Following the recent, tragic suicide of Hannah Smith, aged 14 years, in Leicestershire, UK, last Friday, a string of hateful messages were found to have been posted to her via her ask.fm page. The reporting of her death led to an outcry about cyberbullying, the site ask.fm, and its policies. A part of this outcry has been about the role of anonymity in cyberbullying. Some, including the director of Beatbullying, Niall Cowley, have argued that:
it was the anonymity that was proving the huge draw [to ask.fm] for young people [….] Anonymity increases disinhibition. You think you will get away with it and that there is no recourse so you are more likely to behave in a way that you would never do in real life
Others have argued that anonymity is not the root of the problem, and it is the way in which people behave, be that on- or offline that needs to be addressed:
Blaming anonymity is the wrong target – it is a tool in our hands that can be used for good or for harm. The site operators, the sites themselves, and the anonymity they allow are are not the true problem; we are. (Vicky Beeching, 9th August, 2013)
The assumptions voiced by Niall Cowley are not new. I’ve published the same assumptions myself on papers on cyberbullying, for example:
Cyberbullying is particularly pernicious because it is a potentially anonymous route to attacking a target. (Jones et al., 2011, p. 89)
Neither have these assumptions come out of the blue. It is known that people behave more anti-socially online than they do in face-to-face interactions (Patchin & Hinduja, 2006). Among adults, the social identity de-individuation [SIDE] effect (e.g., Reicher, Spears, & Postmes, 2011) posits that anonymity gives flight to people being more able to express their group identities (and thus to be more horrible, for example, as part of a friendship group attacking an individual). And my later research shows that group identities and group norms are important in perceptions of cyberbullying.
But, is there any research evidence that anonymity acts as a facilitator for cyberbullying? I decided to take a look. I found lots of papers voicing the above assumption, and some linking anonymity with cyberbullying but not as many as I thought I might. A study by Kowalski and Limber (2007) found that nearly half of the targets of cyberbullying in their study did not know who their aggressors were. But that doesn’t place anonymity as a causal factor in the cyberbullying of those individuals. Sticca and Perren (2013) showed bullying scenarios to 14 year-olds, finding that where bullying was said to be done anonymously, it was seen as more severe than when the identity of the perpetrators was known. But this was regardless of the medium through which the bullying took place (be that traditional or cyberbullying). Moore et al. (2012) found that on the question-asking site, formsprings.me, the aggressiveness of posts was correlated with anonymity. I only found one study which showed that, among a sample of middle school students, anonymity led to increased levels of cyberbullying (Wu & Lien, 2013).
That said, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. If nearly half of Kowalski and Limber’s participants did not know who their aggressors were, then more than half of them were known. And as Mishna, Saini, and Solomon (2009) states, although students report that anonymity makes bullying feel worse, most of the cyberbullying reported to the study was done by identified aggressors. Burton, Florell, and Wygant (2013) further found that those engaged in traditional bullying were the same students who were engaged in cyberbullying.
So, it could be the case, in many instances that cyberbullying is a continuation of what is happening elsewhere, in non-virtual reality. A true ganging up in number, method, and space. It seems that the jury is out regarding the causal link between anonymity and cyberbullying. There is good reason to suppose that one exists, and more research would help to clarify the extent to which anonymity online leads to cyberbullying, and whether there is reason to restrict anonymous posting in interactions with and between children on social media sites.