Motivation and emotion/Book/2014/Cyber-bullying motivation

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Cyber-bullying motivation:
Why do people cyber-bully and what can we do to deter it?

Overview[edit | edit source]

Consider these three incidents:

  • In Australia, the parents of a nine year old girl went to the police after their daughter told them she had been receiving emails of a pornographic nature. Her parents and police assumed the emails were from an adult, but after tracing the source, discovered they were sent by one of the girl’s classmates (Li, 2006).
  • A 15 year old Canadian boy was shocked when he discovered a short video he filmed of himself acting out a Star Wars scene had been uploaded to the internet by some classmates. The video received millions of views, causing the boy to become extremely distressed, drop out of school, and seek counselling (Li, 2006).
  • Students at a Californian high school became involved with a website called, where racist and threatening comments were posted. Most of the school was affected by the online aggression and the principal was forced to get involved, going to law enforcement to try and have the website shut down (Li, 2006).

These three examples, although quite different from one another, all describe instances of cyber bullying. There are many questions surrounding cyber-bullying, which appears to be a growing problem in many countries (Li, 2006). What motivates students to behave in ways such as those described above? And what can we do as parents, schools, and communities to try and prevent cyber-bullying from occurring? This chapter seeks to address some of these questions.

What is cyber-bullying?[edit | edit source]

Definition[edit | edit source]

In order to understand cyber-bullying, it helps to begin with a more general definition of bullying. Bullying can be defined as aggression or violence which is deliberately and repeatedly carried out against an individual, and is characterised by an imbalance of power between perpetrator and victim (Dooley, Pyżalski & Cross, 2009; Patchin & Hinduja, 2006). Cyber-bullying more specifically has been difficult to define because of the variety of methods used and questions regarding the extent to which aspects such as repetition and power imbalance play a part (Dooley, Pyżalski & Cross, 2009). However, a good basic definition is that cyber-bullying involves acts of aggression that are carried out by an individual or group, through the use of information and communication technologies, towards someone with limited ability to defend themselves (Dooley, Pyżalski & Cross, 2009).

In terms of power imbalance, traditional forms of bullying usually refer to differences between bully and victim in terms of physicality or social status (Dooley, Pyżalski & Cross, 2009; Patchin & Hinduja, 2006). When it comes to cyber-bullying, instead, it may be a matter of technical proficiency – perpetrators use their knowledge of technology to harass others who may not be as technologically savvy (Patchin & Hinduja, 2006).

Types and methods of cyber-bullying[edit | edit source]

Cyber-bullying can occur through many different channels. Bullies often use computers to send aggressive or harassing emails and instant messages to their victims (Patchin & Hinduja, 2006; Smith et al., 2008). They may also share embarrassing videos and photos, and post messages to online message boards, chat rooms, and forums. Bullies may even create an entire website designed to degrade the victim (Patchin & Hinduja, 2006; Smith et al., 2008). Additionally, mobile phones are also frequently used for sending abusive text messages and making harassing phone calls (Patchin & Hinduja, 2006; Smith et al., 2008).

How common is cyber-bullying, and who is typically involved?[edit | edit source]

Cyber-bullying is a problem which is widespread, and growing in incidence. Most cyber-bullying occurs in the high school years (Li, 2006). Ybarra & Mitchell (2004) surveyed internet users aged 10 to 17 years and found that 19% had been involved in cyber-bullying as either a victim or offender. Whilst Li (2006) found 1 in 4 students had been cyber-bullied and 17% had cyber-bullied someone else. Patchin & Hinduja (2006) found 11% of teenagers admitted to having bullied someone online, 29% had been victims of cyber-bullying, and 47% said they had witnessed acts of cyber-bullying. These results are fairly typical, with most studies indicating 15 to 35% of students have been cyber-bullied, and 10 to 20% report having cyber-bullied someone (Hinduja & Patchin, 2010).

