Coming soon: AboutKidsHealth is getting a new look! Learn more Watch a video tour

print article
For optimal print results, please use Internet Explorer, Chrome or Safari.

Cyberbullying Part One

cartoon of sad exhausted girl gripping mouse; being 'cyberbullied'cartoon of sad exhausted girl gripping mouse; being cyberbullied
Illustration by Jillian Tamaki

Imagine the humiliation of discovering a private photo of yourself posted on the Internet. Or the pain of finding a Web site filled with personal information, gossip, and abusive statements directed at you. Imagine the fear associated with receiving a death threat through cell phone text messaging.

For an increasing number of young people, these types of disturbing scenarios are realities of a new form of bullying called cyberbullying.

The Internet has taken on a central role in teenage culture, creating a new landscape for social interaction. Lunchroom and after-school cliques have been supplemented or replaced with cell (mobile phone) text messages, Facebook, instant messaging (IM), e-mail, personal Web sites, and blogging (Web logs or personal diaries). This is how today's young people stay in touch and make new friends. Instant messaging, unlike e-mail, is very practical since it allows conversations with one person or a group of friends in real time. Having a long list of Facebook or IM friends, even ones they have never actually met, has become a status symbol for kids.

A 2002 Environics survey reported that 99 percent of Canadian students have used the Internet. According to a 2001 study by the Media Awareness Network, an Ottawa-based non-profit group that monitors Internet activity, nearly 60 percent of Canadian youth aged nine to 17 have used IM and chat rooms. While most cyber communication is of a positive nature, an increasing number of young people are using interactive technology to harass and bully peers. Destructive rumours damage reputations and disrupt peer relationships. Death threats sent in cell phone text messages torment teenage recipients. The Media Awareness Network study found that one quarter of young Canadian Internet users have received e-mails with hateful messages about others. A 2002 British survey found that one quarter of youth, aged 11 to 19, have been harassed via computers or cell phones.

Bullying and cyber bullying

Bullying involves the physical or verbal harassment of others. Cyber bullying, also known as Internet bullying, is intentional harassment that occurs through electronic media. Both involve power and control. According to Bill Belsey, an education consultant and bullying expert from Alberta, cyber bullying is worse than schoolyard bullying because it cannot be escaped. Cyber bullying does not end when the child arrives home. Because kids spend so much time on cell phones and the Internet, they are easy targets for cyber-abuse. Bullying can continue even in the privacy of a teen's bedroom, with messages suddenly appearing on the computer or cell phone screen. It can happen at anytime and can be so intrusive that a child or teen feels trapped and helpless. Cyber bullies are like stalkers who don't let up. Glenn Stutzky, a social work professor at Michigan State University and one of the key researchers in cyber bullying, says that "Bullying, when it comes into our lives, comes in a way that takes over our lives... It's only a matter of time before it comes again. It hurts because your life is no longer your own. Someone else is in control."

The advent of technology has taken bullying to new heights. Cyber bullies are often more vicious and hurtful than in-person bullies, saying things on line they would never say face to face. The anonymity of on-line harassment gives bullies the power to attack others with little risk of being caught. Using cyber technology to harass also shields bullies from the consequences of their actions. Having no actual physical contact with their victims, the cyber-bully's feelings of empathy and remorse are minimized.

Who are cyber bullies and cyber victims?

Is there a profile of the typical cyber-bully or victim? Although there has been very little research on the characteristics of cyber bullies and victims, recent U.S. studies provide some insight. On-line bullies tend to be older teens and are just as likely to be female as male. Cyber bullies are more likely to have been victims themselves of on-line and regular, "off-line" bullies. Cyber bullies have a history of more delinquent behaviours and drug use than non-bullies. Those who bully on the Internet also tend to have poorer relationships with and less monitoring by their parents.

Targets of Internet bullies are just as often females as males. Thirty percent of young people targeted by cyber bullies report feeling very upset by the on-line incident though few report the harassment. Bullied boys are more likely to be depressed than non-bullied boys. Further research is needed to determine whether these boys are depressed as a result of harassment or whether pre-existing depression made them easy targets for harassment.

Cyber bullying and the law

No behaviours in cyberspace are completely anonymous. Every instance of Internet access creates an Internet Protocol address or "electronic fingerprint" which can be traced by authorities. However, it can still be difficult to prove cyber bullying. The police may be able to trace the source of harassing messages but the bully can simply deny involvement and claim that someone else used his computer.

Bullies can also challenge authorities with arguments of freedom of speech and intellectual property. Not only bullies pit ethics against rights. Champions of free speech on the Internet do not believe in censoring something just because some disapprove. According to Jeffrey Shallit, vice president of Electronic Frontier Canada, a group founded to protect the rights and freedoms of people using information technology, "Freedom of speech protects the thoughts we hate just as much as the thoughts we like."

However, under the Criminal Code of Canada, some forms of on-line bullying are considered criminal acts and are punishable by law. For example, it is a crime to send repeated messages to someone if the nature of the messages causes that person to fear for his or her safety or the safety of others. In other words, an on-line death threat is a criminal offence. It is also considered a crime to publish something defamatory and libellous, that is, writing something that is insulting or damaging to a person's reputation by exposing him or her to hatred, contempt, or ridicule. Violation of the Canadian Human Rights Act is also punishable. Cyber harassment involving the spreading of hate or discrimination based on race, religion, colour, national or ethnic origin, sex, sexual orientation, marital or family status, age or disability is illegal.

Taking action against cyber bullying

Technology has a different role in the lives of adults and young people. Most adults see computers and cell phones as practical tools. Children and teens, on the other hand, view these communication tools as social lifelines. But when technology is misused for the purpose of harming others, the consequences can be serious. Given the growing incidence of cyber bullying and the negative impact it can have on young people's mental health, cyber bullying should be seen as a significant public health issue that needs more attention.

Many young people today are technologically so experienced that it can be intimidating for adults to keep up. But parents and educators need to be aware of young people's on-line activities. The role of teachers in combating Internet harassment may be even more critical than that of parents. The research suggests cyber bullies tend to have poor relationships and minimal supervision by parents.

The Media Awareness Network recommends that adults take a preventative approach to cyber-bullying and teach anti-bullying behaviour to young people, both in the classroom and at home. They stress developing clear guidelines around the responsible use of technology, enforcing punishment when guidelines are not followed, and discussing what to do if a youth feels victimized by a cyber bully. Young people also need to take a stand against cyber bullying with their peers. Kids are more likely to listen to criticism from friends than from adults.

The second instalment of this two-part feature discusses  more actions parents can take against cyber bullying.


Media Awareness Network. Young Canadians in a wired world- parents and youth focus groups in Toronto and Montreal. Environics Research Group. 2000. Available from

Ybarra  ML. Linkages between depressive symptomatology and Internet harassment among young regular Internet users. CyberPsychology & Behavior. 2004;7(2):247-257.

Ybarra ML, Mitchell KJ. Youth engaging in online harassment: associations with caregiver-child relationships, Internet use, and personal characteristics. Journal of Adolescence. 2004;27:319-336.