When Megan Meier hanged herself three weeks before her 14th birthday, in 2006, it sent shock waves through the small town of Dardenne Prairie, Mo. But when an investigation revealed that she had done so after being bullied online by the mother of a friend, Megan's death made national news and helped spark a wave of research on cyberbullying.
While much of the scholarship has focused on adolescents, work has also been done on the phenomenon at the college level. Ikuko Aoyama, a doctoral candidate in educational psychology at Baylor University, presented her work on sex differences in cyberbullying at a recent conference of the American Educational Research Association. She spoke with The Chronicle along with her adviser, Tony L. Talbert, an associate professor in Baylor's School of Education.
Q. What sort of differences have researchers found in male and female bullying?
Ms. Aoyama. In traditional bullying, sex differences are well documented. Males are engaged in more physical types of bullying, such as hitting and kicking; on the other hand, females are engaged in more indirect and psychological bullying, such as social exclusion or rumor-spreading. ... We looked at if the similar pattern was observed for cyberbullying contexts. In the beginning, the results on sex differences were inconsistent across the researchers. However, more studies have found that there are no big sex differences, like in traditional bullying.
Q. Why do you think that might be?
Ms. Aoyama. In cyberbullying, physical strength, or age or sex, is not a factor to determine if they are a victim or a bully, because they don't involve face-to-face interaction.
Q. How does the fact that this is all taking place virtually affect bullying?
Ms. Aoyama. Studies we have done did not identify "pure victims" or "pure bullies," and many students are in a "bully-victim" group. Because students can avoid face-to-face interaction and remain anonymous, it is easy for victims to cyberbully back others.
Mr. Talbert. From adolescence to high school to college, the technology literally becomes almost this great equalizer. It becomes this medium where people create these alternative identities—from Second Life to social-networking sites—but the rules as we understand them from bullying from a physical standpoint have completely changed.
Q. How does the effect of cyberbullying on the victim differ from that of traditional bullying?
Mr. Talbert. The impact from a psychological perspective hasn't really changed. Our laws have not really kept up, and our psychological education of using technology and its impact on the psyche has not kept up, either with the technology or the users of the technology.
Q. What are universities doing now to curb cyberbullying among their students?
Ms. Aoyama. I have never heard of colleges or universities limiting cyberbullying or taking preventive actions, but it is necessary to raise the awareness among administrators and students. For example, our school has "Alcohol Awareness Week" or "Eating-Disorder Awareness Month," and they have posters or speakers all over the campus during the week or month. I wish we could do something like that.
Q. The paper presented at the education-research conference says that "considering the fact that as many as 70 percent of middle- and high-school students have experienced cyberbullying, it is probable that the prevalence among college students will be higher" in the future. Why might that be true?
Ms. Aoyama. Many cyberbullying studies are focusing on middle- and high-school students, and there are few studies on college students. But I don't think many high-school students who experienced cyberbullying will suddenly change once they enter college, even though they may be more mature. I think they already learned that this is a way to put down others.
Q. Students coming to college in 10 or 20 years will be more comfortable with technology from a younger age. How do you think that will affect cyberbullying at a postsecondary level?
Mr. Talbert. As attitudes evolve and as the use of technology evolves among university students, what could be interesting is looking at it from a longitudinal standpoint. Here's this cohort of students in 2010—what happens in 2015? What's interesting is to look at digital natives from 2010, 2015, 2020, 2025, and see if we do have a shifting in the moral or psychological attitude.