Skip main navigation

£199.99 £139.99 for one year of Unlimited learning. Offer ends on 28 February 2023 at 23:59 (UTC). T&Cs apply

Find out more


In this video, Professor Chris Kyriacou looks at how digital technology has changed the nature of bullying.
I’m Chris Kyriacou at the University of York, Department of Education. Cyberbullying refers to the transmission through electronic devices of messages and images which are intended to cause the victim pain and distress. It’s something that’s grown hugely in recent years, and this has been partly driven by the ease with which people are able to use such devices. And really the most incredible part of cyberbullying is the way in which people when they are operating in virtual space seem to feel like they can be as abusive as they like.
I first became aware of cyberbullying in schools when I was reading newspaper reports of pupils that had been driven to commit suicide by the amount of abuse they were getting through social media. And the thing about social media is that it’s so important to many people in their lives, especially youngsters. So getting abused through your social media is very, very painful. And the thing about social media is what’s posted through social media is permanent – it can be viewed over and over again – you know the audience for it is potentially hugh. And the other thing I started to notice was cases where teachers were becoming victims of cyberbullying.
And what typically happens here is that a pupil will deliberately provoke a teacher in the classroom until they lose their temper and then another pupil records that on their smartphone. And then they share that recording around. And then eventually recordings like that can find their way onto YouTube, where they can be viewed by almost anyone, over and over again. We sometimes talk about recordings like that going viral. So it really is a major problem in schools now. It looks from my research that there are four key motives that pupils are driven by when they engage in cyberbullying.
The first is fun: that they are just doing it to have a laugh at the expense of the victim. And I think that covers the majority of cases.
Secondly its interest: some people have got a lot of time on their hands, so they are just finding out what they can get away with. Another area I call moral revenge, and that’s when the cyberbully thinks that another pupil has done something which means that they deserve to be bullied. So for example they might have been showing off in a lesson.
And then the last area is the enjoyment of pain: I mean there are some people around who actually enjoy the ability they have to cause distress to another person. One of the things that I’ve been looking at in particular is the extent to which persistent cyberbullies could be helped by a mentoring scheme to help them understand that they shouldn’t be doing what they’re doing. And we are also looking at what we call bystanders – and these are people that can observe cyberbullying going on because they are copied into messages or they see images that have been posted – and trying to get them to intervene. Schools are now doing a tremendous amount to combat cyberbullying in schools.
There are lessons now on digital etiquette – digital safety – and there have also been other things going on in schools in terms of really getting a message across that
cyberbullying is totally unacceptable: it causes a lot of pain and distress and it really is something you shouldn’t be engaging in.

Bullying has been one of the great beneficiaries of the internet age. Before the internet, bullying was generally confined to the institution: the school or the workplace, and associated public spaces. Home, for the most-part, served as a refuge. Even beyond the home, the impact of bullying could be mediated, to a certain extent, by the presence of third parties, be they teachers, shopkeepers, strangers… There were bolt-holes to be found and sanctuary to be had.

But now our lives have become more complex: our physical interactions are augmented by a digital existence which knows none of the boundaries of our daily routine. The social forum of social media is, for many of us, an essential component of our personality, and an important means of engagement. Our social circles may rely heavily on our participation in those online spaces.

So when those social circles turn against us, the impact is immense, and any mediating influences are less apparent. Even worse, the bullying can be unremitting: constantly pushed to our phones. Our bolt-holes cease to be effective.

This is a very important detail to stress: our modern online communications have enabled prolonged and repeated victimization. Comments and images posted on the internet leave a near-permanent footprint; the marks of our bullying are there, potentially for all to see, anytime, anywhere (Kyriacou & Zuin, 2014). Any abuse being perpetrated has the potential to be both public and permanent. Given the importance ascribed to our digital footprint, the potential impact of such actions can seem overwhelming.

The bully in the bedroom

Such an impact is played out in real time in Channel 4’s 2015 television drama “Cyberbully”, in which Masie Williams plays Casey Jacobs: a character who is both a victim and a perpetrator of cyberbullying. As the drama unfolds we witness Casey’s ordeal as she falls for the attack of an online hacker who then takes over her social media accounts in a bid to cause distress and suffering to Casey as a form of retribution for hurtful comments Casey made to another student. At no point does the action leave the ‘safety’ of Casey’s bedroom.

Writing in the Guardian, Filipa Jodelka described the film in the following terms:

…weirdly [“Cyberbully”] is billed as factual, presumably on the basis that everything that unfolds has happened to someone, somewhere… [The makers] have got it right, on one condition: that it’s not viewed as a realistic depiction of cyberbullying at all, but as a kind of millennial ghost-in-the-machine spine-chiller instead, replete with traditional horror devices (Faustian pacts, anonymous ghouls, tests of morality), mild peril and creepy strings.

It’s true that real life lacks the stings, and maybe even some of the drama, of the Channel 4 film. But there are themes at play, and they reflect the motivations outlined by Professor Chris Kyriacou in our video for this step. There he identifies four main motives for cyberbullying:

  • Fun – Comedy so often relies on a fall-guy; a victim. Great amusement can be extracted at the expense of others.
  • Interest – It’s fascinating to explore what you can and can’t get away with: the bullying verges upon scientific study.
  • Pain – Some people just really enjoy the ability they have to cause distress to another person.
  • Moral revenge – The bully is acting in retribution for something the victim has done. In other words, the bullying was deserved. As the vigilante of “Cyberbully” puts it: “You think you’re the victim? You’re not the victim you’re the cyber bully!”

With these motivations in mind, we can perhaps start to see how aspects of cyberbullying can become normalised: the ‘It’s completely normal – everybody does it’ mentality. As we saw in the last step, all of us can all-too-easily fall into bullying behaviour, especially online where the technology provides a distancing effect, masking the brutality of our actions, and the sense of anonymity can give us a degree of invulnerability. Unsurprising, then, that we now live with the sobering statistic that 50% of adolescents will experience online bullying.


This article is from the free online

Digital Wellbeing

Created by
FutureLearn - Learning For Life

Our purpose is to transform access to education.

We offer a diverse selection of courses from leading universities and cultural institutions from around the world. These are delivered one step at a time, and are accessible on mobile, tablet and desktop, so you can fit learning around your life.

We believe learning should be an enjoyable, social experience, so our courses offer the opportunity to discuss what you’re learning with others as you go, helping you make fresh discoveries and form new ideas.
You can unlock new opportunities with unlimited access to hundreds of online short courses for a year by subscribing to our Unlimited package. Build your knowledge with top universities and organisations.

Learn more about how FutureLearn is transforming access to education