Cyberbullies are most apt to be teen's romantic partner or close pals

Posted September 1, 2016

Youths who are being bullied anonymously through tech and social networks should look at the friends they know best, according to a new study that finds cyberbullies are "dramatically more likely" to be current or former close pals and dating partners.

The research, led by a sociologist at Pennsylvania State University, uses data collected in 2011 from 800 eighth- to 12th-graders in a New York City suburb. It was just presented in Seattle at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association. The study, "Toxic Ties: Networks of Friendship, Dating and Cyber Victimization," will be published in September's Social Psychology Quarterly.

The focus is "cyberbullying" and "cyber aggression." In background material, the researchers define that "as electronic or online behavior intended to harm another person psychologically or damage his or her reputation."

They found the likelihood of cyber aggression is about seven times greater between current and former friends and partners than between those who hadn't been friends or dated each other.

"We believe that competition for status and esteem represents one reason behind peer cyberbullying," lead author Diane Felmlee said in a written statement. "Friends, or former friends, are particularly likely to find themselves in situations in which they are vying for the same school, club and/or sports positions and social connections. In terms of dating partners, young people often have resentful and hurt feelings as a result of a breakup and they may take out these feelings on a former partner via cyber aggression. They might also believe they can win back a previous boyfriend or girlfriend, or prevent that person from breaking up with them or dating someone else, by embarrassing or harassing him or her."

Study co-author Robert Faris, associate professor of sociology at University of California-Davis, told Broadly that "much of the harassment and cruelty involved in failed dating relationships centered around saving face. Kids tend to date schoolmates, and thus the aftermath of a breakup can create social fault lines. Sometimes they lash out in efforts to stay on the right side of those lines."

He added, "The motivations of domination and control, which underly a lot of dating violence generally, also likely play a role."

The study found that more than 17 percent of students had been involved in cyberbullying within a week of being surveyed — nearly 6 percent were just victims, 9 percent were just aggressors and slightly over 2 percent were both. Most of the time, the vehicles for the bullying were either Facebook or text messages.

Girls were more apt than boys to be victimized. LGBTQ youth were more than four times more likely than heterosexual peers to be cyberbullied, particularly with slurs, the research showed.

"Overall, incidents of cyber aggression ranged from threats and the posting of embarrassing photos and nasty rumors to criminal activities such as identity theft and physical relationship violence that the attacker posted about online," the researchers noted.

Felmlee said the results show the need for parents to "turn a watchful eye to their teenager's closet associates and pay attention to his or her online activities for signs of abuse."

Felmlee and Faris had previously collaborated on a study showing that cyberbullying is related to social status and social climbing among teen peers.

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