Int. J. Environ. Res. Public Health 2019, 16, 1217; doi:10.3390/ijerph16071217 www.mdpi.com/journal/ijerph
Cyberbullying Across the Lifespan of Education:
Issues and Interventions from School to University
Carrie-Anne Myers 1,* and Helen Cowie 2
1 Deptartment. of Sociology, City, University of London, London, EC1V 0HB, UK
2 Department of Health and Medical Sciences, University of Surrey, Guildford, GU2 7XH, UK;
* Correspondence: Carrie.Myers.email@example.com; Tel.: +44-207-040-4556
Received: 12 March 2019; Accepted: 02 April 2019; Published: 4 April 2019
Abstract: Research on cyberbullying amongst students has tended to be conducted separately
within specific education institutional contexts, schools, further education (FE) and higher
education (HE), neglecting a view that takes account of the entire educational lifespan. The present
article addresses this gap in the literature, providing a novel take on examining its nature, social
environments, legal consequences and potentially helpful interventions. To facilitate this, the article
conceptualises cyberbullying in broad terms, recognising that it can take multiple forms of online
and digital practice including: spreading rumours, ridiculing and/or demeaning another person,
casting aspirations on the grounds of race, disability, gender, religion or sexual orientation; seeking
revenge or deliberately embarrassing a person by posting intimate photos or videos about them
without their consent; accessing another’s social networking profiles with malicious intent and
socially excluding a person from a social network or gaming site. This article demonstrates that
harm from cyberbullying is a cause for concern for students at each developmental stage and that
there are continuities in its appearance that need to be challenged at each point in the educational
lifespan. And inaccurately, by university, the idea that ‘nothing can be done’ still is one of the main
concerns for the victims. The article concludes with five key recommendations for future research
and practice across the educational lifespan.
Keywords: cyberbullying; peer support; bystanders; moral disengagement; cyberbullying and the
law; mental health; social environment; cyberbullying interventions; educational lifespan.
1. The Nature of Cyberbullying
In the past decade, cyberbullying has emerged as a phenomenon at the school, college and
university levels. Definitions of cyberbullying fall into two main categories. Some researchers view
cyberbullying as a new form of traditional bullying, following the classical definition originally
proposed by Olweus, which states that it is repeated over time, involves a power imbalance between
perpetrator and target and has an intention to harm. In fact, Olweus, describes cyberbullying as “an
overrated phenomenon”, preferring to view it as simply an extension of traditional bullying into the
virtual world. He argues that cyberbullying has low prevalence and that most of those who are being
cyberbullied are also being bullied in traditional ways in the ‘real’ world 
By contrast, other researchers [2–4] consider that cyberbullying differs from traditional bullying
in distinctive ways since it can invade all aspects of a target’s privacy day and night, both at home
and at the educational institution where the target studies. Furthermore, the perpetrators can choose
to disguise their identity, so heightening the target students’ insecurity about the quality of their
relationships since they may not know which members of their peer group are involved in the
cyberbullying. Additionally, if a harmful message “goes viral” through the actions of bystanders who
forward the messages to others in their networks, the cybervictim’s distress is compounded. Finally,
Int. J. Environ. Res. Public Health 2019, 16, 1217 2 of 14
if, in a ‘one-off’ attack, the action is severe, such as sharing a sexually explicit image of the victim, it
transcends the boundaries of cyberbullying and in some countries becomes a criminal offence .
From this second perspective, like traditional face-to-face bullying, cyberbullying involves the
deliberate intent to hurt a person or persons repeatedly over time. However, researchers such as
Schulze-Krumbholz et al. found structural differences in cyberbullying when compared to traditional
bullying with an absence of the “pure” cybervictim category in their sample of 6260 adolescents. In
their study, they found that the perpetrators of cyberbullying reported that they had been bullied
themselves in traditional ways. The researchers speculate that the anonymity of cyberbullying
enabled these young people to fight back in ways that would be impossible face-to-face. This study
confirms that there is some overlap between traditional and cyberbullying but that the latter has its
own distinctive nature . Boulton et al. conclude from their research into bullying at university that
findings from traditional bullying should not be generalised to cyberbullying and vice versa.
Furthermore, they argue, each broad category (whether bullying or cyberbullying) has sub-types of
behaviour, each of which may be distinctive in its own right. They recommend a focus on attitudes
towards the behaviour of both bullies and victims to predict whether a student will engage in
bullying or cyberbullying in the future .
