Is Anonymity Key? Unlocking The Malice of Cyberbullying

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

(independent.co.uk, 6th August, 2013)

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)

photoNeither 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.

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Keeping a Wave Upon the Sand

Newspapers often capture the most horrific incidences of bullying in their headlines, and report high (and verifiable) levels of bullying and peer victimisation.

suicidebullying

The Guardian
23rd July, 2011

An important motivation for my research is reducing the level of bullying and peer victimisation, particularly in schools. So when I stare, confused, at near-blank Word documents write research papers, I like to report the current levels of these phenomena in the population I’m writing about. Newspapers often report on single surveys or events – in research, I need a fuller picture.

With this comes a perennial problem. There are so many ways of trying to get at the big picture. This time around, the most recent figures I could find were given on 23 May, 2013, in a Guardian DataBlog. This piece is fantastic, not least because it makes a timely point on what we actually know about bullying, but because it links to the original data file. 

I could go with that. But, as Ami Sedghi points out, this is child helpline data – and helpline calls don’t tell us about the actual level of bullying going on. The alternatives then, are self-reports of bullying, where all children are asked to say what has been happening to them within a given time-frame, like the example below from Owens, Daly, and Slee (2005):

self-report

or peer reports – where other children are given a class list, and  “nominate” children in their class according to whether they are bullied, like in Fox and Boulton (2006):

peer-report

These measures yield different outcomes, with peer report usually leading to slightly lower levels of reported bullying, that are nonetheless correlated with the levels of self-reported bullying (in our ESRC School Bullying and Humour Project research, we used both measures, to get the best of both worlds).

So – the way in which bullying is measured affects its apparent prevalence. But it’s more complicated than that. Researchers over the past 40 years have been unable to agree on what counts as bullying. This is important because a paper by Olweus (2012) demonstrates that the reported prevalence of cyberbullying depends upon whether it is asked about in the context of a definition of bullying or not. In reality, there are myriad definitions, which are often dependent on culture, age, and schooling, as Dorothy Espelage and her colleagues note in the first chapter of a recent research report.

Espelage goes further than this. She suggests that we should stop using the word bullying altogether, and instead research ‘peer victimisation’. Since bullying by (most) definition(s) involves repetition, she argues, schools wait too long to act in cases of one-off severe nastiness, so they can act in accordance with school’s bullying policies. I could add to her argument – a lot of definitions of bullying don’t take account of the child who is called names repeatedly, but where each name is coming a different child.

wave sand

Add to this, that what one child perceives as peer victimisation, another may perceive and/or receive as banter, that more passive forms victimisation (e.g., ignoring others) are difficult to disentangle from innocent non-attention to a person, and that targets and witnesses are reluctant to report what is happening, and it becomes obvious why we struggle to research what is going on.

Discerning the prevalence of bullying at a set time, is rather like, as  Rogers and Hammerstein put it, trying to keep a wave upon the sand –  bullying is difficult to get hold of. Reports of past events are relied upon. To try and reduce bullying, we must nonetheless try to work out what is happening.