where, for example, cyberbullies are suspended) weakens learning.[8]

As this table illustrates, schools must take a proactive approach in order to strike a balance between freedom of expression and providing a safe learning environment where students feel safe and protected from all kinds of bullying.

In the classroom, teachers can create an environment of inclusiveness in which every student is valued. Teachers should:

  • Examine their own attitudes and demonstrate a respectful attitude towards all students and other staff.
  • Intervene whenever a child is being bullied – this includes speaking out if they see other teachers exhibiting aggressive or demeaning behaviour towards a student.
  • Seek out shy, marginalized students and encourage their involvement in the classroom by promoting any special talents they have.
  • Encourage healthy relationships by integrating strategies for discouraging bullying into classroom activities.

Developing a sense of control - a belief in one’s ability to take charge of the controllable aspects of a situation and influence a more positive outcome - can make a difference in helping young people build resiliency toward and take control of bullying situations.[9] Adults can help young people deal with bullying, wherever it is encountered, by encouraging them, as a community, to develop and agree to uphold codes of conduct. Adults can also provide young people with support and tools to actively address bullying behaviour.

The Canadian Teachers’ Federation has developed a CyberTips guide for teachers that can be viewed at:

Helping Students Take Action

Just as students need to understand that online bullying may be a criminal act, it is also important for them to understand their own responsibilities as “Netizens” in building and contributing to positive online communities. Teachers and parents have an essential role to play in helping young people develop their own moral compasses to guide their online behaviour. The following rules can be used as a starting point to help students develop a code for ethical conduct online, to encourage positive online interactions, and to help them respond proactively if they find themselves targeted by a cyberbully.

  1. Protect your privacy: think twice before sharing passwords and personal information.
  2. Respect the privacy of others: don’t share any information online without asking the person who gave it to you; ask any other people in your photos if they mind before posting or sharing them.
  3. Respect people’s virtual space: don’t go digging through someone’s files or computer.
  4. Stay true to yourself: think twice before pranking people and don’t pretend to be somebody else online.
  5. Stay true to your values in cyberspace: don’t be a gossip girl or guy. Don’t post things that you wouldn’t say to someone’s face. When something makes you angry, try resolving things face-to-face instead of doing it online.
  6. Don’t be a troll: don’t say or post things just to get people angry.

If you witness online bullying:

  1. Stand up to bullying behaviour: speak out if you see friends cyberbullying someone or you witness aggressive behaviour against a person online. Think about where you can do the most good by comforting the person who’s being bullied, by talking to the person doing the bullying, by reporting to it an adult or by doing all three of these things.
  2. Don’t be a doormat! if someone asks you to spread an offending message, photo or video about someone, say NO.

If you are the target of cyberbullying:

  1. Remember that you don’t have to deal with it alone: talk to a friend, a family member, an adult you trust or a counseling service like Kids Help Phone.
  2. You can also keep a record of online harassment: make screenshots when it happens in case you decide to notify the site operators of the online environment where it happened. Most games, social networks and other online spaces have policies against harassment.


[1] J. Jaanen and S. Graham, eds., Peer Harassment in School: The Plight of the Vulnerable and Victimized. London: Guilford Press, 2001.
[2] N. Willard, “Fostering Responsible Online Behaviour (Part 1).” For The Cybercitizen Awareness Program: Guidance Channel Ezine, June 2007.
[3] F. Mishna, “Cyber Bullying Report.” Faculty of Social Work, University of Toronto, March 2008.
[4] S. Shariff and R. Gouin, “Cyberdilemmas: Gendered Hierarchies, Free Expression and Cyber-safety in Schools.” Presented at Safety and Security in a Networked World: Balancing Cyber-Rights and Responsibilities, Oxford Internet Institute Conference, Oxford, U.K., 2005.
[5] A. Lenhart, “Data Memo: Cyberbullying and Online Teens.” Pew Internet & American Life Project, June 27, 2007.
[6] Ibid.
[7] S. Shariff and R. Gouin (2005).
[8] S. Shariff and L. Johnny, “Cyber-libel and cyber-bullying: Can Schools Protect Student Reputations and Free-expression in Virtual Environments?” Education & Law Journal, 16 (2007), pp. 307 42.
[9] J. Pearson and D. Kordich Hall, “Reaching IN … Reaching Out Resiliency Guidebook..” Child & Family Partnership, 2006, p. 5.