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- Predicting victimisation and perpetration
The double-edged nature of modern technology, continuously balancing between risks and opportunities, manifests itself clearly in an emerging societal problem known as cyberbullying. To analyse the extent and nature of the issue in Belgium, 1318 adolescents were questioned explicitly about their involvement in cyberbullying, as well as implicitly about their experience with specific types of cyberbullying-related behaviour. This alternate questioning revealed higher victimisation and perpetration rates. The study also provides better insight into predictors associated with victimisation or perpetration in cyberbullying. Especially past involvement in cyberbullying and engaging in online risk behaviour increase the likelihood of victimisation; non-rejection of cyberbullying and online identity experimentation augment the likelihood of perpetration. Girls are more likely to become victims of cyberbullying, whereas boys are more inclined to engage in electronic bullying. Moreover, the incidence of cyberbullying increases slightly with age. Finally, teens spending much time on the Internet, reporting higher ICT expertise and owning a computer with privileged online access share an increased likelihood of online bullying behaviour.
Predicting victimisation and perpetration
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- Predicting victimisation and perpetration
A literature review of cyberbullying was conducted to determine which variables to include in the analyses. The following variables were retained: gender, age, culture, educational level, past involvement in cyberbullying, attitude towards cyberbullying, online risk behaviour, ICT use and expertise. Subsequently, for each of the selected variables, hypotheses were formulated and tested in the further analyses. The hypotheses were inspired by previous research results, as summarised below.
Research findings on gender differences in cyberbullying diverge somewhat. Several studies in the US and Sweden found that teenage girls are equally likely as boys to cyberbully (or to be cyberbullied) (Patchin and Hinduja, 2008; Raskauskas and Stoltz, 2007; Slonje and Smith, 2007; Williams and Guerra, 2007; Ybarra and Mitchell, 2004). A Canadian study observed no significant gender difference in victimisation, although more boys were found to be perpetrators (Li, 2006). According to a Turkish study, boys are more involved in cyberbullying, both as perpetrators and as victims (Aricak and others, 2008). However, other UK and US studies conclude that girls are more likely to be victimised, while boys are more likely to perpetrate (Dehue and others, 2008; Smith and others, 2008; Wang and others, 2009). This predominance of girls as cybervictims and boys as cyberbullies is confirmed in Belgian research (Vandebosch and others, 2006). For the purpose of the present study, it is therefore hypothesised on the basis of these last mentioned studies that boys are more likely to perform acts of cyberbullying, whereas girls are more likely to be victims of such acts.
Previous research findings regarding age differences in cyberbullying also diverge. Some studies suggest that cyberbullying occurs more frequently in lower secondary education. A Scandinavian study (Slonje and Smith, 2007) found 17.6% of pupils in lower secondary education to be online victims. This share dropped to 3.3% in higher secondary education (with perpetration dropping from 11.9% to 8.0%). This peak in cyberbullying rates during lower secondary education is confirmed in a Belgian study (Vandebosch and others, 2006). On the other hand, Ybarra and Mitchell (2004) found that older students (15+ years) are more often cyberbullies than younger students (10–14 years). Other research in the UK and the US observed no significant age differences (Patchin and Hinduja, 2008; Smith and others, 2008). As empirical findings paint a mixed picture, age differences in cyberbullying are further explored in the present study.
Research thus far is inconclusive on how culture and cultural values interact to affect bullying and victimisation. Various comprehensive reviews report large national and regional variations in bullying frequency (Stassen Berger, 2007). For instance, an intercultural study by Qing Li found that Chinese pupils were more likely to be victims, while Canadian students were about four times more likely to be cyberbullies (Li, 2007a, 2008). In Dutch-speaking Belgium, victimised pupils are outnumbered by perpetrating students, whereas in French-speaking Belgium more victims than bullies are reported (Craig and Harel, 2004). Although national and regional variations should be interpreted with caution due to methodological issues, Stassen Berger (2007) suggests that culture, among other things, may underlie these variations. Therefore, culture was taken into consideration in our exploration of prevalence rates of cyberbullying in Belgium’s Flemish and Francophone regions. As the two communities are characterised by different cultural backgrounds and educational systems, we expect to find significant discrepancies in the respective cyberbullying estimates.
