Cyber-bullying, or the mistreatment of others through digital means, can cause significant damage. While cyber-bullying can negatively affect a person in a number of different ways, I want to focus on the relationship between cyber-bullying and self-esteem. Self-esteem is a person’s belief that they are a worthwhile person, or the degree to which a person has a positive attitude towards him or herself. Numerous research studies have shown that cyberbullying can lead to decreased self-esteem in the target of mistreatment (Chang et al., 2013; Nixon, 2014; Wigderson & Lynch, 2013). Cyber-victimization by known peers can augment or replace traditional, face-to-face mistreatment, which has consistently shown to lead to lowered self-esteem and self-image. Additionally, cybervictimization by anonymous perpetrators can be just as damaging. The anonymity of the internet can allow perpetrators to be crueler and more relentless in their mistreatment. In addition, if a target is called names or threatened by people he or she does not even know, that can further support perceptions that the target is a damaged, worthless person—the interpretation by the target is often, “there is something wrong with me”—especially in adolescents who already may have a more fragile sense of self. What is even more troubling is that factors that seem to protect victims from traditional, face-to-face bullying (life satisfaction, social support from peers and family) are not as effective in buffering the effects of cyberbullying on a target’s self-esteem (Ubertini, 2011). As a result, targets may experience an increase in depression, anxiety, and suicidality because of the related decreased self-esteem.
Those who perpetrate cyberbullying also often have poor self-esteem. Empirical research has linked low self-esteem to increased risk of more frequent and more severe peer victimization (Nixon, 2015; Patchin & Hinduja, 2010). Justin Patchin and Sameer Hinduja (2011) suggested that cyberbullying perpetration often occurs because of increased strain on the individual—when someone has increased negative emotions due to threats to one’s self-esteem, he or she is at an increased risk of engaging in cyberperpetration. Recent research on cyberbullying behavior within a video-game milieu showed that males who were less proficient at a game were more likely to be hostile and engage in bullying behavior than males who were skilled at the game (Kasumovic & Kuznekoff, 2015). It is likely that the less proficient players also had lower self-esteem, and the cyberbullying behavior was their attempt to cope with that low self-esteem by trying to increase their sense of power over others.
Given that low self-esteem is associated with both cyberbullying victimization and perpetration, it is important to implement intervention programs that address self-esteem. Teaching youth ways to improve their self-esteem by changing their cognitive appraisals of situations, improving emotion regulation skills, and engaging in activities that provide success and mastery can increase self-esteem—and therefore reduce cyberbullying. Increased skills in empathy and perspective taking, often taught through mentoring and other community connections, can also improve self-esteem as well as interpersonal and emotional expression skills. Educators and parents should also be on the lookout for changes in self-esteem in youth as a potential red flag for both cyberbullying victimization and perpetration.
Melanie D. Hetzel-Riggin, Ph.D.
PSU Associate Professor of Psychology
Chang, F. C., Lee, C. M., Chiu, C. H., Hsi, W. Y., Huang, T. F., & Pan, Y. C. (2013). Relationships among cyberbullying, school bullying, and mental health in Taiwanese adolescents. Journal of school health, 83(6), 454-462.
Kasumovic, M. M., & Kuznekoff, J. H. (2015). Insights into Sexism: Male Status and Performance Moderates Female-Directed Hostile and Amicable Behaviour. PloS one, 10(7), e0131613.
Patchin, J. W., & Hinduja, S. (2010). Cyberbullying and self‐esteem. Journal of School Health, 80(12), 614-621.
Patchin, J. W., & Hinduja, S. (2011). Traditional and nontraditional bullying among youth: A test of general strain theory. Youth & Society, 43(2), 727-751. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/0044118X10366951
Ubertini, M. (2011). Cyberbullying may reduce adolescent’s well-being: Can life satisfaction and social support protect them?(Order No. AAI3431797). Available from PsycINFO. (882110639; 2011-99120-196)
Wigderson, S., & Lynch, M. (2013). Cyber-and traditional peer victimization: Unique relationships with adolescent well-being. Psychology of Violence, 3(4), 297-309.