For the purpose of this article, we acknowledge the distinctive features of cyberbullying while
at the same time accepting that to some extent there is an overlap between traditional and
cyberbullying. In order to move the agenda along and look at continuities across the educational
lifespan, and the ever-evolving nature of social media platforms, technology and the internet, we also
argue that cyberbullying, as a stand-alone category, has to be considered in order to understand more
deeply its potential for social and emotional harm to those directly involved as well as to the
witnesses and bystanders. The objective of this paper is to address the following two research
1) To what extent has cyberbullying across the lifespan of education, that is from
primary/elementary school, through college to university, been identified as an issue?
2) What are the implications for educational establishments and educators to reduce and
prevent cyberbullying across this learning lifespan?
2. Research Findings on Cyberbullying
Most of the research on cyberbullying has taken place in schools and we can gain a great deal of
knowledge from this literature about the phenomenon . More recently, there has been an upsurge
of interest in cyberbullying among post-16 students, whether in further education (college) or higher
education (university), for example, in Canada [8–10], in Finland [11,12], in the US  and in the UK
. The systematic review of cyberbullying among adults by Jenaro, Flores and Frias (2018) provides
useful evidence on prevalence, contributing factors, short- and long-term impact and the role of
bystanders. Although this review focuses on adults, in practice the authors found that most of the
studies had been carried out in college student populations. They conclude that the impact of
cyberbullying may be as severe amongst adult populations as amongst children but they note the
buffering effect of personal and environmental factors, with emotional intelligence (in the individual)
and social support (in the school and community environment) being the most influential variables
Essentially, research into cyberbullying indicates negative immediate effects on the target with
potentially harmful long-term impacts on psychosocial development, self-esteem, academic
achievement and mental health [16–19]. For the students who are the targets of such bullying
behaviours, the experience is unpleasant and distressing in the short term. However, for some there
are longer term negative consequences for their mental health and their academic career. Bullying
affects the target’s self-esteem and often leads to social withdrawal from peer-group networks.
Consequently, victims of cyberbullying run a heightened risk of mental health disorders, including
depression and social anxiety [12,13]. For example, Schenk and Fremouw found that college student
victims of cyberbullying were more likely than non-bullied peers to suffer from depression, anxiety
and a range of psychosomatic complaints, as well as academic difficulties . Research into the
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experiences of lesbian, gay, bi-sexual and transgendered (LGBT) students confirms the negative effect
of bullying on the mental health of targets. One National Union of Students (NUS) survey  found
that one in five lesbian, gay and bi-sexual (LGB) students and one in three transgendered (T) students
reported at least one form of bullying on campus; many reported that they had to pass as ‘straight’
in order to protect themselves from homophobia and transphobia. Rivers and Valentine et al. report
on the extremely negative effect that such treatment had on the mental health of staff and students
[22,23]. In extremes, this could lead to suicide.
Cyberbullying involves many, if not all, of the children in a school class since not only the
perpetrators and targets are affected but also the witnesses who view negative online messages and
harmful video clips and who may in turn forward them to other people for their own amusement,
regardless of the feelings of the victim. Cyberbullies are often rewarded for their online behaviour by
the approval of the peer group. On the surface, they are the dominant ones with a côterie of admiring
followers, but research indicates that the long-term outcomes for them are not good in terms of
mental health, social competence and anti-social behaviour . There is a high risk that they will
continue to repeat their cyberbullying behaviour  since their popularity (which they value) is
based on fear and intimidation rather than genuine friendship, making it highly likely that they will
continue this method of relating to others as a means of acceptance in their peer group across the
Cyberbullying among post-16 students continues to cause harmful effects on fellow students. It
takes many forms, including such behaviours as: spreading nasty rumours on the grounds of race,
disability, gender, religion and sexual orientation; ridiculing or demeaning a person; social exclusion;
unwelcome sexual advances; stalking; threatening someone online; revealing personal information
about a person that was shared in confidence . West in two studies of cyberbullying among
college students in the age-group 16–19 years, found that victims reported such disturbing behaviour
as: being told to kill themselves; being sexually harassed; being taunted on account of their religion;
being bullied on account of their sexual orientation; being attacked by a ‘gang’ of former friends on
Twitter; having nasty comments posted online by a former romantic partner. The emotions
experienced by the targets of bullying included anger, hurt, sadness, depression, embarrassment,
anxiety, difficulty in concentrating, isolation, self-blame, fear, suicidal thoughts; victims also reported
that the cyberbullying had an adverse effect on their capacity to study and on their ability to form
social relationships online and in the real world. In the same study, the students who admitted to
being cyberbullies reported reasons that included: fun; revenge; anger; jealousy; provocation; desire
for power and status; freedom to behave in this way through the anonymity of the social media
[26,27]. These findings are confirmed in a larger Canadian study (N = 1925) by Faucher et al. (2014)
who also noted that women students were more vulnerable to attack through such forms of
cyberbullying as “sexting”, “morphing”, “virtual rape” and “revenge porn” . Phipps and Young
made similar discoveries in their study of bullying and harassment among UK university students
As indicated in many studies globally and across the educational lifespan, the effects of
cyberbullying on mental health can be long-lasting [12,13,29,30]. The public nature of cyberbullying
means that it can create a social context where cyberbullying is perceived as “normal” and
“acceptable” ( p.1172). Sexting (the exchange of online sexual images or videos) whether generated
by others or self-generated, has contributed to recent increases in cyberbullying. This kind of material
may begin within a close friendship group or couple but can quickly go viral and be circulated,
without consent, to a much larger audience.
