Cyberbullying Overview

For most youth, the Internet is all about socializing, and while most of these social interactions are positive, increasing numbers of kids are using the technology to intimidate and harass others – a phenomenon known as cyberbullying.

Here are some statistics which illustrate the scale of the problem: roughly a quarter of young people report having been targets of cyberbullying. [1] However, the risk is not equal for all students. Many of the things that make youth targets of offline bullying – poverty [2], disability [3], being a member of a visible minority group [4] and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) status [5] – increase the odds of being a target of cyberbullying as well.

The term “cyberbullying” can be a bit of a misnomer. Unlike the traditional definition of bullying, which involves a difference in power or strength between the perpetrator and the target, a lot of the activities that adults would label as cyberbullying happen between people of roughly the same status. It’s also sometimes difficult to distinguish clearly between the target and perpetrator in a cyberbullying scenario. Finally, much of the abusive behaviour that takes place within offline relationships may also take place in online spaces or be abetted by digital technology.

There is little doubt that cyberbullying is traumatic: one-third of students who were bullied online reported symptoms of depression, a figure which rose to nearly one-half for those who experienced both online and offline bullying. [6] Unfortunately, youth typically underestimate how harmful online bullying can be. Jennifer Shapka, a bullying researcher at the University of British Columbia, found that while young people believe most of the negative behaviour that happens online was meant as a joke, “students need to be educated that this ‘just joking’ behaviour has serious implications.” [7]

One reason cyberbullying may be more harmful than offline bullying is the potential presence of countless, invisible witnesses and/or collaborators to the cyberbullying, which creates a situation where targets are left unsure of who knows, and whom to fear. Technology also extends the reach these young people have, enabling them to harass their targets anywhere and at anytime. While these situations should be reported, it can be difficult for young people to step forward: how do you report an attack that leaves no physical scars and is committed by a nameless attacker? Will the consequences of telling an adult that you are being cyberbullied be worse than the bullying itself? Adults want to help, but many feel ill-equipped to handle bullying in a digital world.


[1] Patchin, J. W. & S. Hinduja. (2012). “Cyberbullying: An Update and Synthesis of the Research,” In J. W. Patchin and S. Hinduja (Eds.), Cyberbullying Prevention and Response: Expert Perspectives, 13-35. New York: Routledge.
[2] Cross, E.J., R. Piggin, J. Vonkaenal-Platt and T. Douglas. (2012). Virtual Violence II: Progress and Challenges in the Fight against Cyberbullying. London: Beatbullying.
[3] Livingstone, S., L. Haddon, A. Görzig, K. Ólafsson, with members of the EU Kids Online Network (2011) EU Kids Online Final Report.
[4] Cross, E.J., R. Piggin, J. Vonkaenal-Platt and T. Douglas. (2012).
[5] Hinduja, S., and Patchin, J. (2011) ‘Cyberbullying Research Summary Factsheet: Bullying, Cyberbullying and Sexual Orientation’.
[6] Kessel Schneider, Shari, Lydia O'Donnell, Ann Stueve, and Robert W. S. Coulter “Cyberbullying, School Bullying, and Psychological Distress: A Regional Census of High School Students,” American Journal of Public Health (January 2012) 102:1, 171-177.  
[7] Bellett, Gerry. “Cyberbullying needs its own treatment strategies.” The Vancouver Sun, April 13, 2012.