Researchers have also been interested in whether or not there is a gender difference in cyber-bullying behaviour. It has been suggested that the covert nature of cyber-bullying may be more appealing to girls than boys, however, the research has found mixed results. In support of this hypothesis, Slonje & Smith (2008) found that girls were more likely to be cyber-bullied than boys, with other girls as the perpetrators (Slonje & Smith, 2008). However, Li (2006) found no gender difference in cyber-bullying victims, and found rates of offending twice as high for boys as girls. Whilst Ybarra & Mitchell (2004) found no gender difference between perpetrators or victims[grammar?][Rewrite to improve clarity]. Therefore, this is a question that perhaps requires further investigation, however, if gender differences do exist, they appear to be only minor.

An issue worth considering is the accuracy and representativeness of the data. Each of the studies mentioned above used self-report data, meaning the statistics may be either over or under representative of the true rates of cyber-bullying, depending on whether the students sought to present themselves in a positive or negative light. One way to address this issue in future research would be to assess posts on the internet that are independently identifiable as being written by males or females (e.g. through public social media profiles), and objectively record incidence of aggressive messages that way, rather than asking students directly.

Victim impact[edit | edit source]

The often anonymous nature of cyber-bullying and the fact that it can occur any time, day or night, leads many victims to experience a sense of powerlessness (Slonje & Smith, 2008). Cyber-bullying victims may also experience a great amount of humiliation from instances such as uploading embarrassing photos or videos to public websites (Slonje & Smith, 2008). Other common consequences of cyber-bullying include feelings of distress, self-worthlessness, hopelessness, and isolation, which contribute to depression, and in severe cases can lead to suicidal thoughts (Ybarra & Mitchell, 2004). A study conducted by Hinduja and Patchin (2010) found that victims of cyber-bullying were 1.9 times more likely to have attempted suicide than their counterparts that had not experienced cyber-bullying.

Some have suggested that the impact of cyber-bullying may not be as severe as traditional forms of bullying, due to the victims ability to easily escape, by deleting texts and emails, and turning off their phone (Patchin & Hinduja, 2006). This is true to a degree, however, harm is not only caused by receiving the emails or messages, but from the threat to self-esteem which often occurs when individuals feel as though they have been socially rejected (Patchin & Hinduja, 2006). Therefore, psychological damage from cyber-bullying can be long lasting even after the technology is shut down (Patchin & Hinduja, 2006).

Why do people cyber-bully?[edit | edit source]

Individuals may participate in cyber-bullying behaviour for a variety of reasons. Within the literature, there has been a lack of investigation of the issue from a theoretical standpoint, and recent researchers have identified the need for more studies based upon theory (Doane, Pearson & Kelley, 2014). Although, some common motivations have been identified and are explained below through the use of three different theoretical frameworks; the theory of reasoned action, social cognitive theory, and the online disinhibition effect (a psychodynamic model)[grammar?].

Theory of reasoned action[edit | edit source]

Figure 1. Theory of Reasoned Action and Cyber-bullying.[1]

The theory of reasoned action (TRA) suggests that attitudes towards a particular behaviour, and subjective norms regarding the behaviour both influence an individuals’ intentions which then influences behaviour (Doane, Pearson & Kelley, 2014). In the initial TRA, the term subjective norms referred to the perception of the degree to which one felt pressured to engage in behaviour by others. However, recent studies have expanded the term to include injunctive norms (perception of others either approving or disapproving of the behaviour) and descriptive norms (perception of others participating in the behaviour themselves) (Doane, Pearson & Kelley, 2014).

Doane, Pearson and Kelley (2014) were interested in whether TRA could be used to understand cyber-bullying motivation and behaviour. They examined the extent to which TRA could be applied to 4 subtypes of cyber-bullying: deception, malice, public humiliation, and unwanted contact. They also examined the role of empathy, and the degree to which it was associated with TRA constructs (attitudes, intentions, and subjective norms).

They found that lower empathy towards victims of cyber-bullying predicted more positive attitudes to cyber-bullying. Attitudes was the strongest predictor of cyber-bullying behaviour, and directly influenced all four types of cyber-bullying. Injunctive norms (perception of peers’ approval) significantly predicted engagement in malice and unwanted contact forms of cyber-bullying. Descriptive norms (perceptions of peers’ perpetration) predicted deception, malice and public humiliation behaviours. These relationships are depicted in Figure 1.

