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Anonymity Online Increase Cyberbullying Among Adolescents Psychology Essay

Bullying has long been a phenomenon of both aggression and discrimination faced by adolescents. Bullying can be manifested as direct acts of violence, or indirect acts involving relational or social aggression such as social exclusion, isolation, spreading rumours or manipulation (Mark & Ratliffe, 2011). Modern technology has added another dimension to traditional school bullying. The rapid growth of new media technologies has enabled bullies to extend the reach of their aggression and threats beyond their physical setting through what can be termed cyberbullying (Patchin & Hinduja, 2006). Cyberbullying involves sending harassing or threatening emails and instant messages, posting derogatory comments about someone on a website or any other form of intimidation online (Hinduja & Patchin, 2006).

While it has been highlighted recently in the popular media by the death of teenagers Amanda Todd, Erin Gallaghar and Ciara Pugsley, some researchers don’t recognize it as a an epidemic like the media popularizes it to be. According to Michelle Ybarra, PhD, “We should refuse to give in to fear mongering and hyperbolic statements about technology because the data simply don’t support the idea that technology is changing or encouraging bullying, sexting or other types of harassment (De Angellis, 2011). So then why does it merit study if it is not an “epidemic”? While currently it is not widespread we live in a world where online communication is quickly becoming the norm, the mere fact that teenagers are resorting to suicide as a consequence of being bullied online proves how important it is that we understand this phenomena. As Patchin states, “Cyberbulling is neither an epidemic nor a rarity. What is of importance is that it is an emerging issue with very real life consequences. (Patchin, 2013)

Because cyberbullying has only emerged within the last decade it is a relatively young phenomena, as such the body of work around it is quite sparse. In the book ‘ Cyberbullying: Bullying in the Digital Age’ by Kowalski, Limber and Agatson , the most relevant cyberbulling researches are highlighted. A total of fourteen researches done between the periods of 2002 and 2006 are presented. The author of this paper has particularly relied on work done by Patchin & Hinduja as well as Kowalski & Limber. What theoretical framework has been used so far by researchers on cyberbullying? Mark and Ratliffe have applied Erikson’s Psychosocial theory. Erikson (1968) characterized adolescence as a time of identity formation versus role diffusion. Bullying can be seen as one way to improve or maintain one’s own standing through being aggressive to others with lower status (Mark & Ratliffe, 2011). Hinduja and Patchin have used General Strain theory to explain cyberbullying, which recognizes how stressors may negatively affect one’s personal well being (Hinduja & Patchin, 2007).

Cyberbullying is a relatively new phenomenon and the literature is only starting to uncover and explore the nature, incident rate, gender differences and effects this type of bullying has on adolescent students. Most of the research has been done in the United States, which can be considered an individualist culture. Currently there exists no form of research done in Trinidad and Tobago about cyberbullying and its effects on adolescents.

Research has been done on how cyberbullying occurs and who are affected. Age and gender have been examined and even race and ethnicity. The nature of the perpetrators and victims has been examined, but the anonymous nature of the internet has just been briefly touched upon by most. This research paper attempts the show the relationship between anonymity and cyberbullying among adolescents and whether having more anonymity online will increase it.

Literature Review

Bullying is very common among adolescents. Wang, Iannotti and Nansel found that out of 7182 students, 20.8% were bullied physically and 53.6% verbally (Wang, Iannotti & Nansel, 2009). Cyberbullying evolved out of bullying, and now according to the literature occurs simultaneously with traditional bullying. Erentaite, Bergman & Zukauskiene used a sample of 1167 students (972 girls and 695 boys), between the ages of 15 to 19. They found a link between traditional bulling and cyberbulling. According to the researchers 35% of traditional bullying victims reported revictimization in cyberspace one year later, as compared to 22% of those who did not face any traditional bullying (Erentaite, Bergman & Zukauskiene, 2012).

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Although the author found no research relating to cyberbullying and how it occurs in the Caribbean islands, there was research done on traditional bullying. Regional data demonstrates the link between bullying and mental health among Caribbean students. Using a sample size of 6780 students from, The Cayman islands, St Lucia, St Vincent and the Grendines and Trinidad and Tobago, Abdirahman, Bah, Shrestha & Jacobson found that bullying rates were similar for males and females and that victimization tended to decrease with age. Being bullied was associated with significantly higher rates of loneliness, symptoms of depression, anxiety and insomnia and suicidal thoughts (Abdirahman et al., 2012).

