There has been renewed discussion recently about what behaviors actually constitute cyberbullying. This is an issue that we have commented about on this blog before and discuss in detail in our book (see especially pages 5 and 49).
One of our favorite Internet safety newsletters, Net Family News, recently reported on an article published last year in the Journal of Adolescent Health by Janis Wolak, Kimberly J. Mitchell, and David Finkelhor. The article argues that most estimates of cyberbullying are inflated because they include behaviors that aren’t really bullying. The authors suggest that to be considered cyberbullying, the behavior must be repetitive, represent a power differential among participants, and be “a part of or related to offline bullying.” In sum, Wolak and her colleagues offer the following:
“We do not recommend using the term ‘bullying’ to describe all online interpersonal offenses, because they vary so widely in their characteristics. We suggest using ‘online harassment,’ with disclaimers that it does not constitute bullying unless it is part of or related to offline bullying (page S57).”
In many ways, we agree with these arguments. In our research we clearly define cyberbullying as “willful and repeated harm inflicted through the use of computers, cell phones, or other electronic devices.” While admittedly this is an imperfect definition, it includes the four main components that we feel are important in defining cyberbullying: (1) the behavior is deliberate, not accidental; (2) the behavior is repeated, not just a one-time incident; (3) harm occurs–from the perspective of the target; and, (4) it is executed using the benefit of technology.
We spell this out even more specifically in our research. For example, in a recent survey of middle schoolers, we informed participants that: “Cyberbullying is when someone repeatedly makes fun of another person online or repeatedly picks on another person through email or text message or when someone posts something online about another person that they don’t like.” Using this definition, about 18% of the 6th through 8th graders who participated in our survey reported experiencing cyberbullying at some point in their lifetime (details of the sample and method are discussed in our book).
While our definition does not explicitly distinguish between incidents that involve online-only acquaintances and those that have an offline component, we agree that this is something worth identifying. We agree that those incidents that have proven most hurtful typically involve a personal relationship (the target knows the offender in real life). That doesn’t mean, however, that we should simply disregard those behaviors that are carried out among “strangers” online. They too can result in harm.
We also acknowledge that a differential in power between the target and the bully is an important characteristic of traditional bullying definitions, though we feel this component is not as significant a defining feature of cyberbullying. That’s because in many ways technology levels the playing field, or at least allows someone who may be less powerful socially or physically to neutralize whatever power differential previously existed. Moreover, technological proficiency by itself may give one person power over another person.
Finally, the “repetition” component of our definition requires additional discussion. Repetition is almost inherent in cyberbullying incidents. For example, if someone posts an unflattering picture about another person online without their permission, that might be a “one-time” incident, but the nature of technology is that the target may be victimized over and over again as the picture is repeatedly viewed. The viral nature of cyberbullying may transform a relatively minor form of harassment into a serious problem very quickly.
In conclusion, while we agree that the majority of cyberbullying behaviors reported in our research and elsewhere represent relatively minor behaviors, we don’t feel that makes them any less important to scrutinize and condemn. All forms of harassment, however minor, must be addressed by adults so that they do not escalate to the more serious forms. That said, it is important for researchers to come to a consensus about what constitutes cyberbullying in order to form a clearer picture about the online experiences of adolescents. In many ways, technology is forcing us to rethink the way we view bullying. Traditional categorical definitions of bullying, applied to instances where technology is employed, may simply be inadequate. At the very least, researchers must clearly spell out how they define cyberbullying in their studies so that others may be completely informed and to ensure that we are comparing apples to apples.