Social cognitive theory[edit | edit source]

Social cognitive theory suggests that human behaviour is influenced by personal, behavioural and environmental factors, and Xiao and Wong (2013) proposed a model of cyber-bullying using these constructs. They predicted that cyber-bullying behaviour in university students could be predicted by internet self-efficacy, motivation, previous victimisation online, age and gender (all personal factors), and perception of social norms (environmental) regarding cyber-bullying. Figure 1. Illustrates the proposed model.

Figure 2. Model of Cyber-bullying motivation from a social cognitive perspective.[2]

Definitions of key constructs:

  • Internet self-efficacy: An individual’s judgement of their capabilities to use the internet to accomplish tasks and goals.
  • Motivation: In this study, motivation refers specifically to power, desire for attention, and acceptance from peers.
  • Cyber victimization experience: It was predicted that individuals who had been victims of cyber-bullying would be more likely to become cyber-bullies themselves, as they could learn from and reproduce the behaviours of other bullies.
  • Social norms: Those who believe a behaviour (in this case cyber-bullying) is normal and accepted amongst their peer group are likely to take part in such behaviour.

Results of the study

Xiao and Wong’s study of 288 university students in Hong Kong found that their model was supported. Students who had greater internet self-efficacy were more likely to cyber-bully, as were those who had been victims themselves. Xiao and Wong also identified students were more likely to cyber bully if they perceived it to be the norm, and if they believed those who were important to them supported the behaviour. Motivation (including power, attention, and peer approval) was the most significant predictor of cyber-bullying behaviour. This result also supports previous research which indicated that the need for social acceptance and approval made people more likely to perpetrate cyber-harassment (Workman, 2010). Attention seeking has been established as a motive for traditional bullying, with children admitting they sometimes bullied others just to gain attention, rather than to hurt that child. Similarly, previous research indicated that bullies may behave aggressively to gain popularity and social approval from friends[factual?]. The results of Xiao and Wong's study indicate attention-seeking and peer approval, along with power, may be motivators in cyber-bullying too.

The online disinhibition effect - A psychodynamic perspective[edit | edit source]

The online disinhibition effect describes the tendency for people to behave in ways online that they would not in real life (Suler, 2004). There are six factors that contribute to online disinhibition:

Dissociative Anonymity – It's easy for people to conceal their identity and become anonymous online. According to Suler (2004), when individuals have the chance to separate their online identity from their real-life identity, they feel more comfortable acting out. They may feel empowered to compartmentalise their online self identity, so they do not feel that they have to take personal responsibility for their online behaviour.

Invisibility – When individuals go online they may experience a sense of invisibility; as no-one is able to see their appearance and reactions and yet, on the other hand, they can't see anybody else's (Suler, 2004). In face-to-face interactions we would normally receive non-verbal feedback from others which would tend to inhibit behaviour such as frowning and head shaking. However, online where individuals don't see the reactions of others, it is easier to feel invisible, and so this allows for behaviour to escalate when it ordinarily would not in real life (Suler, 2004).

Asynchronicity – Communication in the cyber-world does not occur in real-time. There is often a lag between replies that can last from seconds to months, and in some cases individuals may not even reply at all. People become disinhibited when they don’t have to deal with people’s immediate reactions (Suler, 2004). It is easy to write an aggressive comment and then walk away without having to worry about the consequences (Suler, 2004).

Solipsistic Introjection – When we read another person’s message online, if we do not know them in real life, we often ‘fill in the blanks’ by giving them a voice as we read the message in our heads, picturing what we think they look like, and attributing other characteristics and behaviours to them (Suler, 2004). Cyber-space becomes a stage for playing out the interactions with the characters we have constructed. Disinhibition occurs because these other people seem close and connected to ourselves due to the fact we have projected so much onto them (Suler, 2004). Some even experience it as though they are talking to themselves which means they say things they normally wouldn't to other people (Suler, 2004).

