Bullying Enters the 21st Century? Turning a Critical Eye to Cyber-bullying Research

Publication Date01 Dec 2012
AuthorCarla Cesaroni,Steven Downing,Shahid Alvi
YJJ12310.1177/1473225412459837Youth JusticeCesaroni et al.
Youth Justice
12(3) 199 –211
Bullying Enters the 21st Century?
© The Author(s) 2012
Reprints and permission: sagepub.
Turning a Critical Eye to Cyber-
DOI: 10.1177/1473225412459837
bullying Research
Carla Cesaroni, Steven Downing and Shahid Alvi
Current concerns around cyber-bullying emphasize child-victims and have prompted calls for understanding
and reaction to an alleged new type of child-offender. Though there is little doubt that cyber-bullying is
a phenomenon with potential for real harm, there remain a number of critical gaps in the cyber-bullying
literature. This article has two primary goals: a) to confront some methodological issues surrounding the
study of cyber-bullying; and b) to draw attention to the potential of established criminological theories of
delinquency for explaining cyber-bullying.
cyber-bullying, youth culture
It is no exaggeration to suggest that one of the most profound developments conditioning
social relations in modern societies involves the proliferation of the Internet, and the con-
comitant acceleration of communication and information technologies that use the
Internet. This is certainly true for adults, but in addition, in the last decade, ‘technology
has changed the landscape of children’s lives’ (Williams and Guerra, 2007: 15).
Accordingly some researchers argue that ‘cyber violence’ (Chisolm, 2006: 81) should be
a new object of adult concern.
Indeed, it has been suggested that Internet bullying has emerged as a ‘psychologically
devastating form of social cruelty’ (Shariff, 2005: 476) with some scholars identifying
cyber-bullying as a ‘modern pervasive problem’ (Brown et al., 2006: 38), and ‘a problem
of significant magnitude’ (Kowalski and Limber, 2007: S29). The Journal of Adolescent
(2005: 41) devoted an entire special issue to cyber-bullying, framing cyber-bully-
ing as an ‘emerging public health problem’. Some authors contend that we are only now
Corresponding author:
Carla Cesaroni, Faculty of Social Science and Humanities, University of Ontario Institute of Technology, 2000 Simcoe
Street North, Oshawa, Ontario L1H 7K4, Canada.
Email: carla.cesaroni@uoit.ca

Youth Justice 12(3)
beginning to grasp the ‘enormity’ of the cyber-bullying problem (Cassidy et al., 2009)
while still others issue dire warnings that ‘cyber-bullying will contribute to a whole gen-
eration of maladjusted adults’ (Espelage as cited in Goddard, 2007: 8). It has also been
implied that cell phones which keep parents connected to their children ‘may become
instruments of harassment’ (see Keith and Martin, 2005: 225) and that the family home is
no longer a safe sanctuary for young people (Strom and Strom, 2005).
It is likely that most adults do not fully understand cyber-bullying. According to
Juvonen and Gross (2008: 497), ‘cyber-bullying may appear especially frightening to
parents because it involves communication technologies with which they are unfamiliar’.
Cyberspace is often referred to (and perhaps perceived) in terms of a being borderless,
risky, and criminal territory (see Akbulut et al., 2010). However, this may not be the per-
ception of youth. It has been argued that ‘kids approach cyberspace with a very different
understanding of its fluidity or capacity, whereas adults tend to see cyberspace as some-
thing that can be controlled in the same way as physical space’ (Lankshear and Knobel, as
quoted in Shariff, 2008: 29).
Adult fears regarding cyber-bullying may be exaggerated. Adult anxieties regarding
perceived threats to moral and social order are often conjoined with anxieties about youth
culture (Yar, 2005). Often, such fears escalate into what Stan Cohen (1972) refers to as a
‘moral panic’, a phenomenon that:
… occurs when a condition, episode, person or a group of persons emerges to become
defined as a threat to societal values and interests; its nature is presented in a stylized and
stereotypical fashion by the mass media; the moral barricades are manned by editors, bish-
ops, politicians, and other right-thinking people. (Cohen, 1972: 9)
Thus ‘moral panics are a consequence of public apprehensions about real, but poorly
understood, strains and tensions in society’ (Cohen as cited in Tanner, 2010: 270).
Moreover, according to Cohen, the subject of moral panics is often ‘quite novel’, but may
on the other hand be a long existent phenomenon that suddenly ‘appears in the limelight’
(Cohen, 1972: 9).
We would argue that current concerns around cyber-bullying might in fact amount to a
moral panic. Certainly the way in which the interest around cyber-bullying has manifested
itself appears to fulfill some of the classic signs of a panic as described by Cohen, includ-
ing the role of ‘experts’ in solving what is perceived to be a new social problem. Research
emphasizing the dangers of cyber-bullying and the proliferation of the problem has also
included or been accompanied by suggestions for new protocols and new legislation that
would respond to an alleged new type of child-offender. Resolution of the perceived prob-
lem has been met at a number of levels, ranging from the informal (e.g. school policies
and awareness campaigns, bans on electronic devices) to more formal legislative debates
and policy creation.
In fact Martin (2002) argues that modern moral panics are part of the new politics
of crime that tend to narrow complex social issues into the binary language of victim
and victimizer, crime and punishment, and drive campaigns that simply produce an
enhanced social control strategy, which includes the regulation of young people in

