Is cyberbullying getting out of control?

A teenager being bullied on smart phone.
There's a new epidemic known as cyberbullying, and it's widespread -- a Pew Research poll reported in 2007 that 32 percent of teenagers had been victims of cyberbullying. Peter Dazeley / Getty Images

It only takes a few minutes of playing an online action game to realize you're operating in an entirely different world. Games like "Counter-Strike" that offer voice-communication features allow you to hear children barely in their teens spouting swearwords. But swearing in video games is not the only example of online misbehavior. There's a new epidemic known as cyberbullying, and it's widespread -- a Pew Research poll reported in 2007 that 32 percent of teenagers had been victims of cyberbullying [source:]. defines cyberbullying as "when one child targets another using interactive technologies," which can include online games, e-mail, cell phones, text messages and other electronic devices [source:]. Cyberbullying includes death threats, sending someone a virus, hacking into an e-mail account, disrupting a person's playing experience in an online game, intentionally embarrassing someone among his peers and many other actions [source:].


Cyberbullying has many terms associated with it, and we'll go over a couple important ones here. Trolling is when someone posts intentionally antagonistic messages on an online bulletin board or discussion area. Griefing, one of the most common forms of cyberbullying, is harassment of another player or participant within an online game. Griefing has many different manifestations, some of which have their own specific names. For example, kill stealing: consistently killing monsters that another player is trying to kill, frustrating his attempts to advance in or play a game.

Acts of cyberbullying vary widely in content and effect, but they can be genuinely traumatic, especially in highly realistic worlds that blur the borders between fantasy and reality. And if an online gamer has invested hundreds or thousands of hours into his avatar (Internet representation of himself), online character or position in a game universe, there can be a significant emotional attachment at stake. On the other hand, posting embarrassing stories and photographs on a social networking site viewed by an entire high school can devastate a student. Cyberbullying often leads to real-life, physical conflicts as well as feelings of depression, hopelessness and loss.

­There have even been alleged instances of "virtual rape," one in 2007 in the virtual world of "Second Life," and another occurring as early as 1993 in "LambdaMOO," an early text-based online game. The victims have described these events as emotionally scarring. The 2007 "Second Life" virtual rape allegations led to an investigation by Belgian police.

Experts say that the Internet makes bad or anti-social behavior easier. The anonymity allowed by the Internet emboldens bullies as they feel shielded from the consequences of their acts. Judith Donath, an MIT professor who studies media and social networks, told CNN that online interactions easily change people's perceptions of what's acceptable and what's not; it also can contribute to a sense that other players or participants aren't real human beings [source:].

Much of the material on cyber bullying only mentions children and teenagers, but it's not limited to them. There are reports of teachers as victims, with some even being forced to give up teaching due to constant harassment. Some kids use technology as a way to rebel against and taunt authority figures. Many of the online gamers who commit and suffer from cyberbullying are adults.

On the next page we'll look at some methods of stopping cyberbullies.


How to Stop Cyberbullying

Many gamers and some game developers favor the adoption
© Photographer: Scott Rothstein | Agency:

Cyberbullying can be particularly traumatizing because it means home is no longer a safe place. A cell phone, video game or social network becomes just another form of harassment. Fortunately, there are some ways to deal with the cyberbully problem.

Most games, Web sites and ISPs provide systems to deal with disruptive users. Some are integrated into the program and user-controlled, as in the case of social networking sites that allow you to block certain users from interacting with you. Many companies provide a formal complaint process, through which users may be warned, suspended or banned.


Educators and campaigns like say that children should be educated about the impact of this form of bullying. Children should have outlets in which to talk about and report the problem. Potential bullies need to know that consequences exist, while parents should talk to kids about using technology responsibly and acting appropriately online.

Some cases of cyberbullying have spilled over into real-life altercations or even reported instances of suicide. Besides the Belgian investigation into the virtual rape in "Second Life," the law has gotten involved with cases of cyberbullying. Police in Japan arrested a man for repeated virtual muggings in the game "Lineage II" [source: Washington Post]. That arrest was likely due to the fact that the stolen virtual goods were later sold for real-world currency.

Some analysts advocate using Dunbar's Number to prevent cyberbullying from occurring. Dunbar's Number says that social groups of more than 150 people break down because people can't maintain connections to others in the group. Limiting the size of online groups, such as by making game worlds, virtual towns or other groups smaller, may make people feel more interconnected. That sense of community would in turn engender a sense of responsibility and fair treatment toward others.

Another proposal entails the adoption of an Avatar Bill of Rights -- essentially a list of rights for online personalities. There's some debate about what such a document should contain and how it would be enforced. Still, many members of the gaming and development communities have called for a substantial and vigorously enforced Avatar Bill of Rights.

One problem with stopping cyberbullies is that some game worlds or social networks are simply too huge and the number of complaints filed too numerous. "Second Life," with more than six million registered players, is often cited as needing more regulation, especially since it allows its players to earn virtual money that can be exchanged for real American dollars [source: Washington Post].

"Second Life" bills itself as an entire virtual world, where "citizens" can earn real money as they conduct business, interact and live out an existence that in many ways mirrors the real world, all the way down to the realistic appearance of their avatars. Companies like IBM have opened stores and offices in "Second Life." Several countries have "Second Life" embassies.

As perhaps the most prominent of the merging of real and virtual worlds, "Second Life" is also a place where abuse, bullying and other virtual crimes have become frequent occurrences. The founder of "Second Life" said that he hopes that players eventually devise their own legal code and justice system, which may help solve some of "Second Life"'s bullying and harassment problems [source: Washington Post]. For the time being, some aspects of "Second Life" and other online games, such as gambling and, in some countries, virtual depictions of underage sex, remain governed by real laws and carry real penalties.

For more information about dealing with cyberbullying and to read copies of the proposed Avatar Bill of Rights, please check out the links on the next page.


Frequently Answered Questions

How does cyberbullying effect mental health?
There is a strong correlation between cyberbullying and mental health issues such as anxiety, depression, and low self-esteem. Victims of cyberbullying are more likely to experience these issues than those who are not bullied.
What does cyberbully mean?
Cyberbullying is the use of electronic communication to bully a person, typically by sending messages of an intimidating or threatening nature.

Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

More Great Links


  • "Avatar Bill of Rights?" Virtual to Reality. June 2, 2007.
  • "Online Game Developer Wants Avatar Bill of Rights." Aug. 13, 2007.
  • "STOP cyberbullying." WiredKids.
  • Devereux, Charlie. "Anarchy on-line." Aug. 24, 2007.
  • Koster, Ralph. "Declaring the Rights of Players." Aug. 27, 2000.
  • Leong, Melissa. "Cyber-bullying targeting teachers: poll." National Post. Aug. 27, 2007.
  • Sipress, Alan. "Does Virtual Reality Need a Sheriff?" The Washington Post. June 2, 2007.