Parental involvement in preventing and responding to cyberbullying

CFCA Paper No. 4 – May 2012

Definitions and characteristics of cyberbullying

There is a range of different definitions of cyberbullying in use, which has implications for research and policy. The Australian Parliament report of the Joint Select Committee on Cyber-Safety (JSCCS, 2011a) highlights the importance of the future development of an appropriate definition for cyberbullying that is nationally consistent and includes a clear idea of the consequences.

For the purposes of this paper, the following definition is used: cyberbullying is over time, and includes (but is not limited to): mean, nasty or threatening text messages/instant messages/pictures/video clips/emails that are sent directly to a person or others via a mobile phone or the Internet (Pearce, Cross, Monks, Waters, & Falconer, 2011).

One of the ways in which a definition of cyberbullying is determined is to look at its similarities and differences to "offline bullying".2

Similar characteristics in both forms of bullying include:

  • Power differential, repetition of behaviour and intent to harm (Spears, Slee, Owens, & Johnson, 2008). If two people of a similar status fight online, it is more likely to be "cyberfighting" (McGrath, 2009; Spears et al., 2008).
  • Spreading rumours, making threats and derogatory comments (Mishna, Saini, & Solomon, 2009).
  • The reasons that underpin a decision to cyberbully are often similar to reasons why offline bullying occurs (Vandebosh & Van Cleemput, 2008).

Differences between the two types of bullying include:

  • Cyberbullying is more likely experienced outside of school, where offline bullying is more likely to be experienced in school (Smith, Mahdavi, Carvahlo, Fisher, Russell, & Tippett, 2008).
  • Repetition of behaviour associated with bullying can be seen to have a different meaning in cyberbullying, as the sharing of materials can continue to occur long after the incident itself (Spears et al., 2008).
  • Younger students experience offline bullying more frequently than older students (Pellegrini & Long, 2002), but cyberbullying tends to be more common in the later years of high school (Cross, Shaw, Hearn, Epstein, Monks, Lester, & Thomas, 2009).
  • Young people who experience cyberbullying may be less likely to tell someone than if they are bullied offline (McGrath, 2009).
  • Cyberbullying is perceived as anonymous, which may work to reduce the empathy felt by the young person who is engaging in bullying behaviour towards his/her targets (O'Brien & Moules, 2010). In reality, however, young people are most likely to be cyberbullied by people they already know (Willard, 2011). The Joint Select Committee report suggested that the anonymity associated with cyberbullying is fast becoming a fallacy, as most young people who bully online also bully offline (JSCCS, 2011a).
  • Young people who experience cyberbullying are less able to easily defend themselves (Smith et al., 2008) or escape from cyberbullying (O'Brien & Moules, 2010), particularly as there is an infinite number of potential supporters of online bullying (Cross et al., 2009).

Different views of adults and young people

There is a general sense within the literature that adults and young people think differently about the online and offline world. For children and young people, the online and offline world are "seamless" in providing a holistic arena of communication, socialisation, play, research and learning (JSCCS, 2011a; Willard, 2011). Consequently, children and young people don't necessarily see any difference between online and offline bullying (JSCCS, 2011a) - in one study young people described cyberbullying simply as "bullying via the Internet" or "bullying using technology" (Vandebosch, & van Cleemput, 2008). This is further supported by the idea that many young people who perpetrate cyberbullying also engage in offline bullying, and many young people who have experienced cyberbullying have also experienced offline bullying (Smith et al., 2008; Pearce et al., 2011).


There is often a transference and continuation of cyberbullying behaviours from home to school or vice versa, with some suggestion that more students experienced cyberbullying outside of school than in school hours (Smith et al., 2008). Spears et al. (2008) described this as "cyclical" bullying, where not only the location but also the type of bullying (offline/online) may change over time. This 24/7 nature of cyberbullying highlights the importance of parental involvement in preventing and addressing cyberbullying in partnership with schools and possibly other youth-focused organisations.

Cyberbullying statistics

The prevalence of cyberbullying is difficult to establish. Statistics vary considerably across studies due to the differences in the way that cyberbullying is defined, the age of study participants, the use of different measures of cyberbullying and the study timeframes.

With this in mind, estimates from Australian data suggest that:

  • 7-10% of Year 4 to Year 9 students had been cyberbullied over the duration of a school term (Cross et al., 2009).
  • Over a 12-month period, between 10-20% of children and young people have been cyberbullied, with 10-15% students experiencing cyberbullying more than once (JSCCS, 2011a).
  • One in five Australian teenagers aged 12-17 years received hateful messages via their mobile phone or through an Internet-based medium during the current school year (Lodge & Frydenberg, 2007).

European research indicates similar statistics, with 13% of young people aged 9-16 years reporting having received a hurtful or nasty online message within a 12-month period (Green, Brady, Olafsson, Hartley, & Lumby, 2011). European comparisons suggest that bullying online is more common in countries in which "offline" bullying is more common, as opposed to where the Internet is more established. This supports the notion that online bullying is a new form of an old problem rather than a product of the technology itself.


2 The term "offline bullying" will be used in this paper to indicate more traditional forms of bullying that occur without the use of electronic communications devices. Types of offline bullying may include physical, verbal, relational (e.g., exclusion) and indirect (e.g., rumour spreading) bullying (Smith et al., 2008).