Cyber bullying – A Challenging definition and the psychology behind Cyber attacks

Cyber bullying – A Challenging definition and the psychology behind Cyber attacks

October 8, 2020 by Sanghamitra Banerjee0

What is Cyber bullying?

Cyber bullying according to (Smith,2012),  is an aggressive and intentional act carried by an individual or a group with the use of electronic medium (cyberspace), repeatedly and overtime the victim cannot defend himself or herself against the perpetrator.

This definition of cyber bullying is similar to the traditional bullying and the only variance is the use of cyber space instead of being physically present. The nature of the behavior of the perpetrator can be  very hostile and aggressive. The intention of the perpetrator refers to the degree of awareness of harming the victim or others without being aware of the intensity and the seriousness of their acts.

Therefore cyber bullying, with its indirect nature, poses challenges to evaluate and analyze the intention and the reactive nature of the attack. Cyber bullying, according to many experts from various disciplines, meets the criteria of repetition and frequently creating an imbalance of power.

Although it is difficult to gauge the physical and the psychological strength of the perpetrator in the cyberspace as compared to face-to-face bullying, it can be stated that the victim can block the aggressor from the attack.

There are instances where cyber bullying leads to harassment, as reported by the victim due to repeated and frequent number of incidents and the degree of reported distress. In this instance scholars have proposed alternate terms like online, internet harassment or attacks. This requires another article discussion and does not fall in the scope of this article.  In order to understand the article one needs to define the entities like the victim and the perpetrator.

A victim, according to the dictionary definition, is someone or something that has been hurt, damaged, or killed or has suffered, either because of the actions of someone or something else, or because of illness or chance. It follows the definition and the only difference is the type of hurt, damage that the victim (someone) has suffered because of the aggressive behavior of the perpetrator (someone) in the cyber space.

A perpetrator,according to the dictionary definition is a person who is responsible for a crime. While a suspect may be suspected of having committed a crime, this term is used for the person who actually committed it. Usually, this term is only used for people who commit illegal acts or crimes in this case the medium is often cyber space.

Cyber bullying demystified

Although some experts (Olweus& Limber, 2018; see Vaillancourt, Faris, &Mishna, 2017)  view cyber bullying as not subtly specific from traditional bullying,  but according to (Savage & Tokunaga, 2017), there is inadequate information to generalize the findings from traditional to cyber bullying. Experts and researchers also stated that there are many facets of cyber bullying that somewhat overlaps with traditional bullying but somewhat different. The many facets of cyber bullying include its definition, prevalence rates, risks and preventative measures, outcomes and protective factors. According to other experts (Vaillancourt et al., 2017) cyber space provides the platform for ease and accessibility of bullying inflicting greater harm and hurt than traditional bullying.

Therefore one can state that cyber bullying may be more complex and insidious than traditional bullying and the field in very nascent in that it requires a lot of research and intervention in order to build awareness and healing.

According to Pew Research Center  95% of teens “own or have access to a smartphone” and 45% of teens surveyed report being “online on a near-constant basis” (Anderson & Jiang, 2018) and that 24% of the youth surveyed by Pew Research Centre perceived that social media had negative impacts on their lives and that the social media was the reason for excessive bullying and rumor spreading. According to (Vaillancourt et al. 2017), cyber bullying is uniquely associated with

  • Somatic difficulties (e.g.,headaches, stomach aches,etc.,)
  • Depression
  • Suicidal ideation and suicidal attempts
  • Symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
  • Academic difficulties

According to (Tetri&Vuorinen, 2013)cyber security attacks are primarily based on social engineering techniques – the use of psychological manipulation to trick people into disclosing sensitive information or inappropriately granting access to a secure system.There are various existing characteristics of cyberspace bullying mainly intent to harm, power imbalance and repetition of the harmful behavior (Olweus, 1999).

The power imbalance, that is less explicit in the cyberspace as compared to traditional cyber bullying, provides dis-inhibition to the perpetrator to behave more brazenly due to anonymity. Also, the perpetrator with a single malicious attack can reach multiple users and this behavior also negates the repetition of the acts compared to traditional bullying.

 The Psychology behind Cyber Attack

The interplay of Trust and Risk play a very important role in the cyberspace (social media) where , according to the experts, the real world constructs have been incorporated. This is turn provides a platform for communication, emotion, activities, location expression and other expression that provides a fabric for the users to spin and define their personas online. The risk that comes with this is that the users are unable to view the expressions of the other users in the virtual environment and take a huge risk in communicating with one another with sometimes fictitious identities or even deceased people with the promise of unlimited and unbounded opportunities that seems too good to be true. Furthermore this results in a huge interplay between trust and influence where a perpetrator can use subtle skills to influence the victim suavely, slowly and skillfully.

According to the Dr.Robert Cialdini, there a various psychological elements and are not limited to  that lead to cyber bullying  are as follows:

Principle of Liking

People tend to build trust with those they are attracted to both physically and emotionally. A  simple principle with very complicated and complex implications.

Social Proof

Actions of people are based on what others do rather than rational validation of the consequences of the actions.

Rule of Reciprocation

A  sense of obligatory quid pro quo.  A   feeling of obligation and indebtedness to reciprocate a gift or a favor for the recipient to return the act in kind.  This action can also be employed in cyber space where via social networking strangers are compelled to accept invitations with a mutual feeling of obligation and indebtedness.

Commitment & Consistency

People while using the social media as a loyalty commit to their original decision despite information and communication that may not be conducive to their feeling of comfort and therefore they find it very difficult to unfriend, block or un-follow and instead continue to interact with the person.

