What is Cyberbullying? Why Do People Cyberbully?

Cyberbullying is insulting, intimidating, or threatening someone while hiding behind the screen. Why do people cyberbully on social media and the internet?

The internet and social media have created a number of new ways we can conceive our identities and relationships.

It has impacted the way we form social comparisons and evaluate our own achievements and relationships; as well as the way we construct and narrate our lives for the purposes of presentation to a potentially limitless audience; and the way we conceptualize what’s private and what’s public and the degree to which we censor our lives.

Relationships are now threatened or enhanced by the element of cyber-intimacy, and rules of etiquette for engaging in and terminating romance have been altered.

Social media and multiplayer role games provide a form of escapism and entertainment that can challenge our desire to participate fully in the non-virtual reality of our lives.

The internet has also provided a new format for communicating ideas and sharing information that has huge implications for how we evaluate knowledge and take ownership of ideas.

Information, be it fact or fiction, is collectively combined in the cesspool of the World Wide Web. Our epistemology (how we evaluate what is knowledge) and the ways in which we are held accountable for what we share, or ascertain the legitimacy of information, are in some need of evaluation.

Anonymity and Cyberbullying

In many ways, the internet provides a level playing field for anyone wanting to contribute their ideas to the pool of shared knowledge.

However, people can also express themselves without accountability, behind anonymous avatars or as de-identified commenters. This is usually where cyberbullying exists.

Citations are not necessarily required and the information is aggregated to support truths. Furthermore, social media can provide what I’ll refer to as ‘internet courage’ or ‘cyber courage’, where individuals are more inclined to disclose or not censor themselves behind the keys of a keyboard than they would be in person. 

There’s a certain inhibition that is fostered when authority is minimized, the actors are invisible, and the act is passive– you simply wait for results.

The Increase of Cyberbullying and Harassment

The famous Milgram studies, completed in the 1950’s at Yale University, were meant to demonstrate how when someone was deemed an “authority figure” people were more willing to comply with their orders even it meant participating in behaviors they would otherwise consider abhorrent.

In the study, this meant administering electric shocks (at increasing voltage) to actors posing as students who answered memory questions incorrectly. 

Additionally, the people who were ordered to administer the electric shocks could not see the people whom they shocked, only hear their cries of anguish.

Not only did this study show how people are influenced by perceived roles of authority, but that those who could not see their victims were more likely to give potentially lethal doses of electric shock.

It also supported the ‘herd mentality” of people to conform to a behavior or mindset if they were able to observe many others also conforming. This sociological phenomenon has implications for the increase of cyberbullying and harassment.

People are less likely to censor themselves and communicate insults, harassment, or offensive language when they don’t have to visually see the person’s reaction to it. This is one of the main reasons why people cyberbully.

Why Do People Cyberbully?

Perhaps the “appeal” for cyberbullies on making snarky, inflammatory, or hateful comments online is that it takes less courage than making them in person and provides the illusion of lack of consequence.

This can occur in the form of direct attacks towards an individual, comments in response to a blog post or status update, or generalized opinions stated as fact without support or qualified assessment.

In an article by Gary Woodward, he eloquently described those who rant anonymously (aka a cyberbully) as “avatars of souls who lack the confidence to be full partners-in-dialogue with others.”


He further stated that “as a culture, we seem to be forgetting that attaching names to opinions is part of living in a civil society. It’s a fraudulent kind of rhetoric that keeps sources in the shadows.”

This applies not just to derogatory comments, but information, in general, can be distributed as factual when it is sensationalized or even unintentionally misinterpreted.

It’s like a world-wide game of telephone, except much much harder to trace back to the original source or identify the points at which the message becomes distorted.

Resisting Urges to Use the Internet and Social Media 

Ironically, more and more people use features of the internet and social media to “unwind” and mindlessly scroll through the status updates, photos, and shares from the lives of others. Many teens I work with can become anxious and agitated if they cannot check their social media before bed.

The constant access to information and ability to express ourselves to a captive audience not only increases the permeability of our social filters, it also potentially sets us up for an incessant and infinite quest for “knowledge.”

Questions beget questions, the answers to which are merely a Google search or Wikipedia entry away. As we seek to decompress and mindlessly observe what the internet has to offer, the synapses in our brains are randomly stimulated and activated as we retain varying amounts of information.

Often this promotes curiosity and stimulation, rather than subduing it. 

Many clients have complained about the inability to “shut down” their minds; a restless, disconcerting fatigue that comes from exposure to various bits and pieces of information from their portable electronic devices that they often bring to bed with them.

“Anonymity takes away that psychological mechanism and removes the social pressure and societal mores for keeping ourselves in check.”

The search for knowledge and truth has been a long-standing goal for humanity, so there may be some biological hardwiring underlying this pursuit and the challenge in resisting the urge to pursue it.

I predict that, as one client coined it, an “addiction to information” may continue to become a problem for certain people when faced with access to a limitless supply of it on the internet.

The reason this issue is highlighted in this post is because if the quality of information were better streamlined, sources were more reputable, and there was a hierarchy to the information, we might be able to better satiate this innate curiosity and get on with our lives.

The anonymity of information sources is detrimental to the quality of debate and allows for the “stream of consciousness unburdening of personal demons unchecked by the kind of self-monitoring individuals usually do in the presence of others…” (Gary Woodward, The Fraudulence of Online Anonymity).

There is a new social media medium that flaunts this aspect of online networking unabashedly. It encourages users to proudly be just a number. It’s called Social Number, and the tagline is:

“Join. Share. Follow. Anonymously. The social network where we are all just a number. The social network where no one knows your name.” One word: creepy.

The Internet and Lawsuits

The legal world is trying to keep up. It has been illegal to attempt to annoy others with telecommunication service, anonymous or not; but now anonymity has been explicitly addressed.

If you attempt to hide your identity while engaging in a campaign to annoy someone electronically, you could find yourself on the other side of a lawsuit.

However, making false accusations or statements of fact (as in defamation), excessive monitoring, making threats, identity theft, damage to data or equipment, gathering information that may be used to harass, encouraging others to harass the individual, etc. are all still issues that have the potential to slip through the cracks of the interweb police; a self-appointed term at this point.

Hiding Behind the Screen

The truth is that humans have a hard enough time filtering and censoring their impulses and emotions as is. In fact, what keeps us in check more often than not is the fact that we would be held accountable and our foresight protects us from things like embarrassment and retaliation.

Anonymity takes away that psychological mechanism and removes the social pressure and societal mores for keeping ourselves in check. Additionally, there is a disproportionate amount of harassment towards minority groups, including women.

For example, popular author and video blogger, John Green, posted on his own blog:

“You want to know why there are so few women in the Top 100 most viewed lists on YouTube? Because women are far more likely to be stalked, threatened, and attacked on the Internet, and they are far more likely to see those attacks move from cyber-bullying to real life threats, which too often forces them to abandon their work and their audiences. We accomplish nothing good by allowing blind hatred and rage to steal the focus away from potentially enlightening public debates.”

Before you share your opinion with a group of people or a person, try to imagine yourself in a room with the person and what it would feel like to say it to their face. If that scenario makes you feel uncomfortable, perhaps save it for your non-virtual diary.

Check out more articles written by Rachel Kitson, Ph.D.!


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