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Defining Cyberbullying

Elizabeth Englander, PhD,​a Edward Donnerstein, PhD,​b Robin Kowalski, PhD,​c Carolyn A. Lin, PhD,​d Katalin Parti, PhDe

abstract Is cyberbullying essentially the same as bullying, or is it a qualitatively different activity?

The lack of a consensual, nuanced definition has limited the field’s ability to examine these
issues. Evidence suggests that being a perpetrator of one is related to being a perpetrator
of the other; furthermore, strong relationships can also be noted between being a victim
of either type of attack. It also seems that both types of social cruelty have a psychological
impact, although the effects of being cyberbullied may be worse than those of being bullied
in a traditional sense (evidence here is by no means definitive). A complicating factor is that
the 3 characteristics that define bullying (intent, repetition, and power imbalance) do not
always translate well into digital behaviors. Qualities specific to digital environments often
render cyberbullying and bullying different in circumstances, motivations, and outcomes.
To make significant progress in addressing cyberbullying, certain key research questions
need to be addressed. These are as follows: How can we define, distinguish between, and
understand the nature of cyberbullying and other forms of digital conflict and cruelty,
including online harassment and sexual harassment? Once we have a functional taxonomy
of the different types of digital cruelty, what are the short- and long-term effects of exposure
to or participation in these social behaviors? What are the idiosyncratic characteristics of
digital communication that users can be taught? Finally, how can we apply this information
to develop and evaluate effective prevention programs?

aMassachusetts Aggression Reduction Center, Bridgewater State University, Bridgewater, Massachusetts; bDepartment of Communication, University of Arizona, Tucson, Arizona; cSchool

of Health Research, Clemson University, Clemson, South Carolina; dDepartment of Communication, University of Connecticut, Storrs, Connecticut; and eNational Institute of Criminology,
Budapest, Hungary

Dr Englander authored the initial draft of the document, drawing upon the work of the other authors listed below, and contributed to the final draft; Drs Kowalski,
Lin, and Parti authored a section of the White Paper on which the summary is based, contributed conceptually to the White Paper regarding similarities and
differences between cyberbullying and traditional bullying, and reviewed and revised the manuscript; Dr Donnerstein participated in the writing of sections on the
long-term health implications of cyberbullying; and all authors approved the final manuscript as submitted.
The analysis, conclusions, and recommendations contained in each article are solely a product of the individual workgroup and are not the policy or opinions of, nor
do they represent an endorsement by Children and Screens: Institute of Digital Media and Child Development or the American Academy of Pediatrics.
DOI: https://​doi.​org/​10.​1542/​peds.​2016-​1758U
Accepted for publication Apr 19, 2017
Address correspondence to Elizabeth Englander, PhD, Massachusetts Aggression Reduction Center, Bridgewater State University, Bridgewater, MA 02325. E-mail:
PEDIATRICS (ISSN Numbers: Print, 0031-4005; Online, 1098-4275).
Copyright © 2017 by the American Academy of Pediatrics
FINANCIAL DISCLOSURE: The authors have indicated they have no financial relationships relevant to this article to disclose.

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The term “cyberbullying” is used cyberbullying as simply bullying in communication, can be particularly
broadly, both in colloquial and formal that occurs through electronic or difficult to judge.)
use. First coined in 1999, there is no digital means.‍3,​5‍ Several studies
A second difference is the
general consensus on a definition, have found significant correlations
widespread use of digital devices,
although different versions usually between the 2 behaviors.5,​13,​‍ 14