Cesaroni et al.
public spaces (see Alvi, 2011). The language used to describe youth ‘offenders’ is itself
an indicator of a potential moral panic. Ayers (1997) argues that the labeling of youth
as ‘super predators’ threatens efforts to treat children fairly and effectively, and main-
tains that children should be called children, even in the context of dialogues about
crime and delinquency.
The public, policy, and academic discourse surrounding cyber-bullying has prompted
researchers to develop predictors and typologies of cyber-bullying and investigate the
characteristics of the involved parties. While there is little doubt that cyber-bullying rep-
resents a phenomenon with potential for real harm, in this article we contend that the
definition, dynamics and contours of cyber-bullying remain poorly understood and that
caution should be exercised in interpreting the findings of cyber-bullying studies because
of their potential for buttressing policies that are ineffective or even harmful.
Thus, this article seeks to confront issues in cyber-bullying research that may obfuscate
scholarly and public discourse about cyber-bullying as well as potentially related behav-
iors such as harassment and hate crime. By reviewing the current literature on cyber-
bullying this article adds to the relatively small body of criminological literature on cyber-
bullying research by: a) confronting methodological issues surrounding the study of
cyber-bullying; and b) drawing attention to the potential of established criminological
theories of delinquency for explaining cyber-bullying.
Critical Questions
Definitional issues
A central problem in cyber-bullying research is that researchers have not devised a stan-
dard definition of online harassment (Wolak et al., 2007). Patchin and Hinduja (2006:
152) define it as ‘willful and repeated harm inflicted through the medium of electronic
text’. Electronic text, however, can include a variety of modalities including electronic
text messaging or instant messaging (IM), chat rooms, websites and emails. Research
participants have been probed about being made to ‘feel bad or uncomfortable’ through
electronic teasing, sending or receiving messages, picture phone bullying (to embarrass)
or the spreading of rumors (Raskauskas and Stoltz, 2007).
Other definitions draw on related concepts such as cyber-stalking (see Finn, 2004) and
online youth gangs (see King, Walpole, and Lamon, 2007). Akbulut et al. (2010) suggests
that cyber-bullying can be divided into the following categories (though it is not clear if
these categories depend on a particular technological means); flaming (sending angry,
rude or vulgar messages), harassment (repeatedly sending a person offensive messages),
cyber-stalking (harassment and threats of harm that are highly intimidating), denigration
(posting harmful, untrue or cruel statements about a person), masquerading (pretending to
be someone else and sending messages to make them look bad), exclusion (actions that
intentionally exclude a person from a community or online group), outing and trickery
(sending out or posting material that contains private or embarrassing info about a person,
engaging in tricks to solicit embarrassing information to make it public, or forwarding
private messages and images).

Youth Justice 12(3)
Although there does appear to be some definitional consensus on the repetitive nature
of the harassment as defined by Patchin and Hinduja (2006)...

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