3. Cyberbullying across the Educational Lifespan
There is, a small, but growing, body of evidence to suggest that there is some continuity in being
a bully or a victim from childhood through adolescence and into young adulthood [9,31,32]. Curwen
et al. in a retrospective study of 186 university students who admitted to bullying their peers, found
that, although there was an overall decrease in the incidence of verbal and physical bullying between
high school and university, a substantial proportion of the student bullies in their study had also
Int. J. Environ. Res. Public Health 2019, 16, 1217 4 of 14
engaged in bullying behaviour at elementary and high school levels . Chapell et al. found that
over half of the adult bullies in their sample had also bullied others during childhood and
adolescence. They conclude that this history of bullying indicates long-term benefits so that the
behaviour becomes entrenched and continues to be a successful strategy for improving the bully’s
social status . Not only that, there is evidence that bullies are popular amongst their peers and
that bystanders are often indifferent to the suffering of the victims  and that this insensitivity to
others’ distress increases over time . The impact on the victims is well documented within the
school setting and is emerging as a core focus for looking at cyberbullying within the university sector
. The evidence indicates that, while cyberbullying behaviours follow the traditional bullying
notions of an imbalance of power, with the added dimension of the internet, the anonymity of the
behaviours gives ‘more power’ to the perpetrators and a greater feeling of helplessness to the victims.
Additionally, the anonymity of the internet gives perceived power to former victims who can then
take revenge on those who tormented them without the repercussions which would happen in a face-
Furthermore, we also need to take account of the social contexts where the cyberbullying takes
place. As Cassidy et al., argue: “Power imbalances are prevalent in the hierarchical context of
universities: administrator to faculty member, senior to junior faculty, tenured to untenured, faculty
to staff, supervisor to graduate student, instructor to student, not to mention imbalances based on
gender, age, ethnicity, race, social status, and sexual orientation, which can permeate all of those
relationships.”(, p.2) Indeed, in their research into cyberbullying among students, faculty staff
and administrators at four Canadian universities, they link their analysis of cyberbullying to the
power and control model, adapted from the field of intimate partner violence, which considers
behaviours such as “intimidation, threats, harmful language, social standing, exclusion and
harassment in the exercise of power and control over another in a relationship.” (,p.2)
Furthermore, they demonstrate that the internet and relevant communication technologies can be
used to carry out any, or all, of these forms of behaviour. They conclude that “currently too many
students and faculty are suffering the impacts of cyberbullying in isolation, frustrated with the
attempts for solving their situations, without any clear guidelines to follow, and within the context
of a university culture which benignly seems to tolerate such actions.” (, p.16)
Because of the global reach of the internet, social media platforms and any aggressive online
behaviour such as cyberbullying, it follows that research within the university sector is global in its
production. Increasingly, researchers in universities reach the same conclusion, namely that
cyberbullying is a vast problem and that something has to be done about it [37,38].
4. The Role of the Bystander/Witness
Bullying is rarely something that happens only between two individuals, the bully and the
victim. Rather, it happens in a social context where bystanders are fully aware of what is happening
and take on distinctive participant roles, such as bully, victim, assistant, reinforcer, outsider and
defender . In fact, Salmivalli argues that bystanders/outsiders are trapped in a moral dilemma.
Although they understand that bullying is wrong, they are acutely aware of their own need for
security within the peer group . Many bullies enjoy tormenting a vulnerable peer “for fun” and
this can involve entertainment value for the onlookers . The ways in which bystanders respond
has a powerful impact on whether the cyberbullying continues or, even worse, goes viral. Through
the actions of bystanders, a message that was intended for one other person or for a small group of
close friends can quickly be sent to strangers without the permission of the target person. Too often,
it is easier for the bystanders to enjoy the spectacle of another’s distress than to challenge the bullies.
Bystanders may even blame the victims for not being capable of defending themselves . This
indifference, or moral disengagement, is often justified on the grounds that the victim in some way
deserved the treatment being meted out to them. In fact, by forwarding distressing images or videos,
bystanders collude with the bullies and demonstrate that a process of moral disengagement has taken
place . The bystanders’ lack of action to support the victim of cyberbullying can be explained in
several ways. They may be afraid of becoming a target in turn if they challenge the bullies or defend
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the victim and they may justify their actions by rationalising them in terms of blaming the victim .
They may even admire the bullies and feel pride in the bullies’ actions . In turn, the actions of
bystanders influence the behaviour of the wider peer group, for example, in whether to condone the
cyberbullying or to defend the victim publicly.
However, many bystanders report feelings of discomfort and concern when they witness the
occurrence of cyberbullying. Condeza et al. (, p.44) report the following comments from
witnesses of cyberbullying at a university in Chile:
“I felt powerless about the offenders’ anonymity, and I felt ignorant because I did not know
what to do.” (female, second year)
“It angered me, but since it was not my friend, I cannot intervene.” (male, second year)
Additionally, these researchers found that 44.5% of their sample of witnesses reported that they
were afraid of becoming cybervictims if they intervened .
The problem has become so serious in the UK that Universities UK (UUK) has issued a report,
Changing the Culture, on sexual violence, harassment and hate crime on campus with a list of
recommendations, emphasising prevention, that all universities should take on board, which we will
discuss below in the section on the complexities of cyberbullying and the law .
Victims’ reactions to cyberbullying are crucial in understanding its incidence and impact. Some
researchers argue that there are distinctive roles that can be assigned. For example, Cunningham et
al surveyed 1004 university students and found that more than 60% of respondents reported
involvement in cyberbullying in the following ways: 45.7% had been witnesses, 5.7% had been
victims, 4.9% were perpetrator victims and 4.5% were perpetrators . These are similar roles to the
ones suggested by Salmivalli in her research on school bullying .
5. Victim Coping Strategies in Cyberbullying
Recent research considers cyberbullying in the university setting and its possible relationship
with other personal and family variables. For example, Martinez-Monteagudo et al. consider the
predictive capacity of the family environment and emotional intelligence in relation to cyberbullying
among university students . They sampled 1282 students and found that a deteriorated family
environment increased the probability of being both a victim and a perpetrator of cyberbullying.
Furthermore, they also found that the emotional intelligence of the students had a correlation with
predicting the levels of participation in cyberbullying. They argue that: “…part of the problem of
cyberbullying in the university setting may depend on the quality of the student’s family
relationships and EI level. These are variables that have yet to receive much attention from the
scientific field. Thus, the family is seen to play a relevant role as a protective factor from
cyberbullying, even in a university setting, controlling the behaviour of its members and the use of
new technologies. Similarly, EI acts as a protective factor to prevent students from being victims as
well as aggressors, highlighting the fundamental role exercised by emotional regulation in students.
Thus, it is corroborated that both variables are relevant factors to be taken into consideration when
developing social and educational policies, and when developing intervention programs to alleviate
this problem.” ( p. 224).
Such research demonstrates the continuities and patterns across the educational lifespan, but
crucially also suggests that even though the students are at university, there is still an element of
family involvement and engagement that will help the student if they become involved in a
cyberbullying scenario. This is also pertinent since an increasing number of students choose to live
at home whilst they study to keep down the costs and expenditure of being at university.
Assumptions that students are over 18 and able to defend for themselves need to be challenged as
positive relationships with the family emerge as a coping mechanism for involvement in
cyberbullying, as they do for school students.
Attachments to members of the peer group are also significant, as McCloughlin et al. found in
their survey of Australian adolescents . Young people in this age-group have a strong need for
social connectedness. Those who were more socially connected had better mental health than those
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who were not and had more effective defences against cyberbullying when it happened. The less
young people feel socially connected to their peer group, the lower their self-esteem and the greater
their sense of loneliness, both offline and online .
