My partner, The Consultant, has a teenage daughter who has recently been the target of bullying at her middle school. For many, the term “bullying” immediately conjures up images of teenagers spreading rumors about each other or stealing young children’s lunch money. Indeed, even www.stopbullying.gov defines bullying as “unwanted and aggressive acts exhibited by school-aged children.” However, during my conversations with her about how mean teenage girls can be, I hated to inform her that bullying continues well into adulthood.
Researchers have long documented evidence of adults being bullied in prisons1 and workplace settings,2 with verbal bullying (e.g., persistent taunting and threats) being the most prevalent form of bullying among adults. Today, with the use of smartphones and social media (e.g., Facebook), bullying has been taken to a whole new level. Cyberbullying, defined as “repeated unwanted, hurtful, harassing, and/or threatening interaction through electronic communication media,”3 has far from trivial effects on victims. Many victims experience depression, anxiety, lowered self-esteem, and social difficulties; some even commit suicide.4
I know many people (including myself) who have been bullied as adults. Why do adults cyberbully? According to a recent study, adults report three basic motives for cyberbullying: entertainment (“trolling”), cyber sanctioning, and power struggles.3
This form of bullying is defined as an attempt to “hurt, humiliate, annoy, or provoke in order to elicit an emotional response for one’s own enjoyment.”3 In other words, “entertainment bullies” enjoy the negative impact that their communication, comments, and allegations have on their victim(s). This type of cyberbullying is almost always carried out anonymously with insults and name-calling on social media or gaming sites.
The second motive, cyber sanctioning, is bullying intended to pressure others to modify their behavior.3 One of the most common reasons people use cyber sanctioning is to attack people who are thought to have done something wrong in the relationship (e.g., cheating). Some criminologists believe that deviant behaviors like cyber sanctioning are used to exert informal social control over others, especially when the bully feels like he or she has lost control themselves.5 For example, a bully might use text messages and social media to spread lies and rumors about someone’s behaviors with the goal of inducing shame. This happened a few years ago to my friend “Adam.” His ex-girlfriend was convinced he had cheated on her (which he did not), so when they broke up, she frequently texted him false accusations and posted public comments on Facebook about him being a philanderer and heart-breaker. Shame on him for doing something he did not do!
The third basic motive cited in the study relates to power struggles, which are attempts to hurt, humiliate, or influence the behavior of the victim in order to gain or regain access to something that the bully wants.3 Power struggles typically involve romantic relationships, and such bullying is generally directed at ex-partners or ex-partners’ new partners. This recently happened to my friend “Shannon,” who was cyberbullied by her boyfriend’s ex-wife. His ex-wife repeatedly used social media to make all sorts of false and derogatory statements about her (e.g., Shannon “stole” her husband, had a sexually transmitted infection, and embezzled money from her employer). Researchers have found that this type of cyberbullying is typically carried out by females who attack other females in order to gain power over them.3 The bully tries to make the victim’s association with the male partner unpleasant; essentially, she tries to create problems in the new relationship to break them up. The female bully also often suggests that she is more sexually “pure” than the victim; this is typically accomplished with allegations of the victim having an STI or calling her a slut/whore.3 Basically, these types of bullies cannot just let it go and move on from a past relationship and partner; rather, they spend their time lashing out at their ex or the ex’s new girlfriend or boyfriend.
What we know about cyberbullies themselves (vs. their motives) is limited to research on adolescents. Cyberbullies tend to lack empathy (meaning they do not recognize emotions experienced by others),6 feel very indifferent toward their victims, and do not perceive their behaviors as harsh or even wrong.4 Because there are rarely interventions to stop cyberbullying, it has become normative and permissible to virtually harass and bully others.3 In other words, bullies essentially keep bullying because it has almost become “normal” or “acceptable” to write lies and negative things about others on social media. Social media sites like Facebook and Google+ have statements of rights and responsibilities for their users; however, many bullies believe they have the right to say anything they want (freedom of speech, right?), and most people (bullies and victims alike) perceive few consequences for bullying behaviors.7 The result? Cyberbullies are rarely if ever punished or sanctioned for their aggressive and hurtful behaviors so they keep doing it.
Although there have been concerted efforts by some school and public officials to prevent bullying among youth, such efforts have not been made to curb adult cyberbullying. A new law in California provides primary and secondary school educators with the authority to discipline cyberbullies,8 but the enforcement of such laws is challenging because individuals must also retain their first amendment right to free speech. In the case of the new California law, cyberbullies cannot be expelled or suspended from school unless the bullying was related to something associated with a school activity like football or performance on the debate team—but as we have seen, cyberbullies typically harm and harass their victims about other things, particularly past romantic relationships. Therefore, even well-intended laws to protect victims often fall short.
Hopefully, greater legal clarification and awareness about cyberbullying can eventually help curb the rise in this damaging behavior. The best advice I could give my partner’s daughter was to block her bullies on social media, avoid engaging with the bullies in person as much as possible, and just focus on her own life. I know this is easier said than done when one is under constant and vicious attacks, but feeding into the drama only gives her bullies the power that they are trying desperately to have over her.
All characters appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
Interested in learning more about relationships? Click here for other topics on Science of Relationships. Like us on Facebook or follow us on Twitter to get our articles delivered directly to your NewsFeed. Learn more about our book and download it here.
1Ireland, C. A., & Ireland, J. L. (2000). Descriptive analysis of the nature and extent of bullying behavior in a maximum-security prison. Aggressive Behavior, 26, 213-223.
2Rayner, C., & Keashley, L. (2005). Bullying at work: A perspective From Britain and North America. In S. Fox & P. E. Spector (Eds.), Counterproductive work behavior: Investigations of actors and targets (pp. 271-296). Washington, DC, US: American Psychological Association, vii, 329.
3Rafferty, R., & Ven, T. V. (2014). “I hate everything about you”: A qualitative examination of cyberbullying and on-line aggression in a college sample. Deviant Behavior, 35, 364-377.
4Campbell, M. A., Slee, P. T., Spears, B., Butler, D., & Kilft, S. (2013). Do cyberbullies suffer too? Cyberbullies’ perceptions of the harm they cause others and to their own mental health. School Psychology International, 34, 613-629.
5Black, D. (1983). Crime as social control. American Sociological Review, 48, 34-45.
6Ang, R. P., & Goh, D. H. (2010). Cyberbullying among adolescents: The role of affective and cognitive empathy, and gender. Child Psychiatry and Human Development, 41, 387–397.
7Pettalia, J. L., Levin, E., & Dickinson, J. (2013). Cyberbullying: Eliciting harm without consequence. Computers and Human Behavior, 29, 2758-2765.
8Prall, D. (2014, January 29). New California law protects students from cyberbullying. American City & County Exclusive Insight, p. 2.
Dr. Jennifer Harman – Adventures in Dating… | Science of Relationships articles |Website/CV
Dr. Harman’s research examines relationship behaviors that put people at-risk for physical and psychological health problems, such as how feelings and beliefs about risk (e.g., sexual risk taking) can be biased when in a relationship. She also studies the role of power on relationship commitment.