Cyberbullying, an Increasing Global Challenge

CC-DRIVER is a Horizon 2020 funded research and innovation project that researches the multifaceted manifestations of cybercrime by examining, identifying, understanding and explaining the drivers of new and emerging forms of cybercriminality. Given the project’s specific focus on young people, we aim to capitalise on our previous blog post “Understanding Youth Cybercriminality: Overview of Key Interview Findings from Experts in the Field”, which outlines the motivations, human factors and key drivers that lead young people to cybercrime, thus focusing this blogpost specifically on cyberbullying as one of the types of cybercrime that young people are particularly susceptible to.

Bullying in its traditional form, refers to acts of aggression that are mainly repeated over an extended period of time and involve an imbalance of power between the perpetrator and their target(s). [1][2] Cyberbullying is the evolution of traditional bullying into the virtual and digital world (through the Internet, mobile phones or other digital technologies), and can include types of physical and/or psychological abuse, harassment, threatening and aggressive behaviours, as well as humiliation, and has a high prevalence within children and adolescents through often repeated occurrences. [3]

The term cyberbullying was first coined by a Canadian educator Bill Belsey [4] who emphasised that it can be perpetrated by an individual or a group of individuals with the ultimate goal of causing emotional and/or bodily harm to the victim. [5] It can be carried out through the Internet, e-mails, chat rooms, social networking sites, blogs, online gaming sites or instant messaging services, as well as via mobile phones to name a few. [3][6]

The forms of cyberbullying mostly fall into 3 major types of this deviant behaviour: (1) defamation, (2) harassment and (3) deception. [3][7]

Figure 1. The three major categories of Cyberbullying forms

Moreover, one can distinguish between 13 more specific categories of cyberbullying, which are briefly summarised as follows.

  • Flaming: Rivalries via e-mails with harsh and vulgar language

  • Online harassment: Repeated sending of offensive messages

  • Cyberstalking: Cyberbullying through threats of harm or excessive intimidation

  • Cyberthreats: General hate statements, which usually make the recipient of the statement emotionally upset with the possibility of either harming him-/herself or even committing suicide

  • Denigration: Sending other people harmful, false or harsh statements about a person or posting such material on the Internet to cause harm to the victim(s)

  • Impersonation: Using another identity and sending harmful material to cause harm to others

  • Outing: Sending or posting personal information about a person that contains sensitive or annoying information, including the promotion of personal messages or images.

  • Trickery: Deception of the victim by making him/her share confidential, embarrassing and / or harmful information online

  • Exclusion: (Emotionally harmful) exclusion and / or expulsion of someone from an online team

  • Bash boards: Online bulletins with obscene and malicious hate speech.

  • Happy slapping: Personal assault on an unsuspecting victim, which is videotaped or photographed and then distributed electronically

  • Text Wars/Attacks: Creating a "gang" to send hundreds of harmful messages resulting in emotional stress

  • Online polls: Resolution on harmful and derogatory issues by the readers of each page

While victims – and even more so perpetrators – of traditional bullying usually are aware of the perpetrator’s identity, cyberbullying may involve anonymous perpetrators and victims. [8] Usually, most victims of cyberbullying are bullied mainly by their peer group, while problematic relationships not only within the family but also among friends, in school and/or at work can trigger such anti-social behaviours.

During 2020-2021, the number of cyberbullying victims has increased, largely due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the lockdowns around the world, which augmented online activities. An international study conducted on adults in 28 countries, unveiled that a growing number of parents reported that their children have experienced some form of cyberbullying, [9] while another study among 1034 individuals ranging from 9-12 years old revealed that 15% of the total sample had been a victim of cyberbullying at least once. [10] Research has shown that girls are more likely to be cyberbullied than boys, however what seems of great interest is on which social media channels more cyberbullying incidents take place. According to one of the world’s leading anti-bullying organisations, “Ditch the Label”, 42% of young people that participated in the survey [11] were involved in cyberbullying attempts on Instagram, 37% on Facebook, 31% on Snapchat, while Twitter comes last with 9%.

Due to the anonymity the Internet offers, the possibility of immediate and simultaneous victimisation as well as the lack of personal communication between the perpetrator and the victim in general results in many more victims and has serious implications for the mental health of both the victims and the perpetrators. Findings of studies, [7][12][13] list a multitude of consequences to individuals, whether as victims or bullies, such as: lack of self-esteem, reproduction of negative thoughts and feelings of guilt, feelings of loneliness and isolation from friends and family, stress, depression, suicidal thoughts, poor performance in school and/or work, radical change of interests etc.