Gender also plays a very significant role in cyberbullying across the educational lifespan,
notably at the university level. Cunningham et al., found that male students were more likely than
their female counterparts to report as perpetrators or bully-victims , while Boulton et al., argued
that the male undergraduates in their study viewed cyberbullying and those who perpetrate it, less
negatively than the female students did .
Younger victims may try to fight back (often unsuccessfully) against the bullies or express their
distress through tears and emotional displays, so risking further physical and psychological attacks
from the bullies, and contempt from bystanders . As victims progress through the educational
lifespan, they are less likely to retaliate actively but are more likely to employ passive tactics, such as
blocking or ignoring. As Kernaghan and Elwood argue in their qualitative study of cyberbullying
during early adolescence, the cyberbullying event becomes a performance where the bystanders take
the role of audience to a drama. The more the victims become distressed, the greater the
entertainment and the less likely that bystanders will intervene to help . Similarly, in focus
groups, the adolescents in the study by Purdy and York reported that during an episode of
cyberbullying, it is often easier to go along with the crowd since they were afraid that the bullies
would turn on them . Understandably, victims learn to disguise their true feelings. As children
become adolescents, they are less likely to engage in fighting fire with fire, perhaps because of such
negative experiences from peers and perceived inaction from adults. By the time cybervictims are at
university, while they may have learned that aggressive retaliation achieves little, many have failed
to find alternative coping strategies to reduce or prevent the cyberbullying .
A small number of studies indicate that the university sector could be better equipped to deal
with cyberbullying, with lecturers and other staff becoming more proactive in helping. When
considering victims of cyberbullying and how they deal with the situation whilst at university
research is scant, in comparison to the school setting. Nonetheless there are some illuminating
studies. For example, Orel et al., in a sample of 282 students, investigated the coping strategies the
students would potentially use in response to future cyberbullying incidents. Blocking of the
perpetrator was found to be the most common tactic considered , but does this passive tactic solve
Research from the school setting provides strong evidence that telling someone about being
bullied is a crucial first step to resolving the problem, however, studies of college and university
cyberbullying find that victims feel, at university, that telling someone about their situation will not
result in a satisfactory outcome. For instance, Alqahtani et al., in their study of 165 university students
found that 49% of students felt that their university could not or would not do anything about
cyberbullying, even if it was reported; 47% felt that university staff would not believe or understand
them even if they did complain or report what had happened . Thus interventions that actively
encourage children to tell someone that they are being cyberbullied, for example a member of staff
from the pastoral care team, a school nurse or a peer supporter, are not being carried over to FE and
HE levels so therefore are not being practiced across the educational lifespan.
6. The Victim-Offender Cycle.
In Finland, Pörhölä [25,55] found that nearly half of those who reported being bullied at
university had previously been subjected to school bullying. Retrospective studies, for example,
Bauman and Newman in the US, also indicate that there is a high likelihood that university students
who report being bullied were also bullied at junior and high school levels, but that being a stable
victim from junior high to high school and then to university was more characteristic of male than
female students . However, the distinctive participant roles that are often researched and reported
in more traditional forms of bullying  are not always as clear cut in cyberbullying incidents. Some
researchers  have argued that it is almost impossible to make the distinction between the ‘bully’
and the ‘victim’ in the online world where cybervictims hide behind anonymity to become
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cyberbullies in revenge. Similarly, at secondary school level, Schultze-Krumbholz, et al., found that
adolescents who bully others online are very likely to have been victims themselves .
Cyberbullying research confirms some degree of continuity across the educational lifespan but there
are also discontinuities that need to be further investigated.
The discipline of criminology potentially offers useful insights since the ‘victim/offender’ cycle
is played out in different criminal scenarios and the distinction between roles is not that clear cut.
Decades of research have shown that there exists a connection between the perpetrator and the target,
which has a number of complicated dynamics that need further investigation , with some arguing
that the overlap is developmental in its nature and predictable from childhood  and others
arguing that the relationship is so “intimately connected” that trying to understand victims and
offenders as separate entities is not possible . Clearly, the relationship between cyberbully and
victim is key to understanding the wider cultural context and significance of the act  and is an
area of further study that is needed when considering cyberbullying across the educational lifespan.
