In this paper I outline the key features of the phenomenon we now call ‘cyberbullying’, including some of the challenges associated with definition, measurement and prevalence estimation. I also offer a brief overview of some of the early ideas surrounding why ‘cyberbullying’ exists. A brief overview of current legislation is offered together with a discussion of the case of Liam Stacey who was recently imprisoned for making racist statements on Twitter. Finally, I discuss the guidance offered to victims and explain how the police investigate instances brought to their attention.
‘Cyberbullying’ is not a new phenomenon. It has existed as long as people have been able to communicate through electronic devices. Early research from the mid-1990s began to show patterns of aggression in computer-mediated communications (e.g. IRC) and this prompted service providers to offer users the option of ‘kicking’ those who were abusive out of chat environments. However, quickly this became as much as tool for the ‘bully’ as it did a resource for the ‘victim’. More recently, with the development of mobile technology we have seen several studies chart the evolution of ‘cyberbullying’ from email and SMS/text messaging to the posting of images or hurtful comments on social networking sites such as Bebo, Facebook, Myspace and Twitter (Smith et al. 2008; Rivers & Noret, 2010).
But what is ‘cyberbullying’ exactly? In terms of a definition, it is a willful and repeated act, conducted through electronic communication devices, that is intended to cause harm or distress to another person (Hindjua & Patchin, 2006; Smith et al. 2008). Two important definitional characteristics need to be highlighted, at least in the context of the UK and USA: firstly, that the action is willful inasmuch as the intention of the perpetrator is to cause harm or distress to another; secondly, that the action is repeated over-time and ostensibly without direct provocation. One-off incidents or a single interaction should not, in principle, be classed as ‘bullying’ unless there is a fear that this will result in multiple further actions on the part of the perpetrator. Similarly disagreements should not be classed as ‘bullying’ (as in the offline world), but of course online it is more difficult to identify when a disagreement has come to an end, or when an issue has been shelved and either party wishes to move on.
As yet we do not have an accurate measure of how much cyberbullying goes on. This is because researchers have used different time frames, different definitions, and looked at different forms of communication (see FIGURE 1). Thus prevalence rates can range anywhere from 4% to 36% among school-aged children.
Patchin and Hinduja (2006) suggest that issues such as sex or race are less relevant in understanding cyberbullying because online ‘space’ is free from the cultural and gender-based assumptions of the offline world. Thus, hierachies that emerge online are those that users accept or create. Hence an imbalance of power can exist online (another important criterion for bullying), and it is sometimes achieved by the acquiescence to the willful imposition of order by others. Just like the offline world, those who use their presence online to ‘shout down’ the beliefs or commentaries of others may be viewed by some as ‘bullies’. Similarly, those who ‘flood’ the online environments of others with constant messages (which are perceived to be hostile by recipients) may also be viewed as ‘bullies’, and both behaviours can, if perceived to be persistent and overtly aggressive, be subject to prosecution.
Why does ‘Cyberbullying’ exist?
According to Hinduja and Patchin (2008), cyberbullying can be viewed as a learned behaviour or the manisfestation of a latent trait such as low self-control. Early theorising focusing on the ‘mind-set’ of the individual being aggressive online argues that physicality allows us to frame “the boundaries of our sense of containment”, but when the space we occupy is no longer physical those boundaries cease to exist and we enter a world where people feel little, if any, impediment to expressing themselves because they perceive “it’s happening in the head” (Young, 1996a, b). In effect the loss of social cues, of the ability to interpret the reactions of others (their facial expressions or body language) means that there is no immediate feedback that can alert those sitting alone at their computers or holding their mobile phones to the discomfort or distress caused by their comments. Furthermore, where a pseudonym or alternative identity is used perpetrators perceive themselves to be ‘safe’ from detection and thus are likely to carry on. Yet, how much of an individual’s online persona spills over into his/her offline existence? Is the obnoxious avatar online also an obnoxious individual offline? Does he/she spend his/her days with family members and work colleagues making crass and often insensitive comments? Does he/she cast himself/herself as a maverick standing up for “free speech” and the right to “say what I like”? It seems not. Sometimes they are individuals who have found a voice online because they do not have an adequate voice offline. Indeed, for those of us who did not grow up with the internet, it may be that we still hold to the belief that our online and offline worlds are somehow separate, and one gives us licence to behave in ways that are not acceptable in the other. For young people however, this separation does not exist, and the ‘cyberbully’ is also often the schoolyard ‘bully’.
The Law and Cyberbullying
There is a belief out ‘there’ in ‘the ether’ that the law in ineffectual when it comes to electronic forms of communication, and that there are few instances when a ‘cyberbully’ is brought to book. This is increasingly not the case as the following section demonstrates.
