Year : 2018  |  Volume : 60  |  Issue : 1  |  Page : 3--5

Cyberbullying: A virtual offense with real consequences

TS Sathyanarayana Rao, Deepali Bansal, Suhas Chandran 
 Department of Psychiatry, JSS Medical College, JSS Academy of Higher Education and Research, Formerly JSS University, Mysore, Karnataka, India

Correspondence Address:
Dr. T S Sathyanarayana Rao
Department of Psychiatry, JSS Medical College, JSS Academy of Higher Education and Research, Formerly JSS University, Mysore, Karnataka

How to cite this article:
Sathyanarayana Rao T S, Bansal D, Chandran S. Cyberbullying: A virtual offense with real consequences.Indian J Psychiatry 2018;60:3-5

How to cite this URL:
Sathyanarayana Rao T S, Bansal D, Chandran S. Cyberbullying: A virtual offense with real consequences. Indian J Psychiatry [serial online] 2018 [cited 2020 Jan 22 ];60:3-5
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Full Text

Technology, as we know, is a double-edged sword, where the users are continuously balancing between the risks and opportunities it offers. It is no longer just a cliché: we really are all connected, 24/7, no matter where in the world, we are mere one click away from our families, co-workers, classmates, idols, mentors, neighbors, and even strangers. On one side, the Internet has made the world a much smaller place full of opportunities to thrive for people with minimal resources along with bringing awareness to important sociopolitical movements and acting as a platform for fundraising for many noble causes; on the other side, it has exposed vulnerable people to a deep dark world of web and bullying while sitting safely in the vicinity of their homes.

A popular report by a US market research company in 2015[1] suggests that, at the time, there were more mobile devices on the planet than people –8.6 billion devices versus 7.3 billion people. And by the end of 2018, the number of mobile devices in world will exceed 12 billion – an average of nearly 2 devices per user. This rapid rise of electronic-based communication during the past decade has dramatically changed the social interactions, especially among teenagers. Adolescents are moving from using the Internet as an "extra" in everyday communication to using it as the "primary" mode of communication. This shift from face-to-face communication to online communication has created many unique and potentially harmful dynamics for social relationships – one such dynamic has recently been explored in the literature as cyberbullying.

Cyberbullying is defined by Smith et al. as an "aggressive, intentional act carried out by a group or individual, using electronic forms of contact, repeatedly and over time against a victim who cannot easily defend himself or herself."[2] Most definitions of bullying rely upon three criteria; intent to harm, imbalance of power, and repetition of the act. Cyberbullying also can happen accidentally. The impersonal nature of text messages, instant messages, and e-mails makes it very hard to detect the sender's tone – one person's joke could be another's hurtful insult. However, a repeated pattern is rarely accidental. In case of cyberbullying, this becomes relatively easy, where the power of one click is immense and increases the audience by thousands, thus increasing the humiliation and impact of bullying exponentially. The scope of cyberbullying is vast, in terms of means as well as content. It includes bullying through text messages, phone calls, e-mails, instant messengers, social media platforms, or in chat rooms. It varies from posting hurtful words, derogatory comments, posting fake information on public forums or blogs, hacking accounts for personal vendetta to rape or death threats. It can be as ruinous as revenge porn, which is posting sexually explicit images or videos of a person on the Internet, typically by a former sexual partner, without the consent of the subject and in order to cause them distress or embarrassment. The impact of such acts can be catastrophic, especially for young adults, who feel so embarrassed and humiliated that they cannot imagine surviving the next morning, and end up taking extreme steps which include harm to self and occasionally, others. It deeply reflects the real-world problems arising out of the virtual cyberspace. No longer limited to schoolyards or street corners, it has now moved to WhatsApp, Snapchat, Twitter, Facebook, etc., where online polls are conducted to bodyshame the victim and groups are made to spread false rumours or share morphed pictures and videos, to a rather vast audience with the power of the Internet, which would not have been so easily possible in the physical world otherwise. Cyberbullying also differs from traditional bullying in offering potential anonymity to the bully and difficulty in identifying the victim. This combined with the obvious lack of monitoring and regulation in cyberspace makes the issue more intricate and strenuous to address.