The victim/offender relationship is a difficult area to unpack when it comes to cyberbullying and
research is beginning to show that it becomes even more difficult within the university sector because
of the age and potential previous experience of all those who are involved. One way to begin to
understand the complex interactions is to look at reactions to cyberbullying when it occurs. For
example, Eristi and Akbulut surveyed 567 undergraduate students and 211 high school students.
Among this sample they found that 170 (29.98%) of the undergraduates and 120 (56.87%) of the school
aged students had been cyberbullied within the last six months prior to the study. They then
considered and investigated the behavioural cyberbullying reactions of victimised students under
four key factors, which were revenge, countermeasure, negotiation and avoidance. They also
considered victimized students’ emotional reactions as either internalizing (for example, ‘fear’,
‘panic’, ‘anxiety’ ‘embarrassment’ or ‘guilt’) or externalizing (for example, ‘seeking revenge’, ‘getting
aggressive’ or ‘angry’). Their research demonstrated that behavioural and emotional reactions varied
according to gender and whether they were in school or at university . Furthermore, computer
self-efficacy and internet use were associated with different reaction types. They conclude that:
“...new model and intervention proposals directed at reducing the unpleasant/damaging
victimization consequences may better serve the goal of mitigating these consequences than
descriptive investigations.”(, p. 9) Although this is a relatively large scale survey in an emerging
field of investigation, it highlights, and adds to the debate, that victim reactions and retaliation
processes must be included when considering how to understand cyberbullying across the
7. Current Policy and the Role of the Law – the UK Context
The issues around law, the boundaries of responsibility and criminalization of behaviours are to
be considered country by country, due to the nature of individual criminal justice systems. Here, we
look at the UK as an example to highlight the minefield of problems that are emerging around
cyberbullying and its intersection with crime. Although the authors acknowledge that there are many
different laws and practices within other jurisdictions, focusing on one system will highlight the
complexities of not tackling cyberbullying across the educational lifespan.
Within the UK, Advance HE, who were appointed as independent evaluators for the Office for
Students (OfS) Catalyst-funded projects, were tasked with looking at ‘what works’ in student
engagement in safeguarding projects following the UUK Changing the Culture Report  follow up
report Changing the Culture: One Year On  and subsequent Catalyst funding to evaluate good
practice across the sector. So far, they have identified the following as being the most effective ways
to achieve this: firstly, “co-creation with students of training content and campaigns”, secondly,
“Peer-to-peer learning or mentoring” and thirdly, “Collaboration with Student Unions.” (, p.2).
They strongly recommend that students themselves should be encouraged to re-engage with
practices, such as peer support and peer mentoring, that are commonplace in most primary and
secondary schools in some form or another . Perhaps rather than re-invent the wheel, the further
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and higher education systems need to reintroduce practices and policies to their students that the
majority would have had some knowledge about whilst in their earlier years of their education.
Furthermore, UUK has now uncovered many issues that should be taken into consideration
when focussing on sexual misconduct, hate crime and harassment, the original remit of Changing the
Culture . In October 2018 they held a round table event to explore the nature and scope of online
harassment and cyberbullying within the university sector and to see what more can be done to
prevent and respond to this form of hate crime. A report will follow in April 2019. Therefore,
cyberbullying within universities is under consideration but it is still key to remember that any
recommendations that are made are not mandatory as there is not a regulatory body that enforces
universities to develop centralised policies. This is in contrast to schools and FE colleges that are
required by law to have safeguarding practices in place and anti-bullying policies.
The problem here is the age of the students and, as has been argued in previous research, once
students are at university, they are over the age of 18 and are legally adults, which brings with it
challenges of responsibility and boundaries of policing . It is worth noting here that although
cyberbullying is not a criminal offence, there are a number of laws and relevant legislation that are
used by the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) to prosecute cases that involve online communication
in England and Wales. These include: Offences Against the Person Act (1861), Protection from
Harassment Act (1997), Malicious Communications Act (1988), The Crime and Disorder Act (1998)
and the Serious Crime Act (2015) Students over the age of 18 can potentially be prosecuted for
cyberbullying related offences. Since many students are unaware of this legislation, we recommend
that education on the legal consequences of actions must be bought into the curriculum at a much
earlier level. If behaviour is learned and repeated across the educational lifespan, the legal aspects
need to be dealt with from the beginning, as soon as children and young people are able to
understand the implications of what they are doing . It would appear to be the case that certain
communities within the wider society have a very high tolerance level for what is considered ‘normal’
or ‘acceptable’ in terms of violent behaviours. For example, within the UK amongst teenagers,
sexting, upskirting and revenge porn have become particular causes for concern [5,65,66] and this is
especially pertinent in the online world. The boundary between ‘flirty’ behaviour and crime is
becoming even more blurred. Therefore, this needs to be factored in along with challenging a lack of
knowledge about the law. It needs to be embedded in education, across the educational lifespan, with
legal awareness training.
