Guide to Cyberbullying







Impact of cyberbullying




Since the Internet has provided a new forum for adolescent communication, it follows logically that face-to-face bullying has now also found its way into the digital world, and is known as online harassment or cyberbullying.  Although there is no consistent definition, cyberbullying is defined as “an overt intentional act of aggression towards another person online (Ybarra and Mitchell 2004: 1308) or a “wilful and repeated harm inflicted through the use of computers, cell phones and other electronic devices” (Hinduja and Patchin 2009: 5).  Cyberbullying can be:

  • private, as in the use of text messages
  • semi-public, as in the posting of messages on an email list
  • public, as in posting information on public websites (Schrock and Boyd Undated: 21).

Cyberstalking refers to an attempt to harass or control others online or simply the same as offline stalking, except that it takes place online.  The purpose of cyberbullying is to threaten, embarrass or humiliate the victim.


Statistics of traditional bullying are high, with some studies indicating that the level of cyberbullying is higher while others have found it to be lower.  In the USA 28% of children between the ages of 12 and 18 reported that they had been bullied at school (Saleh 2014:139).  In another study, 43% of the participants, aged 13 – 17, reported that they had been cyberbullied in the previous year.  The Opinion Research Corporation (2006) undertook a national poll of online activities involving 1000 children under the age of 18, and found the following:

  • 33% of teenagers (12 to 17) and 17% of children under 11 have had mean, threatening or embarrassing things said about them online;
  • 10% of the teenagers and 4% of the younger children were threatened online with physical harm;
  • 16% of the victims told no-one about the online bullying;
  • Preteens were as likely to receive harmful messages at school (45%) as at home (44%) while older children received more messages at home (70%) than at school.


There is limited research in South Africa on cyberbullying so it is unclear how many children are involved, although it does appear to be a safety risk in terms of some of the studies that have been conducted.  News sources reveal that young boys and girls are victims of cyberbullying, and this has been confirmed by findings of national studies that have been conducted (UNICEF 2012: 21).  In a TNS survey, conducted in 2009, of social networking site users, aged 16 years or older,3% of the respondents reported that they had been victims of cyberbullying.  Another study of 1 726 urban participants between the ages of 12 and 24 conducted by the Centre for Justice and Crime Prevention found that 46.8% of the respondents had experienced some form of cyberbullying.  An interesting finding that emerged from the study was that there was a definite link between victims of cyberbullying and cyber bullies. 69.7% of the respondents who had bullied others with text messages had themselves been bullied (Badenhorst 2011: 5).  A study conducted in Port Elizabeth amongst 1 594 primary and secondary school learners found that 36% of the respondents had experienced some form of cyber bullying (Badenhorst 2011: 5).  In the Centre for Justice and Crime Prevention study, voice calls were the most frequent medium of cyberbullying with emails being the least frequent method used.  The study also found that girls were targeted more than boys, with 33% of girls and 28% of boys experiencing cyberbullying.  Here cyberbullying took the form of messages that included pictures of naked people or people having sex (50.3%), links to websites that showed sexually explicit material (50.9%) or emails that did the same. 


Children who are at a greater risk of being bullied include children with mental health issues, with developmental disabilities, gay or lesbian adolescents, adolescents struggling with their sexuality, children who have moved to a new school, those considered to be outsiders by their peers, and adolescents who spend a lot of time online (Saleh 2014: 139). Children, who have been bullied face-to-face at school, are also at higher risk of being bullied online.


What is bullying?

Bullying has been defined as follows:

“A student is being bullied or victimized when he or she is exposed, repeatedly and over time, to negative actions on the part of one or more other students. It is a negative action when someone intentionally inflicts, or attempts to inflict, injury or discomfort upon another—basically what is implied in the definition of aggressive behavior.” (Olweus 1978: 1173)


Bullying involves a wide variety of acts, and can be accomplished by both words and actions, like obscene gestures or excluding someone from a group intentionally.  Olweus (1978) requires an imbalance of strength between the child who has been bullied and those who are perpetrating the action, which makes the victim incapable of defending himself or herself.


According to Saleh (2014: 140) bullying has an impact on both the individual being bullied and the one who is doing the bullying.  These include physical health complaints, depression, anxiety, sadness and loneliness, changes in sleep and eating patterns, decrease in academic achievement, and skipping or dropping out of school.


What is cyberbullying?

Cyberbullying is more difficult to define because of the various methods with which it can be employed.  Smith et al (2008) define it 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 him or herself.”   Bauman (2007) defines cyberbullying as:


Bullying which involves the use of information and communication technologies such as email, cellphone and text messages, instant messaging, defamatory personal websites, and defamatory online personal polling websites to support deliberate, repeated and hostile behaviour by an individual or group that is intended to harm others.


Although some researchers have suggested that repeated acts of aggression conducted online should be referred to as online harassment, others argue that cyberbullying is simply an online form of face-to-face bullying, while yet others argue that they differ considerably because of the “widespread messaging capabilities of electronic media” with respect to acts of repetition (Saleh 2014: 141).  However, the core elements of bullying can be found in cyberbullying.  It is only the methods employed that are different.


There are 3 main vehicles for cyberbullying, namely personal computers, cell phones and social networking sites.  On computers, cyberbullying takes the form of sending emails or instant messages or posting material on online bulletin boards.  It is also possible for the cyberbully to create a website to disseminate the material.  Cell phones can be used to send messages and social networking sites can be used to post pictures, comments or videos. 


The main methods of cyberbullying are:

  • Text messages
  • Picture/video clips using mobile phone cameras
  • Phone calls using cell phones
  • E-mail
  • Chat rooms
  • Instant messages (WhatsApp)
  • Websites and blogs
  • Social networking sites
  • Internet gaming (Burton and Mutongwizo 2009: 2).


Burton and Mutongwizo (2009: 2) identified the following types of cyberbullying:

  • Flaming

This refers to brief but heated online fights in terms of which heated online arguments and vulgar language are exchanged.  It usually takes place in public online settings like chat rooms or discussion groups.

  • Harassment

This involves frequently sending cruel or threatening messages to an individual’s email account or mobile phone.  It is often persistent and repeated and targets a specific person.  The South African Law Commission distinguishes between direct and indirect online harassment.  Direct harassment includes threats and bullying or intimidating electronic messages that are sent directly to the victim.  Indirect harassment includes the spreading of rumours about the victim on internet discussion forums, subscribing the victim to unwanted online services and posting information about the victim on online dating or sex services.

  • Denigration

This refers to the sending or posting of malicious gossip or rumours about a person in order to damage his or her reputation or friendships.  It also includes posting or sending digitally altered photographs of someone to others, such as pictures that portray the victim in a sexualised or harmful way,

  • Identity theft

This happens when a person hacks into someone else’s e-mail or social networking account and pretends to be that person, and then sends messages or pictures online with the purpose of damage the victim’s reputation or friendships or to get the victim into trouble.

  • Outing

This involves sharing someone’s secrets or embarrassing information or images with people whom the information was never intended to be shared.  In some cases, deception is used to trick someone into revealing their secrets and these are then shared online. 

  • Cyber stalking

This refers to threats of harm or intimidation through repeated online harassment and threats.

  • Happy slapping

This refers to incidents where people walk up to someone and slap them while another takes a photograph of the violence using their cell phone.


There is definitely a link between sexting and cyberbullying.  This can be seen in instances where, for example, sexting images are sent between a boyfriend and a girlfriend, and these images are later made public as a form of revenge after a break up. 


Difference between bullying and cyberbullying

Although there is much argument about the distinction between bullying and cyberbullying, the reach of the latter is thought to be so much wider than traditional bullying. Traditional bullying is usually limited to the school environment whereas cyberbullying can take place at school, home or any place where the victim has access to online communication.  Cyberbullying takes place via instant-messenger, text and multimedia messaging on a cell phone, email, social network sites, and other websites, and is made easier by its anonymity and distance from the victim.


Burton and Mutongwizo (2009: 3) identify the follow key differences between bullying and cyberbullying:

  • Anonymity

Face-to-face bullying by its nature makes the identity of the bully known whereas the cyberbully remains anonymous.  This contributes to the stress experienced by the victim. 

  • Disinhibition

Because of the ability to remain anonymous, cyberbullies are less inhibited.

  • Accessibility

Cyberbullying, due to its methodology, is able to access people wherever they are, whether it is at home or school.  The victim simply has to have online access.  This means that the victim can be contacted at any time of the day or night.

  • Punitive fear

Traditional bullying tends to go unreported, but with cyberbullying there is the additional concern that the victim may be afraid to report in case their computer access or cell phone may be taken away.


A developmental perspective

The concept of bullying needs to be examined from a developmental perspective to determine whether it is a skewed developmental process.  The core elements of bullying are:

  • aggressive behaviour or intentional harm doing
  • carried out repeatedly
  • a relationship with an imbalance of power (Saleh 2014:142).


Bullying between adolescents is found in very many different cultural and geographic contexts.  Rates of bullying are also consistent across continents and cultures, and range from 29,9% to 40% (Saleh 2014:143).  It has been suggested that bullying is an evolutionary adaptation to control social and material resources in a situation where there are limited resources.  When individuals are more dominant, they become more sociably visible and consequently have greater influence on resource distribution.  Aggressive behaviour is often the route to dominance, especially in young children (Saleh 2014: 142 – 143).


The development of bullying behaviours in children is influenced by a number of factors:

  • genetics
  • environment
  • temperament


Bullies have been found to “exhibit a higher level of negative emotionality” and tend to have deficits in behavioural regulation that make them less able to control their aggressive impulses (Saleh 2014: 143).


From a developmental perspective, there are changes in the way children express aggression as they mature.  Younger children tend to use verbal and physical aggression rather than indirect aggression, such as gossiping or social exclusion.  Indirect aggression is characteristic of adolescents and older children.  Another difference is that younger children are less likely to target the same child repeatedly as adolescents tend to do (Saleh 2014: 144).  The frequency of bullying also declines as children mature, which could be attributed to the fact that they have learnt less aggressive ways of interacting as they mature.  Adolescents tend to use more socially competent strategies to attain social and material resources, and do not rely solely on aggression. Under the age of 5, young children try to achieve dominance through aggressive behaviour and are not really aware of the consequences in terms of not being liked.  However, as they reach middle childhood, these aggressive strategies become less socially acceptable so more pro-social strategies are developed.  For instance, in one of the studies they found that aggression was associated with social dominance amongst boys up to the third grade but this changed to more pro-social behaviour (leadership) amongst the older boys (Saleh 2014: 145).


There are two main reasons for this change in behaviour.  Firstly, aggressive behaviour is not appreciated by peers and the social exclusion that can result will act as a deterrent.  Secondly, children undergo developmental changes in language skills and moral development and have a better social understanding.  Since children become less egocentric, they are better able to take the perspective of others and can, therefore, develop “more sophisticated and cooperative modes of maintaining leadership positions in social settings” (Saleh 2014: 145).


Sexualised bullying behaviour emerges at puberty.  One of the developmental tasks of adolescents is to learn to express sexual desire in socially acceptable ways.  Sexual harassment appears in the middle-school years as children begin to reach puberty.  Cross-sex sexual harassment increases during early adolescence and is linked to puberty as well as the changing of social groups from single-sex groups to mixed-sex groups.  Cross-gender sexual harassment amongst adolescents may be part of the struggle to express sexual interest while same-gender sexual harassment is thought to be purely aggressive in nature (Saleh 2014: 146). 


McMaster et al (2002: 93 – 95) conducted a study of peer-to-peer sexual harassment in early adolescence, and made the following findings:

  • boys were more likely to perpetrate sexual harassment than girls;
  • boys were equally likely to be victims of sexual harassment;
  • most common sexual harassment acts were: sexual comments, jokes, gestures or looks, homophobic slurs and assigning scores to sexual body parts;
  • girls were more likely to be victims of sexual comments, jokes, gestures or looks and to be flashed by genitals or buttocks;
  • boys were more often victims of homophobic slurs and having sexual pictures, messages and photographs sent to them.


Most of the verbal bullying that takes place amongst adolescents is sexualised in nature and a lot of the content includes homophobic language.   Homophobic speech can be used to assert heterosexuality and enforce gender-normative behaviour, but it can also be used, as a part of bullying, to stigmatize victims. 


Despite aggression being evident in normal child development and waning towards adolescence, a certain number of individuals still continue to rely on it after their peers have moved towards more pro-social methods of interaction.   There are a number of factors that could account for this, and could include (Saleh 2014: 147 - 8):

  • Early socializing experiences like domestic violence, child neglect, and behavioural modeling by parents, siblings and peers.  In a study on children who became bullies, it was found that the parents provided less cognitive stimulation, less emotional support and allowed their children to watch more television than the parents of other children.
  • Child abuse has a serious impact on children and is linked to aggressive behaviour.  Children, who have been badly treated, struggle with emotional dysregulation.
  • Being part of a gang
  • Adolescents who come from families with lower socio-economic status are more likely to become victims of abuse.
  • Parental depression
  • Larger school size
  • There is a genetic component to aggressive behaviour.
  • Community and political violence
  • Cultural displacement, and being a linguistic or ethnic minority


From a developmental perspective, adolescents are less able to control their aggressive impulses than adults and are more vulnerable to group and peer pressure.  Adolescents and adults also operate differently when behaving violently.  Adults tend to offend alone while adolescents usually offend in groups.


Impact of cyberbullying

The psychological impact of cyberbullying is more traumatic than traditional physical bullying because of the extreme public nature of the bullying. The humiliation is evident for all to see.  In addition, the victim has no respite from the bullying because it is not limited to school and can take place at any time wherever the victim is (Badenhorst 2011:3).


According to Saleh (2014: 143), involvement in bullying has a serious impact on emotional well-being of both the victim and the bully.  Those individuals who are both bully and victim are particularly vulnerable, since they resemble the victim in terms of being rejected, but also resemble bullies in terms of the negative influence of peers with whom they interact.  Children involved in bullying as victims or as bullies tend to perform poorly at school, and are at an increased risk of developing poor physical health and psychiatric problems, such as anxiety, depression and psychotic disorders later in life.  It also seems likely, from research conducted, that bullies tend to carry there aggression over into personal relationships and these are characterized by physical and verbal aggression.


There are social repercussions to bullying.  Adolescents may experience less closeness and intimacy and more conflict in their relationships, which will continue into adulthood with them showing more aggression within the family as well as at work.   Bullies are also at greater risk of behavioural problems and criminal behaviour later in life.  In a study conducted by Jansen et al (2012) being a bully predicted later criminal behaviour, including shoplifting, theft, vandalism, malicious injury to property, and violent offending.


A question that then follows is whether an adolescent is a bully because he already has existent psychopathology or whether bullying is the cause of psychopathology. A study was conducted in 2006 in two Korean schools over a 10 month period in which they examined the causal relationship between psychopathology and school bullying.  Victimhood was found to be a cause of social problems in children.  Perpetration predicted increased aggression and externalizing (Saleh 2014: 144).


Cyberbullying may result in victims suffering from anxiety and depression, and sometimes even suicide.  The following are some examples of cyberbullying:

  • In 2003 in Canada Ghyslain Raza made a home video of himself wielding a golf ball retriever as a light saber while he pretended to be a character from Star Wars.  His classmates found the videotape and posted it online.  The video clip was not flattering as Ghyslain was overweight and not very athletic.  The video became one of the most downloaded clips ever, and Ghyslain dropped out of school and had to be admitted to a psychiatric hospital.
  • Thirteen-year-old Megan Meier committed suicide in Missouri in 2006 allegedly as a result of being tormented by a fake MySpace persona created by the mother of her rival.
  • Carl Hoover-Walker, a 6th grader from Massachusetts, hanged himself in 2009 after repeated school bullying.
  • In the UK Megan Gillian took an overdose of painkillers in 2009 after being harassed and teased online.
  • In 2010 Tyler Clementi, an 18-year-old student, committed suicide.  He was seen kissing another man on a computer webcam and was viewed doing so without his knowledge.  He was then harassed online.
  • In 2010 two teenage boys were charged with sexual assault and possession and distribution of child pornography after they posted photographs on Facebook of the gang rape of a 16-year-old girl at a private party.
  • In 2006 a father obtained an interdict against a Durban woman who became obsessed with his 17-year-old daughter, whom she had met in a MXit chat room. The High Court in Pretoria prohibited the woman from contacting the daughter or her family either telephonically or electronically.
  • A mother of a 16-year-old girl in Springs obtained a peace order against another 16 year old at her daughter’s school.  The other girl regularly humiliated her daughter on MXit.  The daughter’s name was put on a `slut list’, which contained the names of various girls, including their addresses, telephone number and schools.
  • In South Africa, Lufuno Mavhunga overdosed after a video of her being slapped and bullied by a classmate went viral.  She was attacked after blocking her perpetrator on various social media sites for sending her threatening messages.
  • In Kempton Park, a pupil who was brutally attacked in one of the school’s bathrooms attempted to commit suicide after a video of the incident went viral.


According to Saleh (2014:152), bullying has been linked to increased suicidal behaviour. This has been found to be so in the case of both the victim and the bullies.  However, it is not the bullying alone that causes suicidal behaviour, but other factors that act in conjunction therewith.  Most adolescents, who experience bullying or cyberbullying, do not engage in suicidal behaviour.  Therefore, bullying behaviour on its own will not lead to suicide.  Adolescents who have committed suicide have had other social and emotional issues in their lives.  Bullying and cyberbullying tend to exacerbate instability and feelings of hopelessness for adolescents who are already struggling with stressful situations.


Legal responses to bullying

The media focus on bullying has led to the recognition that bullying can cause serious harm, and this has generated a variety of legal responses to bullying.  In the United States of America, all 50 states have introduced some form of anti-bullying legislation, although not all specifically deal with cyberbullying.  Some states have adopted a specialised approach to bullying with specific legislation while others have made use of existing criminal law, with some states specifically including cyberbullying.  For instance, the Massachusetts General Law  s370 defines cyberbullying as follows:


           ''Cyber-bullying'', bullying through the use of technology or any electronic communication, which shall include, but shall not be limited to, any transfer of signs, signals, writing, images, sounds, data or intelligence of any nature transmitted in whole or in part by a wire, radio, electromagnetic, photo electronic or photo optical system, including, but not limited to, electronic mail, internet communications, instant messages or facsimile communications. Cyber-bullying shall also include (i) the creation of a web page or blog in which the creator assumes the identity of another person or (ii) the knowing impersonation of another person as the author of posted content or messages, if the creation or impersonation creates any of the conditions enumerated in clauses (i) to (v), inclusive, of the definition of bullying. Cyber-bullying shall also include the distribution by electronic means of a communication to more than one person or the posting of material on an electronic medium that may be accessed by one or more persons, if the distribution or posting creates any of the conditions enumerated in clauses (i) to (v), inclusive, of the definition of bullying.


Responses in South Africa to cyberbullying and sexting are fragmented and have relied on different pieces of legislation, common law crimes and civil law remedies.  South Africa does not have specific legislation dealing with cyberbullying. This would normally fall under the definition of harassment.  This has been defined as follows in the Protection from Harassment Act 17 of 2011:


"harassment" means directly or indirectly engaging in conduct that the respondent knows or ought to know-

( a) causes harm or inspires the reasonable belief that harm may be caused to the complainant or a related person by unreasonably-

(i) following. watching. pursuing or accosting of the complainant or a related person, or loitering outside of or near the building or place where the complainant or a related person resides, works, carries on business, studies or happens to be;

(ii) engaging in verbal, electronic or any other communication aimed at the complainant or a related person, by any means, whether or not conversation ensues; or

(iii) sending, delivering or causing the delivery of letters, telegrams, packages, facsimiles, electronic mail or other objects to the complainant or a related person or leaving them where they will be found by, given to, or brought to the attention of, the complainant or a related person; or

(b) amounts to sexual harassment of the complainant or a related person;


The above definition of harassment is based on causing harm.  This has been defined in the Act as “any mental, psychological, physical or economic harm.”  Sexual harassment is defined in the Act as:


"sexual harassment" means any-

(a) unwelcome sexual attention from a person who knows or ought reasonably to know that such attention is unwelcome:

(b) unwelcome explicit or implicit behaviour, suggestions, messages or remarks of a sexual nature that have the effect of offending, intimidating or humiliating the complainant or a related person in circumstances, which a reasonable person having regard to all the circumstances would have anticipated that the complainant or related person would be offended, humiliated or intimidated;

(c) implied or expressed promise of reward for complying with a sexually oriented request; or

(d) implied or expressed threat of reprisal or actual reprisal for refusal to comply with a sexually oriented request;


Other options available to victims of cyberbullying would include the following:

  • Crimen iniuria can be used where the cyberbullying violates the dignity of another person.  This can also be used to prosecute sexting.
  • Assault can be used where the cyberbully threatens the victim with personal violence and the victim believes it will take place.
  • Criminal defamation includes both verbal and written defamation and requires that the defamatory conduct or words must have come to the notice of someone other than the victim. This would include defamatory remarks made in chat rooms, on social networking sites, e-mails, texts or instant messages to third parties.
  • Civil remedies, like interdicts.


The Cybercrimes Act 2020 has the following sections relating to cyberbullying, although it does not specifically define the term `cyberbullying:’


Data message which threatens persons with damage to property or violence

15. A person commits an offence if they, by means of an electronic communications service, unlawfully and intentionally discloses a data message, which—

(a)threatens a person with—

(i) damage to property belonging to that person or a related person; or

(ii) violence against that person or a related person; or

(b) threatens a group of persons or any person forming part of, or associated with, that group of persons with—

(i) damage to property belonging to that group of persons or any person forming part of, or associated with, that group of persons; or

(ii) violence against the group of persons or any person forming part of, or associated with, that group of persons, and a reasonable person in possession of the same information, with due regard to all the circumstances, would perceive the data message, either by itself or in conjunction with any other data message or information, as a threat of damage to property or violence to a person or category of persons contemplated in paragraph (a) or (b), respectively.


Disclosure of data message of intimate image

16.(1) Any person (“A”) who unlawfully and intentionally discloses, by means of an electronic communication service, ,a data message of an intimate image of a person (‘‘B’’), without the consent of B, is guilty of an offence.

(2)For purposes of subsection(1)—

(a)‘‘B’’ means—

(i) the person who can be identified as being displayed in the data message;

(ii) any person who is described as being displayed in the data message, irrespective of the fact that the person cannot be identified as being displayed in the data message; or

(iii)any person who can be identified from other information as being displayed in the data message; and

(b)‘‘intimate image’’ means a depiction of a person—

(i) real or simulated, and made by any means in which—

(aa)B is nude, or the genital organs or anal region of B is displayed, or if B is a female person, transgender person or intersex person, their breasts, are displayed; or

(bb) the covered genital or anal region of B, or if B is a female person, transgender person or intersex person, their covered breasts, are displayed; and

(ii) in respect of which B so displayed retains a reasonable expectation of privacy at the time that the data message was made in a manner that—

(aa) violates or offends the sexual integrity or dignity of B; or

(bb) amounts to sexual exploitation.

Section 20 of the Act also provides for an order to protect the complainant pending the  finalisation of criminal proceedings.  This order will prohibit any person from further making available, broadcasting or distributing the applicable data message and can include an order to the electronic communications service provider or person in control of a computer system to remove or disable access to the data message in question.



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