On the basis of their online behavior, people can be categorized as cyber victim, cyber bully, and cyber victim/bully. The possible adverse effects of cyberbullying can be physical, psychological, or in academic performance, and these are most pronounced for the cyber bully/victim category.[3] Higher rates of depression and anxiety are noted among cyber victims along with refusal to school and declining academic performance. These students are also found to be more prone to report headache, stomach ache, bed wetting, and various other psychosomatic complaints. The type of cyberbullying tends to differ among both genders; girls are more likely to post mean comments online, while boys are more likely to post hurtful pictures or videos online.[4] As postulated by the USA-based Cyberbullying Research Centre, there are many reasons as to why dysphoric outcomes of cyberbullying are different and potentially more than traditional bullying. For example, the computer-based messages are more permanent as compared to the verbal statements as they are preserved in websites, internet archives, search engine caches, and user devices; it is easier to make hurtful, embarrassing, or threatening statements on the Internet because of comparative difficulty in detecting and identifying the misbehavior and offending party, proving or verifying the act of wrongdoing, and imposing a meaningful sanction; victimization through the Internet is omnipresent beyond the school, playground, or neighborhood due to the ubiquity of computers and cell phones and the "always-connected" lives that adolescents in todays' world lead; the youth is increasingly embracing new mediums and devices of communication, and thus the number of potential victims and offenders is rapidly growing.[5] The repercussions of virtual and seemingly not real harassment are very evidently seen in the real world, in our schools, and even in our homes, the place where the child is supposed to feel the most safe.

In the Indian context, year by year, due to increasing access to technology, inexpensive internet plans, and politicians vehemently pursuing and pushing the dream of "Digital India," the risk of cyberbullying is alarming and its assessment and prevention become even more urgent. Now, the overwhelming majority of population has access to the Internet through a computer, a tablet, or mostly on a mobile device. The most vulnerable of this population are our children and teenagers, who are being catapulted into cyberspace before they are actually capable of making sense of it psychologically. The Global Youth Online Behaviour Survey conducted by Microsoft ranked India third in cyberbullying, with 53% of the respondents, mainly children admitting to have experienced online bullying, falling behind only China and Singapore.[6]

Children and adolescents are naturally curious and, more often than not, more competent with technology than adults. Most of these children exploring the Internet are not old enough to detect or understand the risks online as well as the consequences of their own behavior online. Despite minimum age requirements for joining popular social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, many children join these platforms by misrepresenting their age mainly because these do not have any stringent guidelines for the age limit of joining. According to Intel Security Teens, Tweens and Technology Study conducted over a period of 5 years in India, the results published in 2015 claim that 81% of the children aged 8 to 16 years are already active on social media. Nearly 77% of these children had a Facebook account before they were 13 years of age. Almost 22% of these children, that is, one in five children, face online abuse.[7] These 2015 data are alarming and make us wonder what the figures might be now. Children become vulnerable to the dark underbelly of the Internet where an anonymous person sitting on a computer miles away can permanently scar their self-esteem by the power of a click, making cyberspace a dangerous and largely unmonitored playground. As a rule, Indian parents warn their children about strangers lurking on the street. There is a dire need of doing the same for online behavior as well, yet it is hardly done or even considered worrisome.

Recently, with the swiftly increasing number of stories pertaining to cyberbullying involving matters as serious as self-harm and suicide, and harrowing headlines in newspapers reading "Two preteens arrested for cyberbullying after student hangs herself" becoming a common sight, cyberbullying has come at the center of international conversation. For example, mainstream Australian politicians are putting forward ideas for an "anti-cyberbullying taskforce" on national agenda, and real-time discussion is happening in the parliament on policymaking and guidelines to put cyberbullying to an end.[8] On the other end of the spectrum, various cyber-psychologists and researchers are studying the phenomenon and relevant characteristics of cyberbullying extensively. One such example is Dr. Mary Aiken, who in her book The Cyber Effect[9] describes the psychological phenomenon of "Diffusion of Responsibility" in relation to cyberbullying. It is described that the greater the number of people who witness a crime of emergency, the less likely any of them will feel responsible to respond. It can also be called The Bystander Effect and, in case of cyberbullying, hundreds to thousands of people can witness bullying or harsh criticism online on a regular basis but do not step up and do anything. Two-thirds of teenagers who face online cruelty also witness others joining in, and more than one-fifth of the teens report to have joined the harassment themselves.[10]

Furthermore, just like most of the social media platforms use social analytics to make algorithms to estimate user's age, sex, and political leanings, there are actual mathematical algorithms to identify antisocial behavior, bullying, or harassment online. These algorithms use simple parameters to measure the content (words such as "bitch,"; "hate," and ";die"), direction, interval, and frequency of bullying. This kind of approach will help the law enforcement agencies, schools, as well as parents to keep their eyes open on whether the child is being bullied online.

