Break the chain: Professor uncovers surprising link in cyberbullying cycle

By Andrea McCaffrey, Illustration by Daryn Rowley February 14, 2022

Illustration of bullying faces emerging from mobile device

We live in an era when school-age bullies are no longer confined to the playground. With online social networking sites such as Facebook, Twitter, YikYak and Instagram, the simple tap of a finger can broadcast an unkind word or threatening message to an unseen populace, breaching the safety of even the most secure homes. It’s a channel that simultaneously emboldens the bully and amplifies the pain of the bullied.

At Quinnipiac, faculty members are using their expertise to help break the cycle of online abuse and prevent the long-term psychological damage that bullying can inflict on its victims, as well as its perpetrators.

Research Yields Surprising Result

With a scholarly portfolio that boasts more than 14 years of research on issues of aggression and bullying, Professor of Psychology Gary Giumetti, PhD, has teamed up with Associate Professor of Medical Sciences Richard Feinn, PhD, and Clemson University Professor Robin Kowalski, PhD, to publish “Predictors and Outcomes of Cyberbullying among College Students: A Two Wave Study” in the academic journal Aggressive Behavior.

Their research focused on college-aged students and uncovered a surprising trend. Rather than champion a deeper empathy for others, victims of cyberbullying often retaliate in the form of bullying, turning one mean act into a chain reaction. Results from their survey-based study indicate that targets of cyberbullying in the fall semester were five times more likely to become perpetrators of cyberbullying in the spring. Surprisingly, there was no support for the opposite pattern – students who engaged in cyberbullying perpetration in the fall were not more likely to experience cyberbullying victimization in the spring.

“There are many possible reasons why bullying victims might become future perpetrators,” said Giumetti. “Research evidence suggests that the two forms of cyberbullying, victimization and perpetration, tend to co-occur. Through electronic communication, if you receive a nasty message, it’s very easy to reply in real-time with your own hostile response. With that response, the victim is now the perpetrator.”

The same technology that protects a bully with username anonymity also links the bullied to a public archive of shame and humiliation. For the vulnerable, a harsh word or photo can live on in perpetual cyber infamy.

Listen to Giumetti discuss cyberbullying on Inside Higher Ed's Feb. 4 Academic Minute podcast

“People will argue that cyberbullying isn’t as harmful as a face-to-face attack because you can turn off your phone and it’ll go away,” said Giumetti. “But it’s a message you can reread and easily return to at any moment. The message can be forwarded, you can respond and now you’re in a pattern of repetition and revictimization as you relive the experience. You’re angry and you impulsively lash out. That is how victims turn into perpetrators. They are fighting back against that feeling of powerlessness. They are trying to reclaim some of their power back.”

According to Giumetti, the long-term consequences are concerning as the results suggested that cyberbullying perpetrators were more likely to engage in future deviant or negative behavior such as delinquency, crime, or alcohol abuse. They also found that victims of cyberbullying tended to experience higher levels of anxiety and depression.

Correcting Misconceptions

Misconceptions are also a link in the chain of cyberbullying that can perpetuate the cycle of abuse. From assumptions of who is at risk to questions about the type of language that represents a bullying post, public misconception can prevent the support necessary to navigate or stop a bullying situation. Giumetti is focusing his research on addressing some of these false narratives, including a closer look at incidents of adult bullying.

“One misconception is that cyberbullying only happens to children or adolescents. But college students and working adults can also experience bullying, and it is no less harmful for these populations,” said Giumetti. “Evidence also shows that face-to-face and cyberbullying occur with equal prevalence. For most people, they're experiencing both at the same time. It’s a part of a broader pattern.”

Online bullying can sometimes be difficult to detect. Aggression take various forms, including physical intimidation, gossip, lies, embarrassing jokes and deliberately excluding others from a conversation.

“A related behavior is called cyber incivility, which is rude and discourteous behavior that occurs online. It’s passive aggressive and less obvious, like ignoring someone’s friend request, privately blocking or snubbing messages publicly,” said Giumetti. “While it may seem unintentional or less harmful, it’s actually very similar in its effect and in the same family as bullying behavior.”

Awareness is the Key

Recognizing the signs of bullying may be one of the most important variables in helping to end the cycle of online abuse. These signs include the sudden loss of friends, avoidance of social situations, reluctance to use the phone or computer, stress when a text or email appears, depression, frustration and anger.

“Communicating online already makes people say and do things that they wouldn’t normally do because they feel anonymous,” said Giumetti. “You might feel like you can get away with it, or that your behavior can’t be traced back to you. But it can. You’re not anonymous. If we educate people on the fact that they can be held accountable for inappropriate behavior, it will reduce the later likelihood of engaging in cyberbullying.”

Social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter are exploring new ways to moderate the online communities they are helping to create. In addition to reporting mechanisms and the banning of repeat offenders, companies are also prominently posting online information to support victims of cyberbullying. One field of research is delving into online detection with pattern recognition of words or phrases. The same algorithms that can perpetuate bullying are now being used to increase awareness before a post becomes live.

“Let’s say you hit submit on a nasty message, but before it actually goes live, you receive a pop-up window that warns you that your post may be hurtful,” said Giumetti. “Such a simple reflection process can build empathy or stop someone from posting. The hope is that more people will pause, think about their actions and hit cancel, which will help reduce the instances of bullying.”

Bystanders are also a valuable deterrent in breaking the chain of cyberbullying. Without an audience, bullies are often deflated in their attacks. Training individuals to recognize the signs of bullying and how to properly intervene is a powerful tool in showing support for a victim and holding everyone to a higher standard of online conduct.

“We need to educate and train the online community on how to recognize bullying and intervene appropriately to help both victims and perpetrators,” said Giumetti. “That is how we protect the vulnerable. That is how we break the chain.”

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