The Pew Internet & American Life Project report indicated that 21 million adolescents between the ages of 12 and 17 spend time online. Of this group half reported going online every day. Approximately 45% of the adolescents had their own cells phones, 33% communicated via text messaging. Seventy – five percents of the teenagers who went online said that they used instant messaging with 48% saying that they used it daily. The anonymity offered by the internet allows a lot of people to try multiple roles and experiment with different selves without fear of negative evaluation or social sanctions that might follow such experimentation in face-to-face encounters (Lenhart, Madden & Hitlin 2005).

The literature that exists on cyberbullying itself is limited and varies in findings. One of the major limititations is that much of the research has only been conducted on adolescents. Sameer Hinduja and Justin W. Patchin conducted one of the first studies on cyberbullying. In 2006 using a sample of 384 persons, no older than seventeen years of age, they found that 30% of respondents reported being victims of cyberbullying and 11% reported bullying others while online. According to the pair of researchers “sex and race were not significantly related to cyberbullying victimization or offending (Patchin & Hinduja, 2006).

In contrast to the last statement Mark and Ratliff examined 247 middle school children in 2011. The results showed that of the females 25% reported being a cybervictim and 8% a cyberbully within the previous school year (2010). Of the males 15% reported being a cybervictims and 5% a cyberbully. The data revealed that females were more likely to be involved in cyberbulling altercations, with 33% of all females and 20% of all males reporting to being either a victim or bully. Additionally it was found that over half (52%) of victims in this study reported not knowing their bullies (Mark & Ratliff, 2011).

In 2012 Lindfors, Hein and Rimpla distributed self administered questionnaires among 5516 respondents ranging from the ages of 12 -18 years of age. The response rate was 56% with 66% of the respondents being female. The researchers found that the prevalence of cyberbullying was 11%. Cyberbullies accounted for 9% and the victims 4%. Based on their findings the authors concluded that boys bullied more than girls (Lindfors, Heino & Rimpela, 2012).

In 2008 Schneider, O` Donnell, Steve and Coulter surveyed 20 406 students between the 9th and 12th grade. They found that there existed a link between bullying and cyberbullying .In total, 15. 8% of students reported cyberbulling and 25.9% reported school bullying in the past 12 months. A majority (59.7%) of cyberbullying victims was also schoolbullying victims; 36.3% of school bullying victims was also cyberbullying victims (Schnieder et al, 2008). In this study more girls were cyberbullied (18.3%) as compared to boys (13.2%). However when it came to bullying the sexes were almost equal with 25.1% for girls and 26.6% for boys. While age and gender have often been studied with regards to cyberbulling, sexual orientation is often left out. Fortunately Schneider et al., did not exclude sexual orientation from their study. Non-heterosexually identified youths were more likely than were heterosexual youths to report cyberbullying (33.1% vs. 14.5%) and school bullying (42.3% vs. 24.8%) (Schneider et al., 2008)

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The psychological perspective used for this topic is the Psychodynamic perspective. Psychodynamic theories include all the diverse theories descended from the work of Sigmund Freud that focus on unconscious mental forces (Weiten, Dunn & Hammer, 2011). Key components of the Psychodynamic perspective are the id, ego and superego. Often online users encounter individuals who say and do things that they wouldn’t ordinarily say and do face to face in the real world. According to John Suler, PhD, sometimes people can share personal information about themselves in a benign way. However, in some cases people visit the dark underworld of the internet, places of pornography, crime and violence, territory they would never explore in the real world (Suler, 2008). Our social interactions online, according to Suler, can either be an attempt to better understand and develop oneself, to resolve interpersonal and intrapsychic problems (Suler, 2008). Or it may simply be a blind catharsis, a fruitless repetition compulsion and an acting out of unsavory needs without any personal goal at all (Suler, 2008)

To explain whether or not there exists a link between cyberbullying and anonymity online, the theoretical framework used is the Online Disinhibition Effect. Being in an online environment can often lead to an individual having less restraint, due in part of the anonymity of the internet, they often divulge information about themselves that they would not share in a real world setting. The Online Disinhibition effect comprises of six characteristics which are dissociative anonymity, invisibility, asynchronicity, solipsistic introjections, dissociative imagination and minimization of authority.

