Cyber-bullying occurs largely among friends
One may think that victims of school bullying are mostly isolated youth who do not fit in.
But a new study has revealed that when that harassment occurs online, the victims tend to be in mainstream social groups at the school - and they are often friends or former friends, not strangers.
The research is part of a burgeoning field of study into the effects of social media on everyday relationships and behavior.
Some statistics indicate that as many as 160,000 students a year skip school just to avoid being harassed, and texting and social media are making it easier than ever to harass classmates. Victimization from schoolmates has been correlated with everything from depression and anxiety to thoughts of suicide and struggles with academics.
To study so-called "cyber-aggression" - harassment that occurs online - Diane Felmlee of the Pennsylvania State University and Robert Faris of the University of California, Davis, studied 788 students at a preparatory school in Long Island. They mapped the students' social network structure relative to online harassment: asking students to name their close friends, which schoolmates they have picked on or been mean to, and which schoolmates had picked on them.
What they found was that cyber-aggression occurs in the mainstream of the school and largely among friends, former friends, and former dating partners. They also found that non-heterosexual students were more likely to be the victims.
Examples of the types of harassment found online were posting humiliating photos, texting vicious rumors, posting that a student is gay and making fun of him, and pretending to befriend a lonely person.
"Cyber-aggression occurred most often among relatively popular young people, rather than among those on the fringes of the school hierarchy," Felmlee said.
"Those engaging in cyber-aggression also were unlikely to target strangers but often were in close relationships with their victims at one point in time, close enough to know how to harm them," she added.
The researchers found that some of the processes that contribute to aggression in school include jockeying for status, enforcing norms of conformity, and competing for girlfriends or boyfriends.
The research was presented at the Society for Personality and Social Psychology (SPSP) annual meeting today in New Orleans.