When we think of bullies, we often picture a gang of strong, big boys on a school playground, gathered around and teasing a classmate who may be smaller, or just different than them. Maybe it’s because he dresses differently, isn’t athletically built, wears glasses, or is the teacher’s pet.
In comparison, when we think of cyberbullies, often our minds often go to tween or teen girls — whose online presence is more frequent and might be immature or unmonitored. This results in increased and inadvertent bullying of their peers — maybe jokes and comments about a girl’s choice of clothing, hairstyle, or friends they keep — just for example.
But it turns out, the theory that boys bully in person and girls do it more online is all wrong, because a new study found that the majority of cyberbullying is actually being done by males.
Research done by the think tank Demos, which set out to map the online behaviors and decision-making behaviors of 16- to 18-year-olds, discovered that the majority of teens online bullying were male. 32% of males compared to 22% of females admitted to insulting or bullying someone online, and more than double the amount of males (22%) than females (10%) have “trolled” a public figure online.
So what gives?
Interestingly enough, the researchers speculate that a great majority of the teens who admitted to cyberbullying did so because they were “drawn into cyber bullying,” and because “they are aware that their friends can see they are being bullied or insulted online, which leaves them compelled to respond in an aggressive way.”
This leads one to assume that the reason for cyberbullying is actually in defense of being bullied. In other words, it could be that we have a collection of “knights in shining armor” attempting to stand up for themselves or come to the rescue of a friend, but doing so in less than admirable ways.
But before we cast stones at boys on smartphones and the horrors of social media, a more positive statistic from the study should not be ignored. 88% of those surveyed also said they “have given emotional support to a friend on social networking sites,” and 51% say they have shared or posted about a political or social cause they care about. And when it comes to “trolling,” or what we think of perpetual online harassment, researchers found social media gives teens the chance to flex their empathy muscle, and to show courage by coming to a friend’s defense.
Another facet of the study was finding out what personality characteristics are present that ultimately drive and encourage teens to bully, and the results are just what you’d think they’d be. Youth that self-reported a lower level of empathy, self-control, civic mindedness, and a moral sensitivity to others were found to have a much higher chance of bullying online.
Other studies support that finding, with one in particular hypothesizing that a lack of empathy is a characteristic particular to cyberbullying, as in aggressive behavior (something boys are more biologically wired to have than girls.) That same study also found cyberbullies had a higher fear of being bullied and becoming victims themselves than non-bullies.
So how do parents, educators, and those that work with youth teach them the kind of empathy that would reduce their chances of being bullied?
Researchers believe empathy and compassion instruction need to start early, with schools implementing more character and empathy-based curriculums and compassion agendas in elementary school, way before kids have smartphones. That way, when they do begin to have more online experiences, they’re well aware of responsible online behaviors, and are less likely to act like an asshole just because they’re behind a screen.