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1. Understanding Cyberbullying



1.4.1In cyberbullying, the audience for the bullying can be very large and reached rapidly. This means that the degree and seriousness, as well as possible risks and repercussions, have to be evaluated differently than in cases of other types of bullying.  If content is shared across mobile phones or posted online, it becomes difficult to control who might see it or have copies of it. Not being able to be certain that the event has been contained and will not recur / resurface may make it harder for the person being bullied to gain a sense of 'closure' over an event.

1.4.2This is a particularly significant way in which cyberbullying is different from other forms of bullying: a single incident can be experienced as multiple attacks. For example, a humiliating video posted to the web can be copied to many different sites. A single instance of bullying – the creation of a nasty website or the forwarding of a personal email – can have repeated and long-term consequences, as content that is taken off the internet can reappear or be circulated again.

1.4.3 It is also worth noting that some of those being bullied may not be aware that they have been or are being cyberbullied. For example, they may not have seen, or be aware of, content about them that has been posted online.

Targets and perpetrators

1.4.4Children and young people are not the only ones that may be subject to cyberbullying. School staff have also been victimised and have suffered distress at the hands of school-aged bullies. The seeming anonymity and distance that technology provides means size and age are not necessarily relevant. People who cyberbully do not need to be physically threatening to cyberbully. They don’t need to be stronger, taller or older than the person they are cyberbullying – they may never be in the same physical space as the person they are bullying.

1.4.5 Cyberbullying can be used by a person bullying offline to extend their aggression, but can equally be used as a form of 'revenge'. There have been some cases where the person cyberbullying had been previously bullied, and used the technology to respond.

1.4.6 Bystanders to cyberbullying can easily become perpetrators – by passing on or showing to others an image designed to humiliate another child or staff member, for example, or by recording an assault/act of bullying on a mobile phone and circulating this. As with other forms of bullying, it is important that the whole-school community understands their responsibility to report cyberbullying and support the person being bullied. It is advisable that anti-bullying policies refer to those ‘bystanders’ – better termed ‘accessories’ in this context – who actively support cyberbullying incidents and set out sanctions for this behaviour.


1.4.7Cyberbullying can take place at any time and can intrude into spaces that might previously have been regarded as safe or personal – the person being cyberbullied can be left feeling that there is no place to hide and that they might be attacked at anytime. Sending abusive text messages, for example, means that cyberbullying can take place any time of the day or night, and the target of the cyberbullying can be reached in their own home, even their own bedroom.

1.4.8 Traditionally, young people have been told to walk away from someone who is trying to bully them. However, it is not possible to walk away from constant phone messages or from a website which has been created to hurt you.

1.4.9 Cyberbullying will have an impact on the education and wellbeing of the person being bullied, and the physical location of the bully at the time of their action is irrelevant in this. Schools now have broad new powers to discipline and regulate the behaviour of pupils even when they are off the school site – these are set out in the Education and Inspections Act 2006 (see information on the law and also section 3.4 of the School Discipline and Pupil Behaviour Policies guidance15).  


1.4.10People who cyberbully may attempt to remain anonymous and this can be extremely disturbing for those that are being bullied. Although the person being bullied may know that their bully is from within their circle of friends or pupils at their school, they may not know the actual identity of the bully and this can make them uneasy, distrustful, and suspicious of all their relationships.

1.4.11 However, perpetrators are not as anonymous as they might think and there are ways of identifying cyberbullies. Having said that, although there is likely to be an evidence trail (‘digital footprints’) left by the bully, finding out further information that might help identify who is responsible – by tracking down the person’s email or IP address (their unique computer address) – is time consuming and usually requires the involvement of other agencies (the police and the service provider, for example). And in some cases, finding out this information will not clearly identify an individual. See the ‘Responding to cyberbullying’ section for further information.

Motivation for bullying

1.4.12Some cyberbullying is clearly deliberate and aggressive.  However, some instances of cyberbullying are known to be unintentional and the result of not thinking or a lack of awareness of the consequences. Online behaviours are generally less inhibited than offline behaviour, and some children report saying things to others online that they would not have done offline. Two other factors may be involved here:

  • The distance between the bully and the person being bullied:  The lack of context can mean that what might intended as a joke may not be received as such, and indeed may be deeply upsetting or offensive to the recipient. Additionally, because the bully cannot see the person being bullied, and the impact that their message has had, there is less chance for either to resolve any misunderstanding or to feel empathy.
  • A single act can have unintended consequences: Sending a 'funny' (i.e. embarrassing or humiliating) picture of a fellow pupil (even a friend) to someone could be viewed as a one-off incident, but the nature of the technology means that the sender loses control of the image they have sent. It can be sent on, posted up online and have a wide circulation. For this reason, a one-off action can turn into a repetitive action, and have consequences for the person being bullied far beyond what the original sender may have anticipated.

1.4.13Schools need to ensure that ignorance of the consequences and potential seriousness of cyberbullying is not a defence – that all pupils are aware of the issues and rules, for example through induction procedures, awareness days and Acceptable Use Policies (see the ‘Preventing cyberbullying’ section). 


1.4.14Unlike other forms of bullying, many cyberbullying incidents can themselves act as evidence – in the form of text messages or computer ‘screen grabs’, for example. As well as evidence that an incident has taken place, they may also provide information about who the perpetrator is. A nasty text message, for example, will contain the message, the date and time that it was sent, and information about the phone it was sent from.

1.4.15 Having proof that they are being bullied might make it easier for some targets of bullying to come forward – however, a recent MSN report found that 74% of teens did not try to get help the last time they were cyberbullied16. Adults and young people may not know how important the evidence could be, or how to preserve it. You can find out more about preserving evidence in section 3.3 of the ‘Responding to cyberbullying’ chapter.