Turning to the characteristics of both the perpetrators and the victims of this criminal behaviour, perpetrators usually are individuals who may have suffered physical or verbal violence in the domestic environment or have grown up in highly disciplined environments. They can be dominant personalities with great self-confidence and high self-esteem, who usually find it difficult to follow rules. They usually exhibit other antisocial behaviours such as snooping, alcohol consumption, smoking problems, self-control problems, while they may be indifferent to education and school, conducting several petty crimes causing property damage. The victims, on the other hand, can be sensitive and introverted individuals, particularly vulnerable and insecure, with low self-esteem, presenting non-aggressive or provocative behaviour. For example, their physical weakness and some of their special characteristics (obesity, stuttering, sexual preferences, some kind of disability) are elements of attracting intimidating attacks, even in the online environment. [3][13][14]

All research emphasises the importance of developing mechanisms to prevent and effectively address this phenomenon not only at the legal but also at the individual, social and global level. Unfortunately, due to the global nature of the Internet, the anonymity that it offers to its users, as well as the absence of physical and geographical boundaries, it is very difficult to determine the place and exact time of the crimes committed in cyberspace, which in parallel complicates the investigation of the perpetrators. [5]

Family, school, and the community of young people themselves are considered as the three main pillars that societies need to educate and empower against the spread of cyberbullying. Awareness, education, and prevention, as well as the timely and valid fight against this criminal phenomenon becomes necessary and indispensable on an individual, social and global level.

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[1] Olweus D. (1993). Bullying at school: What we know and what we can do. Malden, MA: Cambridge.

[2] Kowalski, M. R. & Limber, S. P. (2013). Psychological, physical, and academic correlates of cyberbullying and traditional bullying. Journal of Adolescent Health, 53, 13-20. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1054139X12004132

[3] Spathi, T. (2017). Cyberbullying: A new form of violence. In Deep Analysis, INDEPENDENT THINK TANK for Sciences & Society, Nov. http://www.indeepanalysis.gr/koinwnia/kybernoekfobismos-mia-nea-morfi-bias

[4] Belsey, B. (2004). Cyberbullying: An emerging threat to the “Always On” Generation. [pdf] Available at: http://www.cyberbullying.ca/pdf/Cyberbullying_Article_by_Bill_Belsey.pdf

[5] Spathi, T. (2018). The phenomenon of cyberbulling in Greece and abroad. Crime Times, 5. https://www.crimetimes.gr/to-fainomeno-tou-kyvernoekfovismoy-cyberbulling-sthn-ellada-kai-to-ekswteriko/

[6] Vafopoulos, M., 2012. Changing (with) the Internet. But beware of mischief. In C. Tsorbatzoudis, L. Lazouras, & V. Barkoukis (2012). Cyberbullying in Greece: An interdisciplinary approach. Aristotle University of Thessaloniki - European Program DAPHNE III. (Chapter 2, pp. 60-61).

[7] Willard, N., 2007. Cyberbullying and Cyberthreats: Responding to the challenge of online social aggression, threats, and distress. Champaign, IL: Research Press.

[8] Carlson, B. & Frazer, R. (2018). Cyberbullying and Indigenous Australians: A review of the literature. Prepared for the Aboriginal Health and Medical Research Council, of New South Wales and Macquarie University ISBN: 978-1-86408-090-2 (print) | 978-0-85837-003-6.

[9] Cook, S. (2021). Cyberbullying is on the rise worldwide. We've gathered both local (US) and global cyberbullying statistics, trends, and facts that help illustrate the extent of this growing problem. Comparitech, SAM DATA JOURNALIST, PRIVACY ADVOCATE AND CORD-CUTTING EXPERT UPDATED: September 9, Internet providersCyberbullying facts and statistics for 2018 – 2021

[10] Cyberbullying Research center, 2021. Tween Statistics (9- to 12- year-olds). [Online]. Available at: https://cyberbullying.org/tween-statistics

[11] Ditch The Label, 2017. The annual bullying survey 2017. [pdf] Available at: https://www.ditchthelabel.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/07/The-Annual-Bullying-Survey-2017-1.pdf

[12] Wolke, D., Lee, K. & Guy, A. ( 2017). Cyberbullying: A storm in a teacup? European Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, 26:899–908, DOI 10.1007/s00787-017-0954-6, https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s00787-017-0954-6

[13] Rice, E., et.al., 2015. Cyberbullying perpetration and victimization among middle-school students. American Journal of Public Health, 105 (3), pp. 66-71.

[14] Grigoraki, M., Peraki, F, and Politi, A., (2014). Cyberbullying in childhood and adolescence: Exploring the phenomenon as it manifests itself on social media. Panhellenic Conference of Educational Sciences, Vol. 2014, pp. 663-672.