What cyberbullies have in common with their victims


by John Gever

So-called cyberbullies share many of the psychosocial features as their victims — and in fact many bullies were also victims themselves, researchers from Finland said.

A population-based cross-sectional study surveyed more than 2,000 seventh- and ninth-graders in two Finnish communities and found that cyberbullies had higher than average rates of self-perceived difficulties in life, headache, feeling unsafe at school, and perceiving teachers as uncaring, among other problems, reported Andre Sourander, MD, PhD, of Turku University, and colleagues.

Writing in the July issue of Archives of General Psychiatry, the researchers indicated that those factors were also overrepresented among “cybervictims.”

Cyberbullying has emerged in recent years as a problem among teens equipped with computers and mobile phones. It takes the form of harassing, hateful, or embarrassing electronic messages — emails, text messages, Facebook postings, and the like — distributed not just to the victim but to others as well in what can amount to mass broadcast.

Although in-person bullying has attracted a sizable literature, “research about cyberbullying is still in the early stage of investigation,” Sourander and colleagues wrote.

They distributed a questionnaire about cyberbullying to 2,438 middle-school students (aged 13 to 16) in two small cities, one in northern and one in southern Finland. A total of 2,215 responses (90.9% response rate) was available for analysis.

Cyberbullying was defined in the questionnaire as “when someone repeatedly makes fun of another person online or repeatedly picks on another person through e-mail or text messages or when someone posts something online about another person that they don’t like.”

Respondents were asked two general questions: how often they had been the target of cyberbullying in the previous six months and how often they had cyberbullied others. Four ranges — never, less than once a week, more than once a week, and almost every day — were provided for responses.

The questionnaire also sought details on eight specific types of cyberbullying involved, such as “email-bombed” or “called names,” and on the particular types of electronic communication used.

In addition, students were asked questions about their general and psychiatric health, school environment, family composition, and other factors.

Sourander and colleagues found that 7.4% of the sample acted as cyberbullies only, 4.8% were victims only, and 5.4% were both.

Factors associated with cyberbullyhood, expressed as odds ratios (relative to those lacking the factor), included:

* Male sex (OR 1.7, 95% CI 1.25 to 2.5)
* Minor perceived difficulties: OR 1.9 (95% CI 1.4 to 2.7)
* Severe perceived difficulties: OR 2.5 (95% CI 1.4 to 4.7)
* Hyperactivity: OR 3.8 (95% CI 2.4 to 6.0)
* Conduct problems: OR 4.7 (95% CI 2.9 to 7.7)
* Prosocial problems: OR 3.0 (95% CI 2.1 to 4.5)
* Alcohol use at least once weekly: OR 6.1 (95% CI 3.5 to 10.6)
* Sometimes or almost never feeling safe at school: OR 2.0 (95% CI 1.3 to 3.0)
* Sometimes or almost never feeling teachers care about them: OR 2.5 (95% CI 1.9 to 3.6)

The self-perceived difficulties and the lack of perceived safety and teacher interest at school were shared by the cybervictims, with odds ratios ranging from 1.7 to 3.8 (P<0.05).

Victims also were at increased risk for emotional problems, poor general health, recurrent abdominal pain, and problems falling asleep.

Girls were also more likely than boys to be victims, the researchers found, with an odds ratio of 1.7 (95% CI 1.1 to 2.6) relative to boys.

Except for gender, most of the factors found to be elevated in the bullies-only and victims-only groups were also seen in the children who had been both perpetrators and targets of cyberbullying.

Sourander and colleagues also analyzed the data from cybervictims for associations between the nature of the bullies involved and fear resulting from the bullying.

They found that victims who said they were bullied by adults, unknown persons, or groups were more likely to fear for their personal safety (ORs from 2.3 to 5.6, P≤0.03).

About one-quarter of all cybervictims indicated that they feared for their safety.

The results also indicated that girls who were victims of traditional bullying — but not boys — also had an increased likelihood of being cybervictims and simultaneous cyberbullies-victims.

This finding provided a bit of support for an earlier hypothesis that victims of traditional bullying might take it out on others through the Internet — though only for girls, who were the targets of cyberbullying as well as perpetrators.

“The potential of cyberbullying is probably growing with the increasing penetration of networked computers and mobile telephones among children and adolescents,” Sourander and colleagues wrote.

“Future research is needed on whether antibullying policies, materials, interventions, and mobile telephone and Internet user guidelines are effective for reducing cyberbullying,” they added, noting that prevention is likely to prove more complicated than for traditional bullying.

The authors cited several limitations that should be considered when interpreting their findings, notably that the information was based on self-report (with no input from parents or teachers) and the cross-sectional design of the study precludes interpretation of causality between cyberbullying and psychosocial factors. Additionally, the study was conducted in Finland and therefore may not be generalizable to other populations.

John Gever is a MedPage Today Senior Editor.

Originally published in MedPage Today. Visit MedPageToday.com for more psychiatry news.