Adults Can Be Cyberbullies, Too, and Here’s Why

6 min read

When you think about the problem of cyberbullying, you probably regard it as reserved for older school-aged children or teens. This behavior, which includes online humiliation and targeting of another person on social media, causes severe distress, as known from media reports of young targets who become driven to self-harm and even suicide. Although workplace bullying is also a well-known phenomenon, the idea that “grown-ups” would engage in the same online tormenting of others seems a bit less likely to happen.

Perhaps you’ve been part of a group of people who see each other on a regular basis, usually to have fun. You’ve noticed occasional online spats between two of these people, and because you like both of them, this becomes stressful for you. One of the two people clearly has become the victim, because the other person has spewed nothing but vitriolic posts seemingly based on no actual basis in reality. What would lead someone to become so hurtful and mean, and what is your obligation to intervene?

Toxic Sensation Seeking and Cyberbullying

According to Alexandru Ioan Cuza University’s Alexandra Maftei and colleagues (2023), there are many ways in which the internet fosters positive and supportive relationships, makes it possible for people to engage in lifelong learning, and allows people to express themselves publicly. Balancing these advantages are the dangers of a number of adverse outcomes due to problems such as those involving your friends. Defining cyberbullying as “the intentional and repetitive use of digital images to harm another person,” the authors point out that their home country, Romania, seems to be a global hotbed of this behavior. They estimate that its prevalence is as high as 37 percent.

Also, as in the case of your friends, Maftei et al. point out that cyberbullying tends to involve triadic (three-way) relationships among the targets, the perpetrators, and witnesses (bystanders). The response of the bystander can include passively watching the whole situation unfold or can be an active attempt to soothe the victim. The Romanian team decided to focus their work on the perpetrators and those passive bystanders.

In trying to evaluate the possible factors that can cause someone to become a cyberbully, the Romanian team narrowed their work down to what they call “online disinhibition,” the tendency to show a lack of restraint when communicating on social media. Those most likely to show online disinhibition, furthermore, can be seen as potentially high in sensation seeking, the need for “higher levels of stimulation to reach their optimal arousal level.” It’s not just the perpetrator, moreover, who might have this need to create online chaos, but also the passive bystander, whose failure to act can also be related to a desire to observe the drama created by the bully.

Testing the Role of Toxic Sensation Seeking

Using an online sample of adults from eastern Romania (19-66 years old; average 28 years), Maftei et al. administered a cyberbullying questionnaire consisting of two items each to measure perpetration and active bystander status. Cyberbullying questions included “I shared someone’s pictures or images to make fun of him/her,” and bystander questions included “When someone was excluded from an online group of which I was a member, I minded my own business.” To measure toxic disinhibition, the authors used questions such as “I don’t mind writing insulting things about others online because it is anonymous.” Although the authors didn’t measure sensation seeking specifically, they considered toxic disinhibition to be a subfactor of this trait.

One twist in the study was the decision to measure psychological distress in perpetrators and passive bystanders who, by definition, were not considered victims. The idea behind this is contained in the prediction model the authors used, which regarded psychological distress combined with toxic disinhibition to predict who would be the bully as well as who would stand by and watch.

Consistent with their expectations, this model received statistical support, but only for perpetrators, not passive bystanders. There could have been several explanations for this, but the authors considered the most likely to be the possibility that different processes operate for a witness as compared to a perpetrator. Witnesses may enjoy the chaos but would be unlikely to have the same need to create the chaos themselves.

Cyberbullies, by contrast, are people who are driven by their own feelings of distress to become disinhibited in an online environment in ways that create harmful effects on others. These individuals take out their misery by seeking to make others as miserable as they are, and they hold no internal checks that would keep their misery to themselves.

What to Do When Cyberbullying Affects You

As the target of all this toxicity, it may be somewhat comforting to know that the cyberbully is someone who is deeply unhappy. Their behavior has less to do with your personal characteristics than with the need to vent. Unfortunately, the study authors didn’t study the role of psychopathy, which could certainly become a predisposing factor to cyberbullying. However, it’s all that much more impressive given that distress and toxic sensation seeking were such strong predictors on their own.

Setting this rationale aside, it remains the case that it hurts to be the victim of an online toxic sensation seeker. Furthermore, you might also be perplexed that a passive bystander would simply sit back and let it happen. Being passive means that you don’t get dragged into this unpleasant situation, but it also means that you in some ways contribute to the continuing saga between those other two people. If you happen to be that bystander, the moral of the story is to turn passivity into activity. You can help preserve the dignity and well-being of the target by reaching out with support, either in person (if possible) or online. Putting yourself in the other person’s place can guide you to this course of trying to repair the victim’s sense of self.

An important feature of this study is the fact that it draws attention to a problem that has received little research or public attention, yet exists in the dark underbelly of the internet. The authors maintain that the best way to prevent cyberbullying is to address the distress that contributes to its existence among perpetrators.

To sum up, the next time you experience cyberbullying, it’s important to step up and rectify the situation before it devolves further. If you’re the victim, reaching out to those who can provide you with positive support can help you negate the impact of this hurtful behavior on your sense of fulfillment.

If you or someone you love is contemplating suicide, seek help immediately. For help 24/7, dial 988 for the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline, or reach out to the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741. To find a therapist near you, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.

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