The impact of educational level on cyberbullying behaviour in Flanders has previously been studied by Vandebosch and others (2006). It was found that the highest-level pupils (general secondary education) are significantly less involved in cyberbulling than pupils in other types of secondary education (technical, artistic and vocational training). On this basis, it is hypothesised that cyberbullying is more prevalent among pupils in lower educational levels than among those in the highest level.
Past involvement in cyberbullying
Previous research has found evidence that cyberbullies often become cybervictims themselves. Similarly, cybervictimisation increases the likelihood of perpetration (Espelage and Swearer, 2003; Li, 2007b; Ybarra and Mitchell, 2004). It is therefore hypothesised in the present study that teenagers who have engaged in electronic bullying share an increased likelihood of being victimised. Conversely, victims are expected to exhibit a greater inclination towards cyberbullying behaviour.
Attitude towards cyberbullying
Cyberbullies tend to minimise the gravity of their acts, while victimised students describe those acts as hurtful (Patchin and Hinduja, 2008). The three principal reasons for engaging in cyberbullying according to American youngsters admitting to such behaviour are ‘revenge’, ‘he/she deserves it’ and ‘for fun’ (Patchin and Hinduja, 2008). The same study stresses that most cyberbullies underestimate the harm they are causing. In the present study, it is hypothesised that teenagers who are less concerned about the possible impact of cyberbullying are more likely to commit electronic aggression.
Online risk behaviour
Previous research has revealed that cyberbullies are more likely than non-bullying students to use instant messaging, blogs and chatrooms. Moreover, they tend to use such media in a risky way, posting personal information online (Kowalski and Witte, 2006; Vandebosch and others, 2006). In comparison with non-victims, targets engage more in e-mailing, Instant Messaging, authoring personal pages, online shopping, blogging, web surfing and gaming (Ybarra and others, 2006).
Therefore, teenagers using open and closed chat applications are expected to be more exposed to cyberbullying than teenagers not engaging in chatting. Furthermore, teenagers who chat with strangers are expected to be more likely to be victimised. The latter hypothesis is inspired by the previous research finding that many victimised pupils do not know the identity of the perpetrator (Kowalski and others, 2008).
It is further hypothesised that teenagers who post personal data (contact details, etc.) on a blog or profile page, as well as those who entrust sensitive information (passwords, etc.) to others, are more prone to victimisation than those who do not. Finally, teenagers who assume a different identity online (‘identity fluidity’) are expected to share an increased likelihood of perpetrating acts of cyberbullying.
ICT use and expertise
Cyberbullies and cybervictims are generally heavy Internet users (Kowalski and others, 2008; Vandebosch and others, 2006; Ybarra and Mitchell, 2004). Over 50% of cyberbullies claim to be expert Internet users, compared to just one-third of bully free pupils (Ybarra and Mitchell, 2004). Most cyberbullies and cybervictims attach great importance to the Internet. In an American study, approximately one in three bullying-involved pupils rated the Internet as extremely important in their lives, compared to just one in six among bully free youngsters (Ybarra and Mitchell, 2004). In the present study, it is expected that teenagers are more likely to engage in cyberbullying as their Internet use intensifies and their self-reported ICT expertise increases.
Finally, the study examines whether teenagers with Internet connectivity in their bedrooms are more likely to engage in cyberbullying. Conversely, it explores whether teenagers sharing a computer with other household members in a family room are less likely to become involved in cyberbullying.
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- Predicting victimisation and perpetration
With approximately one-third of the respondents having experienced online victimisation and one-fifth having perpetrated acts of cyberbullying, the phenomenon of cyberbullying is widespread in Belgium.
The discrepancy between the responses to explicit and implicit questions regarding cyberbullying suggests that an exclusively explicit approach will systematically underestimate the problem. Further inquiry into youngsters’ experiences with specific types of online aggression may provide valuable information for assessing the extent of cyberbullying. Similar discrepancies were, for that matter, found in an American study (Patchin and Hinduja, 2008).
