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What is Cyberbullying/Digital Peer Aggression?


Part 1 of a 3 part cyberbullying series


Throughout my 30-year career in law enforcement and my present occupation as an internet/social media safety advocate, I have found that many people utilize the term “bullying” to describe undesirable behaviour between two parties that can be physical, verbal, social, emotional, or even “digital” in nature. I believe, however, that the word “bullying” is being overused and diluted, given that any undesirable behaviour experienced by a youth is commonly being categorized or identified as bullying by parents, educators, counselors, law enforcement, and the youth themselves. Why does this happen? Most likely because here in Canada, and even in the rest of North America, we do not have one agreed-upon definition for the word bullying; it means different things to different people. I believe that if we are going to effectively deal with true bullying behaviour, or what I like to call “peer aggression,” then we Canadians need to have an agreed-upon definition that anyone and everyone can use as a starting point to define what it is, and very recently, the Supreme Court of Canada (SCC) has created a blueprint for such a definition.

In a 2012 SCC case known as A.B vs. Bragg, the court defined bullying as:

“behaviour that is intended to cause, or should be known to cause, fear, intimidation, humiliation, distress or other forms of harm to another person’s body, feelings, self- esteem, reputation or property. Bullying can be direct or indirect, and can take place by written, verbal, physical or electronic means, or any other form of expression.”

Based upon the above noted SCC decision, I have created a definition that I believe is congruent with both current case law here in Canada, and some of the definitions that many North Americans experts in the field of bullying often cite. So here is my proposed definition of “bullying” that I use in my presentations:

“It is PEER AGGRESSION involving a power imbalance, either direct or indirect, that can be delivered verbally or physically, by a writing or by electronic/digital means, to support deliberate, repeated, or repeatedly shared and hostile behaviour by an individual or group, that is intended to cause, or should have reasonably been known to cause fear, intimidation, humiliation, distress or other forms of harm to others emotionally, psychologically, physically, and/or socially.”

With this definition, we can now apply any questionable behaviour to the essential elements of the above-noted.

The Essential Elements of this Definition:

  • It’s violence, thus why I use the term “peer aggression”

  • It can be focused directly or indirectly on the intended target

  • It usually involves a power imbalance between aggressor and target

  • It can be delivered face-to-face or by proxy verbally, non-verbally, physically, or via written word or electronic or digital means or any other form of expression

  • It’s used to support deliberate, repetitive, and hostile behaviour by an individual or group

  • It’s intended to cause or should have reasonably been known to cause fear, intimidation, humiliation, distress, or other forms of harm

  • The peer aggression effects a target emotionally, psychologically, physically, and/or socially

This definition, in my opinion, allows anyone to separate peer aggression (bullying), where there is often a power imbalance, from that of rude, mean, or disturbing behaviour, or what some people call drama, where there is often no power imbalance. This is an important distinction to understand because the way we cope with rude, mean, or disturbing behaviour is totally different from how we cope with peer aggression (bullying).

The Difference Between Bullying and Rude, Mean, or Disturbing Behaviour:

To help parents, educators, counselors, administrators, and law enforcement decide if an identified behavour falls into the above-noted bullying definition, a British Columbia educator and principal, Cathal Walsh, has created a tool that I highly endorse that he calls, “The Bullying Equation.” In this equation, if ”yes” can be answered to the following six questions, then you are probably dealing with peer aggression (bullying), rather than rude, mean, or disturbing behaviour:

  1. Is the hurtful behaviour repetitive? Typically, peer aggression is not a one-off phenomenon. Usually, peer aggression develops over time with an escalating number of negative, repetitive behaviours, either online or offline.

  2. Is there an apparent desire to emotionally and/or physically hurt others or to cause fear, intimidation, humiliation, distress, or other forms of harm to another person’s body, feelings, self-esteem, reputation, or property on the part of the suspected peer aggressor? In other words, is the aggressor’s behaviour malicious or is the hurt being experienced as a byproduct of their unruly conduct?

  3. Is the suspected peer aggressor’s desire to hurt followed with a deliberate hurtful action either online or offline? This can include pranks, teasing, and name-calling.

  4. Is their evidence of enjoyment on the part of the aggressor? This can include bragging and seeking social recognition from peers for the negative behaviour.

  5. Is there a power imbalance? Is the aggressor older, bigger, or have assigned authority of some kind including positional rule within the social pecking order of the peer group?

  6. Is there a sense of oppression on the part of the target? Loss of appetite and sleep, not wanting to go to school, a loss of interest in activities previously enjoyed are all some of the warning signs. If a child feels they are being peer aggressed they should be listened to and the situation thoroughly reviewed.

I believe that Cathal’s Bully Equation is a great litmus test that we can apply to any unwanted/questionable behaviour to help us adults decide as to whether the behaviour reported to us, or observed is in fact bullying, or rather, just rude, mean, or disturbing behaviour.

Again, I believe that as a society, we need a definition that all Canadians can agree upon and utilize to identify what bullying is, and more importantly, what it is not. With this definition, we can now move forward looking for desirable ways to cope with both bullying behaviour, and other concerning behaviours that are more rude, mean, or disturbing in nature.

Although traditional bullying has really only affected our youth while at or travelling to and from school, modern technology has now enabled those who bully to extend their reach of peer aggression no matter where the intended target may be located. As Dr. Hinduja and Dr. Patchin state in their excellent book on the topic, “Bullying, Beyond the Schoolyard:”

“While power in traditional bullying might be physical (stature) or social (wit or popularity), online power may simply stem from proficiency with or the knowledge or possession of some content (information, pictures, or video) that can be used to inflict harm. Anyone with any of these characteristics or possessions within a certain on-line context has power, which can be wielded through some form of cyberbullying. Indeed, anyone who can utilize technology in a way that allows them to mistreat others is in a position of power, at least at that moment, relative to the target of the attack.”

The Four Types of Digital Peer Aggressors (Cyberbullies):

www.stopcyberbullying.org does a great job of breaking down peer aggressors/cyberbullies into four different typologies:

“The Vengeful Angel”

Here, the youth doesn’t see themselves as a bully, but rather as a support mechanism to stand up for a friend or “right the wrong” done to someone they know.

“The Power Hungry”

Here, the youth wants to show they control others and usually need an audience to do so in such places as social networks.

“Mean Girls”

Here, the attack is ego-based and sometimes the youth is just bored and wants to stir the pot. Youth here usually plan their schemes in a group to target an individual.

“The Inadvertent Cyberbully”

Here, the youth typically don’t see themselves as a bully and are usually just responding to a situation without thinking about the consequences.


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