3.4.2 What are risk factors and protective factors in cyberbullying?

A number of studies and scholarly papers investigate which children and adolescents are most and least at risk of experiencing cyberbullying. Results are interesting and unexpected: when it comes to cyberbullying, there are almost no common risk factors except opportunity. Online access and unsupervised online time and technology use is clearly a ‘prerequisite’ for cyberbullying. However, not all forms of media usages raise the risk of experiencing cyberbullying. Children and adolescents who spend more time using their cell phone are more likely to report receiving aggressive or threatening electronic communication, but no such relationship seems to exist between time spent on the internet and either form of online bullying6.

There are no common risk factors except opportunity.

Most studies find that age and gender do not have a very clear predictive role in cyberbullying. Some early research findings suggested that cyberbullies are often kids who were themselves bullied in real life. But later research found that cyberbullies and targets can just as well be popular, well-adjusted kids who have not been exposed to peer-aggression before. Whereas low self-esteem is usually linked to traditional bullying, many cyberbullies demonstrate a high perception of self-esteem in perceiving their relationships with peers as satisfying. However, feelings of loneliness and a perception of unsafety at school were often linked to cyberbullying.

In short, there seem to be very few common risk factors and even fewer protective factors that would prevent children and young people from becoming involved in cyberbullying. It really can happen to anyone. Research findings suggest that the most important protective factors against cyberbullying are strong parent relationships and positive experiences at school. Restrictions on media use enforced by adults were far less effective in fighting cyberbullying.6

It really can happen to anyone.

However, although there are few risk factors that can help us predict involvement in cyberbullying and very few protective factors that would prevent children and young people from becoming involved, there are some important protective factors that can help them respond to cyberbullying resiliently. We might not be able to prevent cyberbullying from happening, but we can do things to minimize the damage so that the children and young people do not suffer prolonged or even life-threatening consequences. This can make a key difference in outcomes of cyberbullying both for the bullies and the targets.

Again, strong relationships among children and adults and positive school experiences are the strongest predictors of resilient response for children and adolescents who have faced cyberbullying. More specifically, students tended to behave resiliently if they:

  • they could find an environment that felt emotionally and physically safe,
  • had a trusted adult to talk to about problems,
  • had parents of caretakers with basic digital competencies and awareness of online safety,
  • experienced peer support and felt they are not alone in their experience,
  • had access to practical information on what they can do to stop cyberbullying,
  • had strong self-esteem, empathy, and social skills,
  • were able (or given support) to cope with emotions, especially feelings of shame, guilt, sadness and fear.
Finally, an alarming statistic is that being a passive observer of cyberbullying, especially if there are no consequences or if the behaviour is not challenged, raises the likelihood of acting as a cyberbully in the future.

Children and young people who have been onlookers are often at risk of perpetuating such behaviour. This is why it is so important to build healthy, empowering communities where cyberbullying does not go unrecognized, where such behaviour is talked about and challenged and where solutions for better relationships are found and invested in.