Apart from children, adults also get bullied online on a regular basis. Cyberbullies, commonly referred as trolls on the internet, basking in anonymity have the power of abusing and harassing a person without fear of any ramification of their actions. Politicians, actors, and sportspersons get cyberbullied routinely and report the distress it causes to them. Yet, there are no clear laws or regulatory guidelines to handle this complex issue. Mainstream national TV channels are recognizing the relevance of this issue in the current scenario and are coming up with campaigns and programs such as "Troll Police."[11]

In India, Section 66A of the amended IT Act deals with these crimes. Sending any message (through a computer or a communication device) that is grossly offensive or has menacing character – any communication which he/she knows to be false, but for the purpose of causing insult, annoyance, and criminal intimidation, under the current Indian IT/Cyber/Criminal laws – is punishable upto 3 years of imprisonment with a fine, but this law fails to deal with the intricacies of cyberbullying. It is high time that the mental health fraternity comes forward to address the issue of cyberbullying with more focused research and help the lawmakers in formulating policies and regulatory laws that will help to identify as well as curb the menace. Another important and effective broker in identifying and stopping cyberbullying is school, where the role of mental health professional becomes pivotal in formulating effective school-based anti-cyberbullying programs, which focus on individual psychotherapy as well as educate the students on cyber-ethics and the cyber laws. Cyberbullying is an online problem that needs to be dealt with offline, and like Theodore Roosevelt popularly said "Knowing what's right doesn't mean much unless you do what's right," merely acknowledging cyberbullying as a problem is not enough anymore. It is also imperative that mental health professionals use their critical expertise in formulating and implementing school- and community-wide approaches to cyberbullying prevention.


1More Mobile Devices in the World Than People – How Many Do You Have? Connected; 2018. Available from: [Last accessed on 2018 Mar 22].
2Smith PK, Del Barrio C, Tokunaga RS. Defi nitions of bullying and cyberbullying: How useful are the terms. Principles of Cyberbullying Research: Defi nitions, Measures, and Methodology. NYork/Londres; Routledge. 2013; 26-40.
3Kowalski RM, Limber SP. Psychological, physical, and academic correlates of cyberbullying and traditional bullying. J Adolesc Health 2013;53:S13-20.
4Patchin J. Cyberbullying Data – Cyberbullying Research Center. Cyberbullying Research Center; 2016. Available from: [Last accessed on 2018 Mar 22].
5Hinduja S, Patchin JW. Bullying, cyberbullying, and suicide. Arch Suicide Res 2010;14:206-21.
6Home T, Analysis NM. India Ranks Third on Global Cyber Bullying List – Technology News; 2012. Available from: http://www. [Last accessed on 2018 Mar 22].
7More Kids are Online, But Indian Parents are Finally Taking Stock: Intel Study. The Indian Express; 2015. Available from: [Last accessed on 2018 Mar 22].
8Palaszczuk Vows to Put Cyberbullying on COAG Agenda. ABC News; 2018. Available from: [Last accessed on 2018 Mar 22].
9Aiken M. The Cyber Effect: A Pioneering Cyberpsychologist Explains How Human Behaviour Changes Online, Aug 18. Hachette UK London; 2016.119-38.
10Lenhart A, Madden M, Smith A, Purcell K, Zickuhr K, Rainie L. Teens, Kindness and Cruelty on Social Network Sites. Pew Research Center: Internet, Science & Tech 2011. Available from: [Last accessed on 2018 Mar 22].
11Troll Police: A Reality Show That Addresses the Issue of Cyber Bullying. Mid-Day; 2018. Available from: [Last accessed on 2018 Mar 22].