What is CyberBullying?

John Bailey
7 min readMar 23, 2021

The definition of cyber-bullying I’ll be using is based on the definition of non-cyber bullying I’ve been using throughout this series: “protecting and/or elevating social status through various persistent and often hurtful means”. I also use the descriptive term “social sorting” to refer to this notion.

Cyber-bullying is bullying in the realms and using the tools of digital communication and social media. It includes things like social exclusion, name-calling, calculated embarrassment, text-bombing, harassing calls, and minor intimidation — up to the point of things that fall under existing criminal codes.

For instance, we would not describe a parking-lot attack with a baseball bat as “bullying”. So, we would not describe destructive digital attacks such as breaking into someone’s account or sending pornography to a minor as “bullying”. Those things are criminal acts, which should be addressed as such.

The four most common questions I get about cyber-bullying are:

  1. “Why do they do it?”
  2. “Why won’t they stop?”
  3. “Why is it so crushing?”
  4. “What can I do?”

Answering the first three questions requires understanding the motivational mechanics. I’ll use some Motivational Literacy™ strategies to break it down. And, I’ll use analogy to make the emotions easier to deal with by looking at cyber-bullying as a game:

In a tennis match, participants experience emotional reward or loss (elevated or deflated feelings) according to how the match ends. They also experience elevated or deflated feelings whenever they score a point — or whenever a point is scored against them.

Like any other game, participants in cyber-bullying are playing for those two kinds of emotional rewards: the match-end reward and the individual play reward. Like any other game, both time and score are kept in their own ways. Unless we understand the rules and rewards, we cannot play or referee the game effectively:

  1. Social status is awarded by winning the match. Ascending status feels good; descending status feels bad; uncertain status means the game is still on because end-of-match emotions kick-in when the match ends.
  2. Until the game is over, participants will feel an urgent need to focus on game activities, and their immediate emotional reactions to them. When they or their partners score points they feel good; when they or their partners lose points they feel bad. And, attention is riveted when the proverbial ball is in play.
  3. In normal face-to-face social sorting (bullying), the match is over when the target concedes or appears fully defeated (or “sorted”).

Most people have heard the expression “fight or flight”. In reality, fleeing or fighting for one’s life are extremes on a spectrum of social interaction. The vast majority of aggression in social animals is resolved at less-than-life-threatening extremes — with actions called “posture” and “submit”. So, in the majority of social sorting activities the aggressor postures, threatens, perhaps shoves — and at some point, the target communicates their submission — alleviating mayhem and murder.

This evolved safety system works most of the time in face-to-face situations. When one person communicates concession through words, running away, or displaying extreme emotional distress, the match is over. The aggressor has achieved their goal, so further aggression is understood as unnecessary, unwarranted, and unfair. An aggressor who persists beyond that point risks social blow-back. This safety system extends beyond humans and even beyond other primates — but is not perfect.

The evolved safety system relies on four critical factors:

  1. The aggressor(s) perceive the target as a human being (worthy of mercy). So, the target’s distress or submission signals the aggressor(s) to stop and enjoy the emotional reward of victory rather than continuing to attack.
  2. The target has the opportunity or ability to flee the field.
  3. The aggressor(s) understand that the match is over upon the target’s submission, flight, or absence (and receives no emotional reward for continued offensive action).
  4. There is an intermission between matches, where participants cool-off; emotionally re-set; and review their actions. Critically, they also get to experience different emotional reactions by engaging in entirely different activities.

As bad as bullying can be, in most face-to-face social sorting, these systems protect against life-threatening or maiming injury the vast majority of the time. Although we can certainly do better — and should — we must appreciate the efficiency of nature. Following Nature’s lead can also inform us about what to do in the land of IS rather than fantasizing about life in the land of SHOULD.

How do these factors relate to cyber-bullying — and why is it often worse than face-to-face bullying?

The answer is in the limits of digital media, and how it relates to what I’ve mentioned above:

  1. It facilitates dehumanization in a supercharged way.
  2. It short-circuits the evolutionary safety system.
  3. It locks the reward of aggression and the pain of losing into loops.

It facilitates dehumanization in a supercharged way:

On-line name-calling puts labels in written form, which influences perception in three ways more powerful than spoken insults:

A. Most people respond to writing as more “real” than spoken words. Reading about something lends more credibility than merely hearing it. This is the power of the written word — according to English author Edward Bulwer-Lytton “The pen is mightier than the sword”.

B. The reach of a spoken slur is limited by the volume of the bully’s voice and the size of the audience at the moment. Remember the coming-of-age movies of the 1980’s, when the worst possible thing was an insult being broadcast over the school PA system? Consider that insults posted on-line literally reach “everyone in the (wired) world”.

C. Spoken insults fade at the speed of sound. They may be repeated, but every instance fades as fast, whereas an insult written on-line it is as clear on the 100th day as it was the minute it was posted. Imagine one of those 1980’s movies where the bully didn’t use the PA system, but painted an insulting mural on the school walls instead. And, nobody could erase it. The target had to walk past it every day.

These features of digital communication compound the dehumanizing effects of labeling, reducing the perception of targets as human. This can reduce the effectiveness of the evolved safety system that uses an empathy trigger to shut off the aggression. And that’s the first item in the next category…

It short-circuits the evolutionary safety system:

A. Perceive the target as a human being. Digital labeling is even far more powerfully dehumanizing than verbal name-calling — for reasons outlined above.

B. Target’s distress or submission signals the aggressor(s) to stop. Most of the credible communication of submission and distress that our evolutionary safety system relies on is non-verbal — body language and facial expression. That information is unavailable through digital communication. The “off switch” is literally missing from the aggression system. And, the emotional reward for “scoring points” continues to urge the aggressor on.

C. Target has the opportunity or ability to flee the field. In the digital environment, the target may leave a chat room, or block a bully from messaging them. But, these responses are not understood as “leaving the field” because the target is still “digitally present” in some fashion. This “off switch” is also missing from the aggression system.

It locks reward-of-aggression and pain-of-losing into loops:

A. Intermission between matches never happens because the participants aren’t getting the “end of match” signals their brains have evolved to respond to. There is no cool-off, emotional re-set, opportunity. Most critically, they are not mentally free to experience different emotional reactions to entirely different activities because the primitive brain thinks they’re still in a fight. The thumbs stay busy throughout the ride home, supper-time, homework, television, and even after supposed lights-out.

B. Just as the aggressor won’t perceive the target as having “left the field”, the target themselves can’t feel the relief they’re supposed to get from retiring. The “end of game” switch is missing from the target’s system as well, so they feel compelled to keep looking — to find a pile-up of “points” accumulating against them. There is no escape, no mercy, and no emotional relief. The target is stuck in a kind of social sorting purgatory…

This short explanation should provide some insight on those first three questions — and why the issue seems so challenging to deal with:

“Why do they do it?” — Mostly, it’s social sorting, and that’s evolutionary.

“Why won’t they stop?” — Digital media doesn’t support legacy safety systems.

“Why is it so crushing?” — Digital media doesn’t support legacy safety systems.

Cyberbullying is a kind of problem that adults find less troublesome than in-person bullying because adults are better at coping with social media issues (although I see a significant percentage of adults who are also very challenged by it).

Hopefully, understanding the underlying mechanics will provide adults three resources:

  1. Greater empathy with the pervasiveness and the intensity with which children experience cyber-bullying.
  2. Greater empathy and understanding for the aggressors, who can seem to be evil, but who are actually caught in a looping pattern — nearly as unable to quit as the target is to escape.
  3. A more creative attitude toward coping strategies — including those I’m going to present in detail next time, when I answer that fourth question: