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1. Understanding Cyberbullying


1.3.1Cyberbullying takes different forms, some of which are harder to detect or less obviously associated with bullying than others. Schools should already have policies and practices in place for dealing with some of these.

Threats and intimidation

1.3.2Serious threats can be sent to both staff and pupils by mobile phone, email, via comments on websites, social networking sites or message boards.

Harassment or stalking

1.3.3Repeated, prolonged, unwanted texting, whether it is explicitly offensive or not, is a form of harassment. Online stalking (sometimes referred to as ‘cyberstalking’), where a person’s online activities are constantly monitored, can cause psychological harm and fear. Previously safe and enjoyable environments can be experienced as threatening, and online activity may become a source of anxiety.

1.3.4 Harassment and stalking can take several and often multiple forms online, and may or may not be a continuation of offline harassment or lead to physical harassment and stalking. Forms of harassment include:

  • repeatedly sending unwanted text or instant messages, or making phone calls (including silent calls);
  • using public forums, such as message boards or chatrooms, to repeatedly harass, or to post derogatory or defamatory statements in order to provoke a response from their target (sometimes referred to as ‘flaming’);
  • tracking targets by using spyware;
  • sending viruses.

Vilification / defamation

1.3.5Cyberbullying can include posting upsetting or defamatory remarks about an individual online, or name-calling using a mobile device for example. These may be general insults, or include prejudice-based bullying. Pupils may use their mobile phones or email to send sexist, homophobic and racist messages, for example, or they may attack other kinds of difference – a physical or mental disability, cultural or religious background, appearance, or socio-economic position.

Ostracising / peer rejection / exclusion

1.3.6Online exclusion can be harder to detect than children obviously being marginalised in a space, such as a classroom, where there are adults present.

1.3.7 Social networking sites, such as Bebo and MySpace, provide a platform for young people to establish an online presence and to talk with other network members. They can be an important extension of a young person’s social space and activity. Most social networking sites work as gated communities, only allowing contact between members, so it is common for only a small number of social networking sites to be popular amongst any individual school’s students. It is possible for a group of students to set up a closed group, which can protect them from unwanted contact. It also means that excluding someone – by refusing to return or acknowledge messages; deleting them from their friendship lists; or using 'ignore' functions – can be extremely hurtful.

Identity theft, unauthorised access and impersonation

1.3.8‘Hacking’ generally means accessing someone else’s account by finding out or guessing their username and password information. The majority of children and young people consulted (see ‘What children and young people say’ in the Resources section) during the production of this guidance were aware of such incidents.

1.3.9 Hacking into systems, accounts or files is not automatically a form of cyberbullying, but it is always a serious issue. Hacking is illegal under the Computer Misuse Act 1990 (see information on the civil and criminal law).

1.3.10 Examples of how hacking can be used to cyberbully include:

  • Accessing and copying someone's information, for example emails or pictures, in order to harass or humiliate them. This could include posting private information on public sites, emailing or forwarding data by mobile phone, or printing and circulating paper copies.
  • Deleting someone's information – for example, electronically submitted or stored assignments and homework, or important emails.
  • Impersonating someone – for example pretending to be the person whose account has been hacked in order to post abusive comments and bad language. This might include posting messages to the school's Virtual Learning Environment (VLE), sending Instant Messages or emails, or may involve using someone's mobile phone to send abusive calls, texts or images. There have been cases where a bully has sent out nasty messages to everyone on a pupil's buddy list, and it can be difficult for the person targeted to make their friends believe the messages did not come from them. People have also discovered their images and contact details have been posted to public sites along with invitations to contact them.

1.3.11You don’t need to be able to access someone’s account details to impersonate them. There are examples of people discovering websites, profiles or comments written in their name and pretending to be by them.

1.3.12 Identifying perpetrators using technology is often a time-consuming process, and it may not always be possible for the school to prove who the responsible party is (see ‘Investigation’ section of the ‘Responding to cyberbullying’ chapter). Identifying who has been cyberbullying may depend on more traditional ways of investigating incidents – circumstantial evidence, a witness report, or an admission of responsibility.

Publicly posting, sending or forwarding personal or private information or images

1.3.13Once electronic messages or pictures are made public, containing them becomes very difficult. Video or pictures can be passed between mobile phones either by a local wireless connection (which allows free messages to be sent between devices that are close to each other), sent by text to other phones, uploaded to websites, or posted to public video hosting sites. Most young people are aware of ‘Happy Slapping’, a term which has been used to refer to physical assaults that are recorded and circulated, usually via mobile phone. The DCSF does not promote the use of this term, although it recognises that its popular currency has at least allowed discussion around this form of cyberbullying to begin to take place. The term is inaccurate and misleading, and risks minimising serious and illegal incidents of physical assault. People who record attacks can be actively engaging in cyberbullying. Circulating images of attacks can also be a form of harassment, and will certainly compound the harm of the original attack.

1.3.14 Websites are potentially viewable by millions of people. Even after pages or comments have been removed, ‘cached’ copies may still be available.  For example, Google creates a copy of the pages in its index which are stored as a cached version that can be accessed via its search results pages, unless a site owner has requested otherwise.

1.3.15 Creating, possessing, copying or distributing images of children and young people under the age of 18 which are of an indecent or sexual nature is illegal under the Protection of Children Act 1978. These images are illegal even if they were taken in ‘fun’ or by ‘willing’ parties. Section 160 of the Criminal Justice Act 1988 criminalizes the possession of electronic or hardcopy images. These laws also apply to indecent ‘pseudo-photographs’ – images which have not been taken but have been created or adapted, for instance using digital imaging software. 


1.3.16Manipulation is an often under-considered form of bullying, but unfortunately there have been many cases of manipulative cyberbullying. Examples include putting pressure on someone to reveal personal information or to arrange a physical meeting. This can be done by using online friendship status – for example, suggesting that a genuine friend would give out personal information.

1.3.17 It can be difficult to negotiate online relationships – some people will find using ignoring and blocking tools easy, others will hesitate to demote the status of people they have already thought of as friends. Manipulation is a very difficult type of cyberbullying to detect, since the person being bullied often feels implicated in and responsible for their own victimisation, and may feel guilty or ashamed. Some forms of manipulation may involve getting people to act or talk in a provocative way. Rude images or conversations can be very embarrassing to young people, and their fear that other people, including their family members, might find out can make them vulnerable to further manipulation. There is also evidence that mobile phones and the internet are being used to try to control, track and manipulate within abusive teen relationships14.

1.3.18 Manipulation is also used by adults with a sexual interest in children to ‘groom’ children they have contacted online to meet up. This guidance concentrates on bullying and does not go into ‘grooming’ or wider child protection issues. For further information on this, see or

14Tech Abuse in Teen Relationships Study, January 2007: