Cyberbullying, threatening or harassing another via the internet or mobile phones, occurs in several forms [1–3]. Compared to traditional bullying, cyberbullying has several specific features that may intensify its harmful effects, including the difficulty in escaping from the bullying, the magnitude of the potential audience, the anonymity of the bully, and the ability to attack at any time and any place. On the other hand, cyberbullying does not cause physical harm, making its consequences less visible, and nasty text messages or e-mails can be easily and quickly deleted [4–7]. Research on cyberbullying, its consequences, and seriousness, is scarce and only a few population-based studies have been published [3, 6, 8–11].
Among Western adolescents, the prevalence of cyberbullying victims (cybervictim) varies from 9% to 34% and that of cyberbullying bullies (cyberbullies) varies from 4% to 21% [1, 4, 5, 7, 9]. In a recent review , Tokunaga concluded that 20% to 40% of adolescents experience cyberbullying at least once in their lifetime and evidence indicates that the number of cybervictims is growing [5, 12]. The definitions, measures, and methodology vary widely across studies and contribute to the inconsistencies of the findings .
New communication technologies may expose new groups of adolescents to bullying who might not be exposed to traditional face-to-face bullying, and provide a new means to bully those who have also been bullied by traditional methods . Many cybervictims are also traditional victims, and, correspondingly, many cyberbullies are traditional bullies. In addition, bullying can spread across platforms such that an adolescent may be bullied by several routes simultaneously [5, 14]. The two groups, namely cyberbullies and cybervictims, can overlap [4, 6].
Research findings of the relationship between age and victimization by cyberbullying are inconsistent. Some studies show a decrease in cyberbullying with older age [4, 5, 8, 15], while a majority of studies show no association with age . Research findings regarding sex differences in the patterns of bullying are also mixed. Some studies show that girls are more likely to be cyberbullied [4, 5, 8], while others report no sex differences [9, 14, 16]. Some studies report that boys are cyberbullies more often than girls [3, 12].
Cyberbullying and victimization are important adolescent health issues. The studies of cyber victimization report an association with concurrent psychosocial difficulties and risk factors such as distress, depressive mood, substance use, school conduct problems, or low caregiver-adolescent connectedness [5, 6, 10, 14, 15, 17–19]. It is not clear, however, whether these symptoms are antecedents or consequences of cyberbullying, because the causality may be bidirectional . The bully-victim group is considered the most problematic in terms of mental health and psychosocial problems .
Measures and methodology used to examine the seriousness of bullying experiences varies. Ybarra et al. found that 38% of harassed youth reported distress as a result of a bullying incident . Wolak et al. studied different qualities of bullying experiences and found that 30% of the adolescents reported bullying as being very or extremely upsetting, 24% as very or extremely frightening, and 22% as very or extremely embarrassing . In a pan-European study , most children reported being upset by online bullying and one-third report being very upset.
Cyberbullying occurs either as a group function or within group online communication environments . Little attention, however, has been paid to the bystanders of cyberbullying. Bystanders can be either an active part of the problem by encouraging and supporting the bully or a passive part by watching and witnessing bullying, and doing nothing to stop it. On the other hand, some researchers believe that cyberbystanders, especially friends, play an important role in preventing acts of bullying by providing support to the victim [21, 22].
Some studies have examined a broader context and different forms of bullying and victimization [11, 23], but to our knowledge few studies have examined exposure in terms of witnessing cyberbullying and none of them evaluated population-based data. Patchin and Hinduja reported that 47% of 384 respondents answered “yes” to the following question: “Have you ever seen other kids bullied online”. Li found that more than half of student respondents admitted knowing someone who had been cyberbullied . Wolak et al. reported that approximately 30% of respondents were with friends when cyberbullied . Evidence suggests that cybervictims are likely not to tell anybody about their cyberbullying experience or if they know of someone having been bullied. If they choose to tell, friends are told most often and parents second most often [9, 10, 16, 17, 25].
Exposure to cyberbullying by witnessing a friend being cyberbullied deserves attention, as witnessing cyberbullying may also be traumatizing. Bystanders who have witnessed face-to-face bullying without direct involvement present with increased incidence of psychiatric symptoms, and the incidence increases if the victim is a friend of the bystander . This may hold true for witnessing cyberbullying as well, and thus exposure by witnessing warrants more attention.
The aim of the present study was to examine exposure to cyberbullying among 12 to 18-year-old adolescents. Here, cyberbullying refers to bullying via the internet or mobile phone, and exposure to one of four dimensions of the phenomenon: being a victim of cyberbullying, being a cyberbully, being both a cyberbully and a cybervictim, and having witnessed cyberbullying of friends. We first studied the proportion of adolescents that experienced cyberbullying during the preceding year and how serious and disturbing it was perceived to be. Second, we studied the proportion of respondents that had been a bully or a bully-victim. Finally, we studied whether adolescents had witnessed cyberbullying of their friends. Witnessing cyberbullying here means that one gets to know or observes that a friend or friends are being bullied.