Why Our Definition of Cyber Bullying Needs to Evolve in Order to Achieve More Effective Education and Management in Schools (Part One)

21 February 2019

This is the first part of a two-part series by Jordan Foster, Clinical Psychologist and Managing Director of ySafe  Australia. Part One asks schools to look closely at their definition and understanding of cyber bullying and explains how the term cyber bullying can sometimes be over applied, often to the detriment of the students concerned. Part Two explains how the term cyber bullying can sometimes be underapplied. Jordan Foster then challenges schools to look closely at their definition and understanding of cyber bullying, puts forward additional considerations for classifying cyber bullying and suggests how schools can use their current policies to mitigate against this very real online student risk.

Seize the Day

Over the past decade, cyber bullying has had a prominent place in the minds of Australian families and an increased presence in the national media.

Despite increased efforts to educate students and engage parents about the prevention and management of cyber bullying, our impact in minimising the prevalence of cyber bullying has been faint. The latest research, ‘State of play – youth, kids and digital dangers’, released by the The Office of the eSafety Commissioner, found that cyber bullying incidents were on the rise, with one in five Australian students admitting to having behaved negatively towards a peer online (2018, pg. 30). Cyber bullying has been labelled by health professionals as an “emerging international public health concern.”

While an apt description, it leaves a looming task over our heads in continuing to seek to curtail negative online behaviours, in the hope of addressing the social and psychological consequences of cyber bullying, with which we are all becoming increasingly familiar.

As a follow up to ‘Safer Internet Day’ (which took place on 5 February 2019), we want to support the efforts of school leaders in addressing cyber bullying by prompting a conversation about the definition of cyber bullying within school settings. While seemingly trivial, the classification of cyber bullying can have significant impacts on the effectiveness of education initiatives and anti-bullying policies.

As this date was close to the starting dates for all schools across the country, with many commencing in late January or early February, it is probable that many schools were focused on student and staff inductions and enrolment processes. However, staff and student use of social media and cyber bullying is likely to be a vital inclusion in school induction programmes.

How Schools Classify Cyber Bullying

While varying slightly in format and structure, many Australian schools have adopted a systematic and somewhat prescriptive definition of cyber bullying.

Kowalski, R. M., Giumetti, G. W., et. al. in their scholarly articleBullying in the digital age: A critical review and meta-analysis of cyberbullying research among youthdetermined that cyber bullying is defined as:

“[i]ntentional aggressive behaviour that is

  • carried out repeatedly,
  • occurs between a perpetrator and victim who are unequal in power, and
  • occurs through electronic technologies.”

This definition is important, as it provides school staff with a shared understanding to identify, and consequently manage, cyber bullying. In its current form, this definition of cyber bullying is transparent and logical and likely to be easily understood by students and school staff alike.

An issue arises however if this definition is our only mechanism for understanding and labelling cyber bullying behaviour. The definition as a standalone construct is simultaneously intolerant of interpersonal nuances between students, and lax in circumstances of severe yet single episodes of online bullying.

It is essential that cyber bullying is seen as part of a spectrum of negative online communication. The purest application of this definition can create an environment where cyber bullying is both overapplied to perhaps minor relational conflict, or underapplied to a potentially distressing online experience that may not fit the exact criteria outlined in the stringent definition.

The Issue of the Overapplication of ‘Cyber Bullying’

It is apparent in both research and anecdotal observations that students have adopted a far broader understanding of negative online communication than simply ‘cyber bullying’. The way in which young people categorise online conflict is complex and multifaceted and does not necessarily match an educator’s and parent’s narrow classification of cyber bullying. Online relational conflict fits into a broad spectrum of digital communication, occurring in the form of friendly teasing, ‘drama’, ‘calling people out’, polling, and even memes.

The outcome of applying the existing cyber bullying definition to all episodes of online relational conflict is the incorrect identification of cyber bullying. One of the major detrimental factors in labelling all episodes of conflict as ‘cyber bullying’ is the unavoidable consequence of labelling victims and/or aggressors as such. This simplification provides little room to explore the complexities of student online communications. Chris Berg in ‘Cyberbullying and public policy: An evolutionary perspective’ warned of the outcomes of the overapplication of ‘cyber bullying’ stating that “to describe a conflict as ‘bullying’ is to push that relationship into the scope of the now highly refined anti-bullying intervention policies, perhaps denying children the opportunity to learn how to navigate interpersonal conflict themselves”.

Furthermore, students will often reject a label of ‘cyber bully’ if they perceive the other person to be equally implicated. ‘Drama’ for example, may result in a school reprimanding a student for their targeted conflict towards another student. However, the ‘bullying’ student may perceive themselves as a protagonist, as their intent had been to defend a friend who was being targeted online by the ‘victim’. As socially-competent adults, we can apply the thinking that ‘two wrongs don’t make a right’ and therefore may still determine the ‘bullying’ student as being an aggressor. But in applying such a narrow label to the bully and victim, we may be robbing students of the opportunity to learn adaptive interpersonal skills.

Remedial education or incident management that focuses on anti-bullying practices may be remiss if it fails to address the complexities of online communications and the perceptions of students about cyber bullying. Furthermore, by virtue of their narrow definition of cyber bullying, anti-bullying policies have little impact on minor online relational conflict, as students do not consider ‘drama’ as being of sufficient magnitude to be considered a policy breach. If our intention is to use our school policies to guide student behaviour, they need to reflect the mindset and experiences of students in the online world.


ySafe is Australia’s leading provider of digital citizenship education within schools. Certified under the Office of the eSafety Commissioner, ySafe is a trusted partner of online safety education and cyber safety consulting in over 200 schools, with education provided to over 200,000 students and 50,000 parents across the country. ySafe’s award-winning team is comprised of clinical psychologists, law enforcers, and educators, who promote the positive and ethical use of technology. For more information about digital citizenship education or cyber safety services, visit ysafe.com.au