Dissociative Imagination – People may feel cyber-space (and the characters they have created) exist separate to the real world. Some may even view their online interactions as a game where rules and norms are different to those of everyday life. They believe they leave the game behind whenever they log off, not realising how their interactions may truly affect people long after they leave the computer (Suler, 2004).

Minimization of Status and Authority – An individual’s status in the real world is often lost when they go online. Generally, individuals believe that online everyone has the right to express themselves in whatever way they feel. People in real life may be reluctant to state their real opinions when they are faced with an authority figure, but online the possibility of disapproval and punishment is more distant and not as threatening, leading people to become disinhibited (Suler, 2004).

After reading all of this, you may be asking why doesn't everyone cyber-bully if all these effects are at work. The short answer is that individual factors play a role in how susceptible a person is to the online disinhibition effect. The person’s feelings, needs, drive level, and personality traits all play a part (Suler, 2004).

Putting it together: Spotlight on trolling[edit | edit source]

Figure 3. Internet trolls as an example of cyber-bullying theories.

Trolling has many similarities to other cyber-bullying behaviours, with a few notable differences. It is usually anonymous, and involves making provocative and abusive comments to upset someone, with the goal of trying to get a reaction from them (Nicol, 2012). It differs from regular cyber-bullying in that trolls often target more than one person, and often don't know the victim in real life (Nicol, 2012). A famous example of trolling is that of Jessi Slaughter (a fake surname associated with her case), an 11-year-old girl who became the target of a viscous hate campaign after she posted a video to YouTube (Wright, 2012). The attack was initiated by a group of internet trolls who identify under the banner of 4chan. The 4chan users bullied her via social networking websites, and she even received death threats via post and phone calls after her personal details were hacked (Wright, 2012). Let’s take a look at the motives of 3 fictitious individuals; John, Jane and Sam using the three theories discussed above.

  • The theory of reasoned action: John held the attitude that the trolling behaviour was funny and that people had the right to say whatever they want online. He had seen that many of his peers were sending abusive messages to Jessi and therefore deemed it as fairly normal and acceptable behaviour. This lead him to decide that he wanted to join in (intention), which then lead to him sending her aggressive messages through social media.
  • Xiao and Wong’s model using social cognitive theory: Jane believed she had excellent internet skills, she even knew how to hack into people's personal information. This sense of skill and power was exciting for Jane, and she also felt good about the approval she would gain from fellow 4chan users by hacking into Jessi's personal details. She had learnt her impressive techniques from others, having been victimised herself in the past. Jane noticed the huge number of other people bullying Jessi, so saw it as normal behaviour. So she decided to join in and hack Jessi’s details.
  • The online disinhibition effect (psychodynamic perspective): Sam had seen the fuss over Jessi’s video, and was tossing up about whether to join in with the trolling. He was tempted by the fact that he could easily become anonymous by using his fake username. The sense that he was invisible added to his feeling of freedom, as no-one could see him, or put him off with their disapproving frowns. Adding to this, he almost felt as though he knew Jessi personally - and didn’t like her at all. Plus he knew that once he sent her a message he could just get back to his normal life and not have to worry about her reaction, plus he figured there's a different set of rules online and you can say whatever you like. He also thought about the fact there was no authority figure to stop him, no-one to tell him what he could or couldn't do. So he decided to go ahead and troll her YouTube channel.

What can we do to deter cyber-bullying?[edit | edit source]

Seeking help[edit | edit source]

Studies have suggested that many victims of cyber-bullying either do not tell anyone about it, or tell a friend rather than an adult (Slonje & Smith, 2008). For instance, in 2002, The national children’s home (a children’s charity now renamed Action for Children) conducted a survey of youth between 11 and 19 years of age (as cited in Slonje & Smith, 2008). They found that 42% of victims told a friend, 32% told a parent, and 29% told no one. Similarly, witnesses of cyber-bullying are not very likely to report it, with just 31% of students telling an adult when they knew someone who was being cyber-bullied.