which means that cyberbullying is
include the use of digital technology A majority of cyberbullying
likely to happen outside of school
to inflict harm repeatedly or to perpetrators and victims are also
(whereas traditional bullying most
bully.‍1–‍‍ 4‍ In 2006, Patchin and bullying perpetrators and victims,
often happens in school), and
Hinduja2 defined cyberbullying as respectively.‍15 Cyberbullying
cyberbullies may draw power from
“willful and repeated harm inflicted interacts with in-school encounters;
certain characteristics of the digital
through the use of computers, cell it may be triggered by events at
environment (notably anonymity).‍20
phones, or other electronic devices.” school and may result in problems in
Victims of cyberbullying may
Kowalski et al‍5 defined it in 2014 as school.‍16 Targets can often identify
feel unable to escape the cruelty,
“the use of electronic communication their perpetrators as peers from
whereas traditional bullying does
technologies to bully others.” school; they typically know each
not typically carry over into the
The use of different operational other in “real life.”17,​18
‍ These findings
home setting.‍21 The motivations for
definitions has affected a great deal all suggest that cyberbullying may
cyberbullying may also be different
of the research, including reported simply be bullying in another realm.
online; qualitative research has
prevalence rates, which show wide
suggested that how youth perceive
variation.‍6 Other researchers have adopted digital communications may differ
definitions that are similar but not from how they perceive traditional
Most definitions of cyberbullying
identical to traditional bullying. communications.‍22 For example,
have modeled themselves on the
For example, Patchin and Hinduja‍2 digital technology can alter a user’s
more widely agreed-upon definition
omitted the term “bullying” and perception of the conformity of their
of traditional bullying, and it seems
its characteristic power imbalance attitudes to a majority, which can
clear that there is some overlap
to define cyberbullying as “willful in turn change their willingness to
between bullying and cyberbullying.‍7
and repeated harm through the express extreme or controversial
Bullying and cyberbullying are
use of computers, cell phones, or opinions.
reliably correlated.‍5 Yet, it has been
other electronic devices.” The use
argued that cyberbullying requires Third, cyberbullying seems to cause
of slightly different definitions
its own, separate scrutiny; several its own psychological harm to
may reflect the fact that important
studies suggest it can cause harm victims. Kowalski‍20 points out that
differences between the 2 behaviors
above and beyond traditional cyberbullying accounts for some of
have been identified.
bullying.‍8 Behaviors that are likely to the variance in psychological harm
be related to cyberbullying, such as above and beyond that of traditional
First, the use of digital technology
online harassment and online sexual bullying. Compared with traditional
clearly impacts communication. In
harassment, appear to be harmful harassment, online harassment may
a digital environment, cruelty can
and deserving of study.‍9 In addition, be more strongly linked than bullying
occur with or without the aggressor’s
effective programming to to substance abuse and depression.‍23
specific intent to make it repetitive
reduce cyberbullying continues to One longitudinal study found that
or focused upon a less powerful
elude researchers and other cyberbullying victimization predicted
target. For example, a user’s single
‍ depression and substance abuse 6
online comment can easily spread
beyond the initial posting. Assessing months later, although researchers
for intent to harm, intentional did not compare it to traditional
Current State bullying.‍24 Overall, cyberbullying
repetition, and power can be
The study of traditional bullying challenging in a digital environment. seems to have a strong emotional
benefits significantly from a useful At other times, power imbalances impact that is independent of
and operational definition that between aggressors and targets can traditional bullying.‍8
describes 3 core characteristics be measured through differences
of bullying behaviors (intention, in technological expertise or the
repetition, and power imbalance).‍11 use of anonymity.‍19 (We note here
Future Research
Assessing these 3 characteristics of that assessing for these factors can The characteristics of digital
an aggressor helps predict greater be challenging in any environment, technology and the unique impact of
negative impact upon the target.‍12 traditional or online. But online cyberbullying do suggest that it is not
Some researchers have defined interactions, which may lack nuances a precise counterpart to traditional