Principle of Authority

The principle of authority is also  used in social engineering, directly or indirectly where either of the users uses names of authorities by fabricating personal credentials to impress and influence the target.

Principle of Scarcity

The value increases when the demand for anything or anybody increases with the rarity. Cyber bullies can sometimes use this tactic to bully the victim.

According to X-Force 2013 Mid-Year Trend and Risk Report, the elements of psychology discussed above can contribute to the social networking threats that can contribute to the success of the exploitative behavior of the cyber bullies.

Much of the research in cyber bullying has been aimed at protection of the victim rather than investigating or researching the rationale for bullying for the perpetrator. Nevertheless, according to (Slonje et al. 2013), the psychological state of a perpetrator is as such that they were once a victim of bullying and since they were unable to retaliate face-to-face, they turn to cyber bullying behind the veil of anonymity where they feel protected. At the crux of all bullying whether cyber or classic, are victimization, disparagement and abuse of a targeted child. Child abuse, whether perpetrated by a child or adult, is detrimental to all aspects of their psychological and developmental maturation following them into adulthood and throughout their lifespan.

The children who are traumatized by abuse and victimization develop higher rates of all kinds of negative psychological and sociological aspects of human condition (drugs and alcohol abuse, criminal involvement, domestic abuse and psychiatric illness). Some of these children turn out to be perpetrators as they grow up to be an adult.

The perpetrators had motives, both internal and external, according to (Varjas et al. 2010) that were revenge, boredom, jealousy or experimenting with new persona to impress or displace feelings. External motives were categorized as no consequence, non-confrontational or a different persona that contradicted the internal motive and that internal motivations, according to the researchers, predicted the cyber bullying more than external. Additionally,  a deep feeling of inferiority and proclivity and the “need for acceptance”, according to ( Alfred Adler, 1964), contributes to the cyber bullying behavior if not addressed or intervened during the early years of a person. The feeling of inferiority triggers a child to become big and better than others thereby leading to aggressive behavior with various kinds of bullying Righteous Cyberbully & Narcissistic Cyber bully.

A Righteous Cyber bully,  according  to the experts,“are aware of their actions, understands they are causing the target child distress, understand their actions are wrong, but continues to do so because they believe the target child deserves their assaults. The Righteous Cyberbully feels warranted in his/her actions for reasons including:

  1. The target child offended or abused the aggressor in the past from bullying or an isolated aggressive event.
  2. The target child offended or abused a peer or loved one close to the aggressor in the past from bullying or an isolated aggressive event.
  3. The target child offended the aggressor’s belief system due to their race, religious affiliation, physical presentation, socio economic status, sexuality and any other aspects the aggressor deems offensive, immoral or unjust.”

The Narcissistic cyber bullies are potentially dangerous and more concerning than the others as they are aware of their malevolent intent and they cause intentional distress and assault on the victim.  Cyber bullies of this group become future sociopaths, criminals and psychopaths, and victimize and inflict pain on others as adults, devoid of remorse. It is not mandated by the society to evaluate all children for antisocial  and narcissistic personality but at some point the society must treat all the children as having some potential as both the aggressor and victim.

Most children who are either the perpetrator or the victim rarely disclose the information to either the parents or as they become adult to their friends and family.

In concluding, and according to experts (Jean Kummerow, 2014),  the use of Adler’s psychological principles in our day-to-day lives, could be an effective preventative measureto minimize cyber bullying to some degree. This is called “the Crucial C’s” of Adlerian principle thatprovides a system for creating more functional, responsible, and capable families.

Connect:  Everyone feels a need to belong and have a bond with others. When we feel secure, we can reach out and make friends.  These connections help foster a concern for the welfare of the community.

Capable:  We all need to acquire skills so we can accomplish our goals. It is important to feel confident and self-reliant and to have self-control when things are not going our way.  The Adlerians talk about turning a felt negative into a perceived positive.

Count:  Everyone needs to be valued and feel like they can make a difference.  Adler talks of finding significance.  The principle of social equality also prevails; we are on a horizontal ladder, not a vertical one in terms of relationships.  We are motivated to do our best. This is different than having to win and to best others.

Courage: We all need to be hopeful, resilient, and be willing to try.  We need to cope with difficult times and learn from them.  We need “the courage to be imperfect,” and we get at least some of that courage through encouragement.

The concept of Cyber bullying is very complex and with the introduction of “hactivism”* and other concepts a growing number of students both children and adults are being affected. Early intervention by counselors can act as a preventative measures by utilizing program based on solution based brief therapy using Adlerian techniques that can help victims overcome feelings of hopelessness, helplessness, insecurity, proclivity and lower self-esteem. Rogerian techniques can also be used by counselors to build trust and rapport with the clients with complimenting and empowering victims to create the feeling of control. Families, communities and societies need to be aware of the symptoms of cyber bullying and need to nip it in the bud in order to avoid any debacle in the future that might affect society as a whole.

 *Hacktivism is sparked by an individual’s or group’s perception of what they consider to be ‘wrong’ or ‘unjust’ and hence incentivizes them to do something about it. Motivations include revenge, political or social incentives, ideology, protest, a desire to embarrass certain organisations or individuals within those organisations or sometimes sheer vandalism.

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Varjas, K., Talley, J., & Parris, L. (2008). High school students’ perceptions of motivations for cyberbullying: An exploratory study. West J Emerg Med11(3), 269-273.


Sanghamitra Banerjee

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