Who Cyberbullies and Why

It’s important to note that there is no single profile of a child who bullies. While some fit the traditional image of someone who is generally aggressive and has poor impulse control, others may be very sensitive to social nuances and are able to use that understanding against their targets.[1]

Targets and Perpetrators

There is a close relationship between targets and perpetrators in cyberspace. In a 2009 Canadian study, half of youth who admitted to cyberbullying said they did so because they had been bullied first. [2] It’s not at all unusual for both parties in a cyberbullying scenario to see themselves as victims.

One of the challenges to dealing with cyberbullying is that the term “cyberbullying” often has little meaning to youth. As danah boyd of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society has noted, what adults may consider cyberbullying youth will describe as getting into fights, “starting something” or simply “drama.” This includes many of the activities considered forms of cyberbullying, such as spreading rumours or excluding peers from their social circles. Boys similarly refer to what they do – most often online impersonation or posting embarrassing videos – as “punking” or “pranking” rather than bullying.

In both cases, there are a number of reasons why youth prefer not to frame what they are doing (or what is being done to them) in terms of bullying. One is that they consider bullying to be a juvenile behaviour, associated with elementary or middle school, while “drama” and “punking” are more adult. More importantly, avoiding the term “bullying” is helpful for both perpetrator and target because it obscures the power imbalance between them: the perpetrator does not have to see themself as a bully and the target does not have to see themself as a victim. [3]


Cyberbullying often occurs away from adults. Thus, witnesses or bystanders to cyberbullying have a very important role to play when it comes to putting an end to it. The response of witnesses – whether it’s to intervene, to join in, or to simply do nothing – can make a tremendous difference in the impact of a bullying incident. In fact, the presence of witnesses will actually make a perpetrator more aggressive. [4] This is one reason why bullying incidents and relationships may be made more severe when there is an online component: when bullying takes place in an environment such as Facebook, it may be witnessed by the target’s entire social circle. In a study conducted by the University of Toronto in 2008, 28 per cent of the students reported having witnessed cyberbullying. Of this percentage, half react by rising up against cyberbullying; the other half goes along with it. [5]

[1] Pepler, Debra. Testimony before the Senate Committee on Human Rights, December 12, 2011.
[2] Microsoft Canada Co. and Youthography, Internet Safety Survey, 2009. http://citizenship.microsoft.ca/articles/archive/2009/02/24/internet-safety-microsoft-canada-and-youthography-online-safety-survey.aspx
[3] Marwick, Dr. Alice, and Dr. danah boyd. The Drama! Teen Conflict, Gossip, and Bullying in Networked Publics.
[4] Craig, Wendy. Testimony before the Senate Committee on Human Rights, December 12, 2011.
[5] Mishna, F. and R. McFadden, Cyber Bullying Survey: School Summary Report, Faculty of Social Work, University of Toronto, March 2009.