Online interaction has to some degree a level of dissociative anonymity. While online, it is possible for a person to create a whole new identity for themselves. Their names, age and location can all be altered. Who they are online can be extremely different from who they are in real life. In many online environments, especially those that are text driven, people cannot see each other (Suler, 2004). Because they are not physically present, an individual does not have to worry about how they look or sound when communicating with others online. In email and message boards, communication is asynchronous. People don’t interact with each other in real time; replies can take hours, days, weeks and even months. Not having to cope with someone’s immediate reaction disinbits people (Suler, 2004). Also, the social norms that govern real life conversation do not exist online; the conversation does not follow as a continuous feedback loop. In the real world, ignoring a verbal message can show disinterest and prematurely end a conversation. However, online a persistent bully can keep sending hurtful message even though they won’t get a reply. Suler also explains that reading another person’s messages might be experienced as a voice within one’s head; he terms this a solipsistic introjections. Here, the digital world becomes blended in the user’s thoughts and imagination. In the paper ‘The Online Disinhibition Effect’, Emily Finch is quoted as saying that some people see their online life as a kind of game with rules and norms that don’t apply to everyday life. The identities they have created are separate from they are in the real world and don’t share the demands and responsibilities they may face. Finally, when a person is online, there is a minimization of authority. In the real world, authority figures have more of an impact than in the virtual world. Authority figures express their status and power in their dress, body language and in the trappings of their environmental setting. While a person’s reputation may have an impact on how they are viewed online, what really shapes them is how good they are at effectively communicating.


Using the theoretical framework discussed above, how relevant is it to the case of cyberbullying? Would having more anonymity online contribute to it among adolescents? In 2007 Robin M Kowalski, Ph.D and Susan P. Limber, Ph.D did a study on the prevalence of electronic bullying among middle school students. A total of 3767 middle school students (1915 girls & 1852 boys) in grades 6,7 and 8 who attended six elementary and middle schools in the southeastern and northwestern United States completed a questionnaire (Kowalski & Limber, 2007). The results showed that of the students, 11% had been electronically bullied at least once in the last couple of months (victims only): 7% indicated that they were bully/ victims and 4% had electronically bullied someone else at least once in the previous couple of months (bullies only). The research found that the most popular form of electronic victimization was instant messaging with 66.7% affected. Other popular forms of electronic victimization were bullying in chat rooms (24.7%) and bullying through email (24.2%). Importantly, close to half of the electronic bully victims reported not knowing the perpetrators identity (Kowalski & Limber, 2007).

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One limitation of this study as well as several others reviewed is that although instant messaging is often listed as one of the main mediums, the different types of instant messengers that can be utilized are not be listed. For some instant messaging can be thought of as the same thing as text messaging, although in this study text messaging was listed separately, 14.7% was bullied via it. Instant messaging is defined as, a system for exchanging typed electronic messages instantly via the internet or a cellular network, using a shared software application on a personal computer or mobile device ( Popular instant messaging software includes Skype and Microsoft Instant Messenger. There are also instant messaging sites that are anonymous where individuals can freely chat with strangers, Example of these sites include Chatroulette, Omegle, Zumble and Torchat. Sites such as these where a high degree of anonymity is possible can cause the online disinhibition effect and can lead to toxic disinhibition. However because the instant messengers used were not specified only assumptions can be made and not definite conclusions.

Similarly, even though cyberbullying occurred largely in chartrooms also, the chat rooms they occurred in were not given as examples. However an explanation is still fairly straightforward. The environment of a chatroom is usually anonymous, users simply create id’s for themselves. In chatrooms age, gender, race and ethnicity are not highlighted anybody can literally become anybody. In the chatroom environment the online disinhibiton effect would hold true.

Surprisingly the third most common method of cyberbullying in this study was via emails. An email for some represents their online identity; they are quite open in nature. If this is the case then why would they be used as a tool for cyberbullying? One possible explanation could be that the bullies in this study were using fake email accounts, or even personal email accounts that did not contain their name or any information that gave away their identity. However, according to Kruger, Epley, Parker and Ng (2005), egocentricism may have a role to play when it comes to sending emails. The team of researchers concluded that email senders overestimated their ability to communicate clearly because of egocentricism. They assumed that because the message was clear to them it was clear to the receiver for example they could detect the sarcasm in their email but in most cases the recipient failed to detect it. Thus, what may begin as ‘innocent’ teasing over email may be taken for something other than what was intended. The result could be a flaming war or some other type of cyberbullying (Kowalski, Limber & Agatson, 2008)

To synthesize, the literature is showing the cyberbullying is an emerging issue with very real consequences. Patchin and Hinduja in 2006 found that 30% of the 384 respondents reported being victims of cyber bullying. The emotional responses recorded by the victims were frustration (42.5 %), anger (40 %) and sadness (27%). The evidence shown above indicates thus far that cyber bullying occurs most via instant messaging, chat rooms, and email which are all possible domains for anonymity. Finally what can be done to deal with and possibly prevent cyber bullying? On the internet users have control over what they do and initially how they interact with others. There is user empowerment online, complaints can be made and most sites have a report or flag feature. If users seek to communicate on various platforms, they should first utilize platforms where they have the ability to report possible

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