PEDIATRICS Volume 140, number s2, November 2017 from by guest on May 3, 2018
Downloaded S149
bullying, but important questions to help establish a sequence for these •• Ask your patients’ parents if
remain. Whether widespread online outcomes and others.‍20,​25
‍ they have access to educational
access to personally harmful material Finally, programming to prevent materials about cyberbullying,
is particularly psychologically traditional bullying has been, in many digital devices, and sexting (Note:
impactful remains largely cases, adapted to include digital There are free research-based
unexplored. The hypothesis that technology. Concerns have been downloads for parents at http://​
online repetition through forwarding raised about the appropriateness of www.​marccenter.​org).
or sharing materials, for example, this approach and the lack of data •• Encourage parents to talk regularly
is as damaging as the repetition supporting efficacy.‍9,​28
‍ Programs to their children about what
inherent in traditional bullying has addressing cyberbullying and digital they’re doing online, what digital
not been studied.‍25 behaviors may need to address issues activities they enjoy, and what (if
As with traditional bullying not typically addressed in existing any) problems they’re having.
versus harassment, differences prevention programs, such as content
between perpetrators and victims credibility and perceptual changes
•• Encourage parents to ask children
to explain or demonstrate some
of cyberbullying and other types that can impact sharing.‍29
digital activity. Kids often enjoy
of online harassment or conflict
showing their skills to their
have not been thoroughly clarified; Recommendations parents.
online harassment typically involves
harmful behaviors that lack either •• Ask patients to describe •• Encourage parents to respond to
repetition or a power imbalance.‍26 their experiences with digital social problems with supportive
Ybarra and Chen‍26 point out that technology. Do they find it a actions, such as listening, being
online harassment may be less primarily positive experience? supportive, and sometimes
prevalent than cyberbullying and •• Ask patients if they have seen their providing a different perspective.
may result in less severe outcomes. peers having problems online. Direct actions are not always
On the other hand, online sexual What types of problems have they possible or necessary.
harassment has been linked with seen, and what is their opinion
•• Explain to parents that if a social
more serious problems, including about what they saw?
problem persists, they can notify
depression and substance abuse, •• Ask patients to describe the types the Web site or application maker
and these effects are compounded of social media applications being about the problem. Either you
when youth are also bullied in used. or they can also notify a child’s
person.‍23 Online sexual harassment
•• If a child has had a negative school, where the adults can keep
may contribute to cyberbullying
experience, ask, “Do you know an eye on interactions and support
by making nude or sexual images
who you could go to for help and a targeted child.
available to bullies, who may exploit
them.‍27 Sexual maturation has been support?” •• Encourage parents to create
linked to both traditional bullying •• Ask your patients if their schools a Family Media Plan as per
and digital behaviors associated engage in any education about recent recommendations from
with cyberbullying.9 Longitudinal cyberbullying, the use of social the American Academy of
research is lacking, and it is needed media, and digital technology. Pediatrics.‍30

FUNDING: This special supplement, “Children, Adolescents, and Screens: What We Know and What We Need to Learn,​” was made possible through the financial
support of Children and Screens: Institute of Digital Media and Child Development.
POTENTIAL CONFLICT OF INTEREST: The authors have indicated they have no potential conflicts of interest to disclose.

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PEDIATRICS Volume 140, number s2, November 2017 from by guest on May 3, 2018
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Defining Cyberbullying
Elizabeth Englander, Edward Donnerstein, Robin Kowalski, Carolyn A. Lin and
Katalin Parti
Pediatrics 2017;140;S148
DOI: 10.1542/peds.2016-1758U

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has been published continuously since . Pediatrics is owned, published, and trademarked by the
American Academy of Pediatrics, 141 Northwest Point Boulevard, Elk Grove Village, Illinois,
60007. Copyright © 2017 by the American Academy of Pediatrics. All rights reserved. Print ISSN:

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Defining Cyberbullying
Elizabeth Englander, Edward Donnerstein, Robin Kowalski, Carolyn A. Lin and
Katalin Parti
Pediatrics 2017;140;S148
DOI: 10.1542/peds.2016-1758U

The online version of this article, along with updated information and services, is
located on the World Wide Web at:

Pediatrics is the official journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics. A monthly publication, it
has been published continuously since . Pediatrics is owned, published, and trademarked by the
American Academy of Pediatrics, 141 Northwest Point Boulevard, Elk Grove Village, Illinois,
60007. Copyright © 2017 by the American Academy of Pediatrics. All rights reserved. Print ISSN:

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