So why aren't more victims and witnesses seeking help from adults? Studies have indicated that students tend to perceive adults as being less aware of cyber-bullying than other traditional forms of bullying, and as a result, they may be less likely to tell an adult if they’re being cyber-bullied (Slonje & Smith, 2008). Another issue seems to be a perceived lack of action taken by adults in response to cyber-bullying. Li (2006) reported that only 64% of students believed teachers or other adults in schools acted to stop cyber-bullying when it was reported.

Strategies for targeting cyber-bullying[edit | edit source]

Ideally, parental and teacher supervision of internet and mobile phone use is one way of stopping cyber-bullying. Parents should aim to reinforce appropriate use of technology and regulate inappropriate behaviour (Hinduja & Patchin, 2010). Of course, it is impossible to supervise students’ use of technology at all times. Therefore, it is also important to educate children and families about the potentially serious consequences of cyber-bullying. Education should focus on how to identify signs of cyber-bullying and what to do about it (Li, 2006). Hinduja & Patchin (2010) suggest that bullying programs in schools should include an age-appropriate component about suicide prevention. Although it is a sensitive topic, it is important for students in all grades to understand the extent of harm that can be caused by cyber-bullying.

Other educational programs could target the role of attitudes, norms and empathy in motivating cyber-bullying behaviour, as implicated by research on the theory of reasoned action (Doane, Pearson & Kelley, 2014). One idea is to run workshops in schools where children are asked to take part in role-plays by acting out cyber-bullying behaviours and demonstrating how it affects victims. This may help students to develop greater empathy, which could lead to changed attitudes, intentions, and cyber-bullying actions (Doane, Pearson & Kelley, 2014). Workshops could also include discussion of news stories of some serious cases of cyber-bullying to try and raise awareness of potential consequences of the behaviour (Doane, Pearson & Kelley, 2014). A potential limitation of this approach could be that students may not take the role-plays seriously, and the issue could just become trivialised as a result. Additionally, students who have been victims of cyber-bullying may find the workshops confronting and upsetting. Therefore, teachers would have to be appropriately trained to deal with the possibilities of these issues arising.

In addition to education, Al Mazari (2013) specifies the benefits of using varied approaches. Four different avenues include: A technology-oriented approach, education and awareness approach, psychological approach and administrative approach (Al Mazari, 2013). For instance, a technologically oriented strategy could involve parents and schools implementing firewalls to block certain websites and services in order to reduce opportunities for cyber-bullying to occur. They could also work with social networking websites to make it easier to block and remove offensive content (Al Mazari, 2013). From an educational standpoint, it may be helpful to educate adults and children about appropriate and inappropriate online behaviour (Al Mazari, 2013). Whilst an example of a psychological approach would be for schools and parents to encourage open communication about cyber-bullying, and address general mental well-being and self-esteem (Al Mazari, 2013)[grammar?]. From an administrative standpoint, it is important to make sure that internet users are aware of conditions of use regarding services and penalties that apply for misuse (Al Mazari, 2013). A multi-faceted approach such as this could be more effective than education alone.

Finally, as in some of the cases discussed in the overview, some instances of cyber-bullying are extremely severe, and may require intervention by police. It is important these cases are identified by teachers and parents and are reported to police to investigate, so that responsible parties can be held accountable (Patchin & Hinduja, 2006).

Conclusion[edit | edit source]

It is hoped that this chapter has provided you with a better understanding of cyber-bullying behaviour, the role of various theories in explaining cyber-bullying motivation, and the ways in which we can target this growing problem. In summary, cyber-bullying is an increasingly prevalent form of bullying in which technology is used to carry out aggressive acts, and may include methods such as text messages, phone calls, emails, and uploading embarrassing photos or videos to the internet. The impact upon victims can be both severe and long lasting and can affect them psychologically, socially and emotionally. Motivations behind cyber-bully behaviour can be better understood through psychological theoretical frameworks such as the theory of reasoned action, social cognitive theory, and online disinhibition effect. Finally, based on the theory and research, the issue of cyber-bullying can be addressed through educational programs, as well as through technology-oriented, psychological, and administrative approaches.

