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Understanding Cyberbullying: Developing an Evidence-Based Definition

Date Published
August 31, 2016

Cyberbullying raises new challenges for law enforcement, parents, and school officials to protect children. But is cyberbullying qualitatively different from “schoolyard” bullying?

Using Research to Understand Cyberbullying

This question has led the National Institute of Justice to fund a series of research projects that explore the differences between what is traditionally known as bullying[1] and cyberbullying. According to Dara Blachman-Demner, a Social Science Analyst at NIJ, “There’s been a lot of angst in the public eye about this, but the reality is there was very little empirical work to really help us understand [cyberbullying].”

Through one cyberbullying study supported by NIJ funding, Dr. Megan Moreno of the Seattle Children’s Research Institute developed a concept map to better describe cyberbullying and develop an evidence-driven definition of cyberbullying. To do so, she applied concept mapping methodology, which is frequently used toward developing conceptual frameworks to describe complex topics.

Cyberbullying includes similar tactics as other bullying behaviors as well as unique approaches such as viral repetition or widespread sharing of messages.

— Dr. Megan Moreno

In Moreno’s research, a total of 177 participants contributed to the concept mapping process. Five stakeholder groups — adolescents; parents; and professionals representing education, health, and the justice system — were represented and included 69 percent females, 50 percent adults, and 68 percent Caucasian.

Moreno found that in generating a stakeholder-driven concept map of cyberbullying, participants could not describe cyberbullying without integrating key concepts from traditional bullying. However, unique characteristics of cyberbullying may mean that uniform definitions of bullying need to be evaluated for their application to cyberbullying.

Participants described similar characteristics of both those bullying and targets applied to both traditional and cyberbullying, including describing bullying as a way to address insecurities.

Findings support that cyberbullying is best understood in the broader context of bullying, but that stakeholder perceptions about the uniqueness of cyberbullying are strong. Bullying presents a complex set of behaviors within roles that may be fluid and lead to negative consequences for both those bullying and their targets.

An important finding from Moreno’s study is the need to integrate cyberbullying as part of a shared, understood and uniform definition of bullying as a whole.

Based on this, Moreno proposes the definition of cyberbullying to be: “Bullying behaviors which take place online or using technology, which can include verbal or relational bullying or threats of physical harm. Cyberbullying includes similar tactics as other bullying behaviors as well as unique approaches such as viral repetition or widespread sharing of messages.”

Findings from Moreno’s work may be applied toward achieving greater consistency in definitions, assessments, and policies regarding bullying, and working toward a shared understanding of key concepts in bullying with stakeholders who are in the field addressing bullying as part of their everyday jobs.

“This project, from my perspective, takes us one step closer to really having a better understanding [of cyberbullying],” said Blachman-Demner.

In addition to Moreno’s work, NIJ funded two other studies related to cyberbullying. In July 2015, the grant report “Technology-Involved Harassment Victimization: Placement in a Broader Victimization Context” was released. This project found that cyberbullying that begins and remains online only was less emotionally harmful to children than harassment that only occurs in-person. The third study, Contents and Contexts of Cyberbullying, is still ongoing.

About this Article

The work described in the article was supported by NIJ grant number 2013-IJ-CX-0051, awarded to the Seattle Children’s Research Institute.

This article is based on the grant report “Electronic Harassment: Concept Map and Definition.”

Date Published: August 31, 2016