Making cyberspace safer

Cyberbullying is not going to drive children offline: Niamh O’Brien looks at the problem and some possible solutions.

Boy in front of laptop with head in his handsIn order for a bullying episode to have occurred, several common features need to be present: aggressive behaviour, power imbalance and repetition (Rigby, 2000). However, cyberbullying has some distinctive characteristics of its own. It can be anonymous, it can have a rapid effect, and it is a form of bullying that victims cannot easily escape from.

Many young people report being cyberbullied, participating in cyberbullying, or experiencing online aggression (Mishna et al., 2009). A survey by the charity Beatbullying (Cross et al., 2009) found that nearly one third of all 11-16 year olds have been bullied online, and for 25% of those the bullying was ongoing. Global access to the internet has brought a new dimension to bullying and cyberbullying. Its impact on those affected can be severe, with deleterious effects on their mental health as a result of abusive conduct and psychological trauma (Kim et al., 2006).

Our recent national study (commissioned by PEAR) investigated the impact of cyberbullying on the mental health of young people aged 12-18 years in the UK (O’Brien & Moules, 2013). The PEAR study identified cyberbullying as a serious public health concern for young people. The study gathered data from 473 young people in England and found that:

  • almost one in five young people admitted that they had been cyberbullied, and 69% of these were girls
  • of those who said they had been affected by cyberbullying, the most common effect was to their confidence, self-esteem, and mental and emotional well-being
  • over a quarter of those who had been cyberbullied (29%) reported that they had stayed away from school and over a third (39%) had stopped socialising outside school as a result
  • of those who had been cyberbullied, 43% had not sought support. Of those who had sought support, over half (57%) found this support from parents and friends, while 41% reported talking to someone at school
  • the majority thought that cyberbullying was as harmful as traditional bullying (74%), although some suggested that cyberbullying did not exist and it was down to the person’s ability to cope with it
  • it was suggested that the secretive nature of cyberbullying caused added fear in the victim
  • because cyberbullying can take place at any time and in any place, escape options are limited
  • young people think that bullies choose this method because ‘they think they will not get caught’
  • most young people (65%) thought their school or college was aware that cyberbullying went on, while 9% were unsure if their school knew about it.

What can be done about it

It has been argued that not all young people engaging in cyberbullying are aware of what they are contributing to: ‘…what is perceived as a joke or idle remark by the perpetrator may be taken extremely seriously by the target’ (Cross et al., 2009, p. 17). The PEAR study recommends that educational programmes promoting awareness of cyberbullying for young people, parents and carers, and schools should be implemented. In addition, educational programmes are needed which bring together young people and their families to enhance communication about online media, and young people need to be educated about what constitutes acceptable behaviour online (O’Brien & Moules, 2010). Betts (2008) proposes that school anti-bullying policies must make it clear that any young person who engages in disseminating offensive material online is involved in cyberbullying.

The PEAR study found that those young people who had been cyberbullied and did not seek support (43%) feared making the cyberbullying worse, or thought they could deal with it themselves. The study recommends that young people should be supported to report incidents of cyberbullying through other young people who could help change attitudes and provide a source of support to them. In order to promote resilience, policies need to be developed that stress the importance of developing values of care and kindness amongst young people.

However, young people are not going to go offline because of cyberbullying. The literature suggests that reducing young people's access to the internet can place them at further risk of exclusion and bullying (Cross et al., 2012). The PEAR study found that few young people reduced their online activity as a result of cyberbullying. This means that in order to deal with online bullying, young people need to be knowledgeable about how to remain safe online. For example, they need to know not to give out their personal details to people they do not know, and they need to be able to report abuse online in a safe way.

Niamh O’Brien is research fellow in the Faculty of Health Social Care and Education, Anglia Ruskin University. Anti-bullying week runs from 18-22 November.

  1. Betts, C. (2008). Cyberbullying: The legal implications and consequences (Boarding Briefing Paper 23). Retrieved November 12, 2009, from
  2. Cross, E. J., Richardson, B., Douglas, T. & Volkaenal-Flatt, J. (2009). Virtual Violence: Protecting Children from Cyberbullying. London: Beatbullying.
  3. Cross, E. J., Piggin, R., Douglas, T. & Volkaenal-Flatt, J. (2012). Virtual violence II: progress and challenges in the fight against cyberbullying. London: Beatbullying.
  4. Kim, Y.-S., Leventhal, B. L., Koh, Y.-J., Hubbard, A., & Boyce, W. T. (2006). School bullying and youth violence: causes of consequences of psychopathologic behavior? Archives of General Psychiatry, 60, 1035–1041.
  5. Mishna, F., Saini, M., & Solomon, S. (2009). Ongoing and online: children and youth’s perception of cyberbullying. Children and Youth Services Review, 31, 1222–1228.
  6. O’Brien, N., & Moules, T. (2013). Not sticks and stones but tweets and texts: findings from a national cyberbullying project. Pastoral Care in Education, 31(1), 53–65.
  7. O’Brien, N., & Moules, T. (2010). The impact of cyberbullying on young people’s mental health (Final Report). Chelmsford: Anglia Ruskin University.
  8. Rigby, K. (2000). Effects of peer victimization in schools and perceived social support on adolescent well-being. Journal of Adolescence, 23, 57–68. 


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