See also[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

Al Mazari, A. (2013). Cyber-bullying taxonomies: Definition, forms, consequences and mitigation strategies. Computer Science and Information Technology (CSIT), 2013 5th International Conference on, 126-133. doi: 10.1109/CSIT.2013.6588770

Doane, A. N., Pearson, M. R., & Kelley, M. L. (2014). Predictors of cyberbullying perpetration among college students: An application of the theory of reasoned action. Computers in Human Behavior, 36, 154-162. doi: 10.1016/j.chb.2014.03.051

Dooley, J., Pyżalski, J., & Cross, D. (2009). Cyberbullying versus face-to-face bullying: A theoretical and conceptual review. Journal of Psychology, 217(4), 182-188. doi: 10.1027/0044-3409.217.4.182

Hinduja, S., & Patchin, J. W. (2010). Bullying, cyberbullying, and suicide. Archives of Suicide Research, 14(3), 206-221. doi: 10.1080/13811118.2010.494133

Li, Q. (2006). Cyberbullying in schools: A research of gender differences. School Psychology International, 27, 157-170. doi: 10.1177/0143034306064547

Patchin, J. W., & Hinduja, S. (2006). Bullies move beyond the schoolyard: A preliminary look at cyberbullying. Youth Violence and Juvenile Justice, 4(2), 148-169. doi: 10.1177/1541204006286288

Slonje, R., & Smith, P. K. (2008). Cyberbullying: Another main type of bullying? Scandinavian Journal of Psychology, 49, 147–154. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-9450.2007.00611.x

Smith, P. K., Mahdavi, J., Carvalho, M., Fisher, S., Russell, S., & Tippett, N. (2008). Cyberbullying: Its nature and impact in secondary school pupils. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 49, 376–385. doi: 10.1111/j.1469-7610.2007.01846.x

Suler, J. (2004). The online disinhibition effect. CyberPsychology & Behvaiour, 7(3), 321-326. doi: 10.1089/1094931041291295

Wolak, J., Mitchell, K., & Finkelhor, D. (2006). Online victimization: 5 years later. Alexandria, VA: National Center for Missing & Exploited Children.

Wolak, J., Mitchell, K. J., & Finkelhor, D. (2007). Does online harassment constitute bullying? An exploration of online harassment by known peers and online-only contacts. Journal of Adolescent Health, 41, S51–S58. doi: 10.1016/j.jadohealth.2007.08.019

Workman, M. (2010). A behaviorist perspective on corporate harassment online: Validation of a theoretical model of psychological motives. Computer and Security, 29(8), 831-839. doi: 10.1016/j.cose.2010.09.003

Wright, R. (2012, Spring). Hives, damn hives, and the internet. The Morningside Review, Retrieved from

Xiao, B. S., & Wong, W. M. (2013). Cyber-bullying among university students: An empirical investigation from the social cognitive perspective. International Journal of Business and Information, 8(1), 34-69.

Ybarra, M. L., & Mitchell, K. J. K. (2004). Youth engaging in online harassment: Associations with caregiver-child relationships, Internet use, and personal characteristics. Journal of Adolescence, 27, 319-336. doi: 10.1016/j.adolescence.2004.03.007

External links[edit | edit source]

  1. Theory of Reasoned Action and Cyber-bullying. Based on the work of Doane, Pearson & Kelley (2014).Doane, A., Pearson, M. R., and Kelley, M. L. (2014). Predictors of cyberbullying perpetration among colleage students: An application of the theory of reasoned action. Computers in Human Behavior, 36, 154-162.
  2. This figure shows a psychological model of cyber-bullying behaviour from a social cognitive perspective. It is derived from the work of Xiao and Wong (2013).Xiao, B. S, & Wong, W, M. (2013). Cyber-bullying among university students: An empirical investigation from the social cognitive perspective. International Journal of Business and Information, 8(1), 34-69.