Section 127 (S. 127) of the 2003 Communications Act is now regularly used to ‘catch’ cyberbullies who harass or torment others repeatedly online and through mobile phones. This section states that:
(1) A person is guilty of an offence if he:
- sends by means of a public electronic communications network a message or other matter that is grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character; or
- causes any such message or matter to be so sent.
(2) Section 127 (S. 127) of the 2003 Communications Act is now regularly used to ‘catch’ cyberbullies who harass or torment others repeatedly online and through mobile phones. This section states that:
- sends by means of a public electronic communications network, a message that he knows to be false,
- causes such a message to be sent; or
- persistently makes use of a public electronic communications network.
(3) A person guilty of an offence under this section shall be liable, on summary conviction, to imprisonment for a term not exceeding six months or to a fine not exceeding level 5 on the standard scale, or to both.
Comparable to the definition of ‘cyberbullying’ currently used by researchers working with school children, S. 127 applies to those who, “for the purpose of causing annoyance, inconvenience, or needless anxiety to another…persistenly makes use of a public electronic communcations network”. Those found guilty of such an offence can be liable for up to six months in prison or a fine of up to a maximum of £5000, or both – depending on the scale of the offence.
If we take the case of Liam Stacey, the Swansea University student who ‘tweeted’ racist comments following the collapse of Footballer Fabrice Muamba during a match earlier this year, while S. 127 was not used, Stacey pleaded guilty to a public order offence and was sentenced to 56 days in prison. Here the intention to cause harm to a vulnerable victim was established by Stacey’s targetting of Fabrice Muamba, and the causation was evident through the racism within the comments made on Twitter. Interestingly, it was not Fabrice Muamba himself who sought the assistance of the police but those who saw the offending ‘tweets’ either in their time-line or through the retweeting of them by various other users including Stan Collymore. This case did provide an important point of clarification on who is a ‘victim’. Distress caused by an online interaction does not always have to be experienced by the intended victim, it can be experienced by bystanders and their distress is just as relevant to the detection and resolution of incidents of cyberbullying and cyberharassment as those of the intended ‘victims’.
Other legislation used to the detection of cyberbullying and cyberharassment include the Protection from Harassment Act (1997), the Malicious Communications Act (1988), and as noted above the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act (1994; see Section 154).
What should ‘Victims’ do?
Guidance issued to children in schools and also to the victims of so-called internet “trolls” is to keep examples of correspondence and then to report them. Block the individual if you believe that will end it or, at the very least, do not respond (as Dr. Emma Short, Director of the National Centre for Cyberstalking says, “Do not feed the trolls”). This will infuriate some and will pacify others. Whatever it does or does not do, do not retaliate, and remember all electronic media have rules for use, and they should be respected by all users. If someone persistently missuses a social network they can be reported and complaints will be investigated. Alas, sometimes social networks are slow to act because they are losing customers or clients, but ‘rules of the road’ are there to be used not ignored.
How are ‘Cyberbullies’ caught?
The detection of a cyberbully, cyberstalker or troll is relatively simple if the police believe there is enough evidence to investigate. Where the perpetrator uses a pseudonym or hides his/her identity, a senior police officer will prepare a document outlining the case to seek permission from the courts to obtain information about the registered user of a mobile telephone number or IP address from a service provider. Of course the process is much easier if, like Liam Stacey, the perpetator uses his/her own name or is known to the victim(s). The take-home message is anonymity is a very are commodity, one few of us will ever own.
As our reliance upon technology increases and as more of us use technology to communicate with one-another daily so the potential for ‘cyberbullying’ increases. Anyone can be a perpetrator and anyone can be a victim. There will always be, as there are in the offline world, days when hastily chosen words or poorly phrased retorts are made that cause offence. These do not constitute cyberbullying, cyberstalking or trolling, rather they demonstrate human frailty. However, where there is either (i) a consistent pattern of online behaviour that can be construed as active harassment of another, or (ii) where an individual deliberately and persistently causes “annoyance, inconvenience, or needless anxiety” to one or more others then it is not only ‘cyberbullying’, it is also a behaviour that may be brought to the attention of law enforcement.
We have a social responsibility to stop bullying. Inaction is an act of collusion with the bully.
Hinduja, S. & Patchin, J.W. (2008). CyberbullyingL An exploratory analysis of factors related to offending and victimization. Deviant Behavior, 29, 129-156.
Patchin, J.W. & Hinduja, S. (2006). Bullies move beyond the schoolyard: A preliminary look at cyberbullying. Youth Violence and Juvenile Justice, 4, 138-169.
Rivers, I. & Noret, N. (2010). ‘I h8 u’: Findings from a five-year study of text and email bullying. British Educational Research Journal, 36, 643-671.
Smith, P.K., Mahdavi, J., Carvalho, M., Fisher, S., Russell, S. & Tippett, N. (2008). Cyberbullying: Its nature and impact on secondary school pupils. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 49, 367-385.
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We have a social responsibility to stop bullying. Inaction is an act of collusion with the bully.