Making public content that was meant to be private – such as photos or videos – is another frequent bullying activity and is particularly common in the context of relationships. Finally, bullying may take the form of impersonation or spoofing, in which the perpetrator actually represents him or herself as the target. These forms of psychological bullying can be even more devastating when conducted through digital media.
Not surprisingly, social networks are where youth report being bullied most often. Texting and instant messaging services are second, with YouTube well behind in third place.[i] Sexting also exposes teenagers to cyberbullying: personal messages and photographs, even those sent to real friends or boyfriends/girlfriends, could end up being embarrassing if the relationship sours and private photos are made public.
Multiplayer online games and virtual worlds can be venues for harassment and cyberbullying when kids are playing or using the chat features to talk to other players. Research has found that eight in ten people who play online multiplayer games have experienced some kind of harassment, with almost seven in ten experiencing more serious abuse such as threats, stalking and sustained bullying.[ii]
Patterns of Online Bullying
Though there are many different ways in which online bullying can occur – impersonation, abusive messages, spreading rumours or private material and so on – we can describe it as falling into four different patterns based on whether the target knows the perpetrator, whether it’s a single incident or part of a persistent pattern and whether it happens in public or private. The lines between these four patterns are not always clear, though: a situation may start as one form of bullying and evolve into another and the same person may perpetrate or be a target of more than one kind of bullying.
Possibly the most common form of online bullying is griefing, which refers to irritating or annoying people online. This behaviour is sometimes also called “trolling,” which originally meant trying to provoke people into getting angry. Griefing is typically partly or fully anonymous, as the perpetrator may choose someone he does not know or knows only online. The griefing event is generally isolated, continuing only until the griefer has gotten the reaction he wants – though it may also turn into persistent harassment. Griefing is also almost always public, since it’s usually as much about the griefer performing for his peers as it is about the target’s reaction.
Another common kind of bullying is drama, the word youth most often use to describe arguments that happen over digital media. Unlike griefing, in drama the people involved know one another – almost always offline as well as online. It can often be hard to say who’s the perpetrator and who’s the target. An important feature is that it’s considered an isolated incident, something that can “blow over” after which the people involved can go back to being friends, which is one reason why youth prefer not to see drama as a form of bullying at all. As the name suggests, drama is in some ways a public performance being done for friends and peers, and friends will often give their support to one or the other person involved.
When bullying is personal and persistent we can describe it as harassment. This is the pattern that is most like our traditional idea of bullying, in which one person (or sometimes a group) is “picking on” someone else. One of the key differences between drama and harassment is that in drama the people involved have roughly the same amount of “social power” (just as in a physical situation, a difference in size can be the difference between a situation being bullying and just being a fight). If more witnesses to drama support one person than the other, though, or something else happens to weaken one person’s social status, drama can easily turn into harassment.
A situation may also be harassment from the beginning, and may happen mostly in private – such as through threatening or abusive text messages – though it’s rare that there are no witnesses at all.
Finally, relationship violence may happen partly or entirely through digital media. According to a 2020 study, 28.1 percent of youth aged 12 to 17 years old who had been in a romantic relationship in the last year said they had been the victim of at least one form of online digital dating abuse.[iii] These actions are mostly kept between the perpetrator and the target, but in some cases – such as when the perpetrator spreads rumours about the target or shares embarrassing material – perpetrators may use an audience to make things worse. In the worst cases, these things may happen following a sexual assault rather than a consensual relationship and, horrifically, 81 percent of youth who had been a victim of online digital dating abuse had also been the victim of abuse offline.[iv]
Given the close connection between online and offline bullying, it’s not surprising that much of online harassment takes place within the context of relationships. Boys and girls reported both committing and being targets of online relationship violence at roughly the same rates, and there is a strong connection between being a target of it and being a target of dating violence offline. As with other forms of cyberbullying, online relationship violence takes advantage of the way that youth are constantly connected to the digital world, either through computers or cell phones. This is particularly true in the case of “cyberstalking,” the constant surveillance of a past, current or would-be romantic partner. Because the online world is an inextricable part of youths’ social lives, targets often cannot block their abusers without withdrawing completely.
[i] 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.
[ii] League, A. D. (2019). Free to Play?: Hate, Harassment and Positive Social Experiences in Online Games. Center for Technology & Society.
[iii] Patchin, J et al (2020). Digital Dating Abuse among a national sample of U.S. Youth. Journal of Interpersonal Violence.
Resources for Parents
Resources for Teachers
Resources for Youth
Think before you share
Do the Right Thing
Stay on the Path
Stay on the Path: Teaching Kids to be Safe and Ethical Online is a series of resources that aims to promote and encourage ethical online behaviours with young people. The resources include a four-lesson unit on search skills and critical thinking; a self-directed tutorial that examines the moral dilemmas that kids face in their online activities and strategies for helping youth deal with them; and three tip sheets for parents on how to teach kids to be safe and ethical online.