Ethics and Cyberbullying

Cyberbullying may be the area where parents and teachers are most concerned about kids behaving ethically. Though it’s not yet clear if digital media have actually increased how much bullying is going on, there’s no doubt that online bullying can have a much longer lifespan and reach a much larger audience than traditional bullying.

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.

Relationship Violence

Finally, relationship violence may happen partly or entirely through digital media. According to a 2013 study, one in four teens who are currently dating say that their partners have stalked them, threatened them, impersonated them on social networks, sent them abusive messages, pressured them for sex or for sexual photos, or embarrassed them publicly using digital media [1]. 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.

Types of Bullies

Research into offline bullying has shown that there are two types of youth who bully: “pure” bullies and bully-victims.

“Pure” bullies are those who engage in bullying despite having a relatively high social status. They aren’t outsiders and don’t suffer from low self-esteem: they have lots of cognitive empathy – the ability to identify how someone else is feeling – but are low in affective empathy, which means they aren’t likely to share someone else’s feelings emotionally [2]. They’re most likely to be perpetrators of bullying in order to improve their social status and often choose as their targets people just above or below them on the social ladder [3].

Bully-victims, on the other hand, are more likely to have trouble in school – both socially and in class [4] – and are more likely to engage in bullying acts out of anger rather than for a calculated benefit [5]. MediaSmarts’ 2014 study found that 48 percent of students who had been mean or cruel online said they had done it because “the person said something mean or cruel about me first” and 22 percent said it was because “I wanted to get even with the person for another reason.” [6]

Looking back at our patterns of online bullying, griefers are almost always “pure” bullies. A conflict between a “pure” bully and a bully-victim – or two bully-victims – can easily turn drama into harassment. Finally, research into offline relationship violence has found that it, too, falls into two similar patterns: one in which one partner (nearly always male) tries to dominate the other, and one in which both partners are involved in mutual abuse [7].


As we’ve seen, in most cases cyberbullying has a public component. That’s why the role played by witnesses to bullying can be as important as the role of either perpetrator or target. In fact, research has shown that when witnesses step in, it can stop a bullying situation within seconds [8]. Unfortunately, another study shows that while three in four middle school students felt that it was good to object when you saw someone being bullied, half of them also admitted that they had often laughed at the target instead [9] – a good example of “talking the talk” without “walking the walk.”

Even when witnesses don’t join in, they can seem like they’re taking the bully’s side just by doing nothing. As we’ve seen, rationalization and the bystander effect can help us convince ourselves that we don’t need to act. Recent research suggests that youth decide whether or not to stand up based in part on whether or not the situation has crossed the line from joking, teasing or other accepted behaviour into genuine bullying. Unfortunately, there’s a natural tendency to rationalize away behaviour that might be bullying – and when social norms define acts of griefing, harassment or relationship violence as normal, we’re less likely to see them as being bullying [10].

There are also a number of good reasons why someone might not want to report or intervene in a bullying situation: if they’re afraid of being targeted as well or if they’re afraid that defending the target will make them lose social status. There is also the less self-interested fear that getting involved in a conflict might actually make things worse [11].

In fact, while we encourage youth to stand up to bullying when they see it, it can be the involvement of witnesses that turns drama into harassment. While youth do say they consider it important to step in when someone is being bullied, research has shown that what this boils down to is defending their friends, so when there’s any doubt about who is the perpetrator and who is the target they will generally take their friend’s side without necessarily looking any more deeply into the situation. (When both are equally good friends, most kids said they would try to help them stop fighting.) [12] MediaSmarts’ research confirmed that defending a friend was also a common reason for bullying: a third of students who said that they had been mean or cruel to someone online said they had done it because “the person said something mean and cruel about my friend first.” [13]

Some young people however, do feel a responsibility towards all their peers, and are more likely to apply the moral principle that nobody should be a victim of bullying than to support their friends unquestioningly.

Responding to Cyberbullying

The Youth Voice Project interviewed more than 13,000 students from across the United States about their experiences with bullying. One of the questions they asked was what things peers had done that had made a difference – positive or negative.

Most helpful bystander strategies:

Spent time with me at school
Talked to me at school to encourage me
Helped me get away from the situation
Gave advice about what I should do
Called me at home to encourage me
Helped me tell an adult
Made a distraction
Told an adult

Neutral bystander strategies (sometimes helped but sometimes made things worse):

Kindly told the bully to stop
Angrily told the bully to stop

Least helpful bystander strategies:

Made fun of me
Blamed me for it
Ignored the situation

Source: Davis, Stan and Charisse L. Nixon. Youth Voice Project: Student Insights into Bullying and Peer Mistreatment. Research Press Publishers, 2014.


[1] Janine Zweig and Meredith Dank. Teen Dating Abuse and Harassment in the Digital World. Urban Institute, February 2013. <>
[2] Gini G. 2006. Social cognition and moral cognition in bullying: What’s wrong? Aggressive Behavior 32: 528-539. <>
[3] Tara Parker-Pope. Web of Popularity Achieved by Bullying. The New York Times, February 14, 2011. <>
[4] Juvonen J, Graham S, Schuster MA. 2003. Bullying among young adolescents: the strong, the weak, and the troubled. Pediatrics. 112(6 Pt 1):1231-7. <>
[5] Woods S and White E. 2005. The association between bullying behaviour, arousal levels and behaviour problems. J Adolesc. 28(3):381-95. <>
[6] Steeves, V. (2014) Young Canadians in a Wired World, Phase III: Cyberbullying: Dealing With Online Meanness, Crulety and Threats. MediaSmarts: Ottawa. <>
7] Johnson M: Patriarchal terrorism and common couple violence: two forms of violence against women. Journal of Marriage and the Family 1995; 57:283–294. <>
[8] Jacquine Miller. “Stop bullying? Make it socially unacceptable, says psychologist.” Ottawa Citizen, October 21, 2012.
[9] Mihiri Udabage. “What Makes Teenagers Stand Up for Bullying Victims?”, February 20, 2013. <>
[10] Silvia Diazgranados Ferrans, Robert L. Selman and Luba Falk Feigenberg. Rules of the Culture and Personal Needs: Witnesses’ Decision-Making Processes to Deal with Situations of Bullying in Middle School. Harvard Educational Review, Winter 2012. <>
[11] Mihiri Udabage. “What Makes Teenagers Stand Up for Bullying Victims?”, February 20, 2013. <>
[12] Silvia Diazgranados Ferrans, Robert L. Selman and Luba Falk Feigenberg. Rules of the Culture and Personal Needs: Witnesses’ Decision-Making Processes to Deal with Situations of Bullying in Middle School. Harvard Educational Review, Winter 2012. <>
[13] Steeves.

Resources for Youth

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.

Learn More