The present study demonstrates that, as was suggested by Stassen Berger (2007), cultural factors may underlie variations in cyberbullying prevalence. The victimisation and perpetration rates among pupils in French-language education are approximately three times greater than among those in Flemish schools. These regional variations should be interpreted with caution due to methodological issues. It should be taken into account that the corresponding surveys were formulated respectively in French and in Dutch. This may have impacted on the results. Moreover, the divergent responses may be attributable to differences in anti-bullying policies in Francophone and Dutch-speaking Belgium. The two communities have different educational systems and, as Vettenburg (1999) has ascertained, the issue of bullying has attracted greater attention in the Flemish schools. Moreover, several large-scale sensitisation initiatives have been taken in Flanders (Deboutte, 2009). Future research might therefore focus not only on cultural factors that potentially determine differences in the prevalence of cyberbullying, but also on dissimilarities in terms of the policy response.
As regards educational level, the findings confirm that cyberbullying is mainly an issue in vocational and technical/artistic education. Still, while this information might be helpful in determining a strategic response to cyberbullying in secondary education, policy-makers should keep in mind that the phenomenon also occurs in the highest educational level.
In line with earlier studies, individual’s previous experience with cyberbullying was found to be a key predictor of perpetration (Kowalski and Limber, 2007; Li, 2007a; Patchin and Hinduja, 2008; Slonje and Smith, 2007; Vandebosch and others, 2006). This suggests that the cyberbullies’ hostility may be fuelled by their own experiences of victimisation. Insofar as victimisation is concerned, this key predictor is followed by engagement in other kinds of online risk behaviour, such as chatting with peers and unfamiliar older Internet users, disclosure of (e-mail or instant messaging) passwords, or posting of personal details on a blog.
In comparison with predictors for victimisation, the second order predictors of perpetration are slightly different. Especially the perceived gravity of cyberbullying and experimentation with different online identities are important. This concurs with a finding in a previous study that bullies find their behaviour humourous rather than offensive (Patchin and Hinduja, 2008) and with the observation in earlier research that the majority of the victims do not know the identity of the offender (Kowalski and Limber, 2007; Patchin and Hinduja, 2008; Vandebosch and others, 2006). Girls are found to be significantly more likely to be victimised, which ties in with previous research (Li, 2006, 2007a; Smith and others, 2008; Vandebosch and others, 2006).
In addition, our study found that cyberbullies are more likely to use their own computer in a study or bedroom than a shared device in a family room. A possible explanation is that cyberbullying is an activity that typically slips under the adult radar.
In conclusion, most findings of this study seem to correspond with empirical evidence from previous research. However, it should be noted that the present study exhibits some weaknesses. For one thing, other online experiences besides cyberbullying were integrated into the survey. Hence, due to time restraints, the survey focused exclusively on direct forms of cyberbullying, while ignoring indirect forms or offline bullying. Also, no in-depth questions were asked about victims’ perception of and coping strategies for cyberbullying. Despite these limitations, the current study provides some insight into the profiles of victims and perpetrators, and it pinpoints the relationship between cyberbullying and other online risk behaviours.
Future studies need to explore in greater depth the possible relationship between cyberbullying involvement, reporting, coping and parenting styles in general as well as parents’ commitment to their children’s ICT use. More research is urgently needed into the association between cyberbullying and other (online and offline) teenage risk behaviours. Although some research focuses on the co-occurrence of cyberbullying and offline (verbal and physical) bullying at school (Kowalski and Limber, 2007; Li, 2007a; Patchin and Hinduja, 2008; Slonje and Smith, 2007; Vandebosch and others, 2006), further in-depth research should explore the relationship with school context variables, such as teachers’ and pupils’ views on the acceptability of bullying. Many authors support the call for the inclusion of electronic bullying prevention in conventional anti-bullying programmes (Campbell, 2005; Kowalski and others, 2008; Williams and Guerra, 2007). A whole-school approach involving pupils, teachers and parents has been recommended as a core intervention by several authors on anti-bullying projects (Deboutte, 2009; Olweus, 1994; Peterson and Rigby, 1999; Stassen Berger, 2007; Vreeman and Aaron, 2007). Within this approach, interventions must be directed at the entire school context rather than just at individual bullies (Smith and others, 2004; Stevens and others, 2000). The authors support the call for cross-national scientific co-operation and argue that an advancing harmonisation of research methodology could ameliorate the insights into cyberbullying. In this context, the European Co-operation in the field of Scientific and Technical research (COST) regarding cyberbullying is promising, as it allows researchers to share their expertise.
Finally, we encourage policy, research and prevention programmes to remain flexible, as the convergence of Internet applications and mobile telephony may well impact on the evolution of cyberbullying as a societal problem.