8. Intervening to Prevent and Reduce Cyberbullying
International evaluation studies [67,68] have systematically reviewed the successes and failures
of interventions to combat bullying/cyberbullying at school level. For example, Ttofi and Farrington,
in their meta-analysis of 44 school-based interventions carried out over a period of 25 years in Europe,
Australia, America and South Africa, found that certain intervention programmes reduced rates of
bullying others by 20–23% and victimisation by 17–20% . The key components of such
programmes included parent meetings and training, consistent disciplinary methods, classroom
rules, school conferences and skilled classroom management by teachers. Smith et al. (2016) examined
the effect of disciplinary methods and concluded that these needed to be non-punitive, negotiated by
adults and children, and restorative in nature, with an emphasis on school safety for all, on the
promotion of a positive school ethos, and on positive relationships throughout the school. . The
evidence pointed to the effectiveness of sanctions that were perceived by the students as fair and
reasonable, arising from a process of consultation in which members of the school community had
taken part. Purdy and York, focussing on cyberbullying, argue that new ground rules are emerging
concerning responsibility for action to counteract cyberbullying since the bullying frequently occurs
at home during evenings and weekends when it is parents who have responsibility for their child’s
Within the school setting, bullying and cyberbullying interventions typically engage in a ‘whole
school’ approach considering other factors such as the family and wider community in addressing
the problem. Many schools across the world now adopt Social and Emotional Learning (SEL)
Int. J. Environ. Res. Public Health 2019, 16, 1217 9 of 14
programmes to enhance children’s and young people’s empathy for the distress of others and to
create a more pro-social climate in the classroom and the school at large (for a comprehensive
international overview, see ). An international review of successful and unsuccessful
interventions  identified key components in the reduction of bullying, to include the creation of a
whole-school policy against bullying and meetings/workshops with parents. Smith et al. (2016)
identified the effectiveness of restorative methods within the school and the community in order to
create a co-operative school climate with an emphasis on positive relationships and active
participation on the part of students and staff in the creation and implementation of anti-bullying
action . Going one step further, Finne et al. argue that the dynamics of bullying are likely to persist
in a school context if only superficial anti-bullying action is taken . They argue that some form of
rehabilitation needs to take place to change the quality of “peer ecology” ( p. 356) in the classroom.
They argue that the moral disengagement that occurs when bullying persists creates a group norm
that may well continue even when the active forms of bullying have ceased as a result of a successful
intervention. Their model of relational rehabilitation takes three steps:
1) Ensuring teacher authority: teachers play a crucial role through an authoritative teaching
style that emphasises warmth, acceptance and tolerance. This can counteract the
destructive power of the bullies;
2) Redistribution of social power and promoting a supportive classroom community: In an abusive
class community, power will have been wielded by the bullies. The teacher plays a
crucial role in breaking up the previous hierarchies and creating a fairer social system
that promotes friendship and prosocial behaviour. Such a class culture will be tolerant
of difference and open to discussions about social inclusion and caring. The teacher
plays an active part in helping the pupils to repair the damage that has been done.
3) Providing social and emotional learning (SEL) to the whole class: Whole-class SEL
programmes take a variety of forms but their essential principles concern the inclusion
of all, the valuing of prosocial behaviour and the creation of a warm, supportive
Similarly, in the college and university sector, the idea of rehabilitation is beginning to be
discussed, with a growing emphasis on changing the culture to one of tolerance and community
[62,72]. However, there is not to date the same level of coherence nor shared practice as appears at
Whilst a number of studies focus on reporting the levels of cyberbullying across the educational
lifespan, there are huge variations in how the problem should actually be tackled. Following the
recommendations from cyberbullying within the school setting, research within the university sector
is beginning to acknowledge that a very important and often neglected way to understand and deal
with the problem is to engage with the students themselves. Cunningham et al (2015) stipulated that
there were five key areas that need to be considered when tackling cyberbullying within the
1) Emphasise the impact of cyberbullying on victims;
2) Change cyberbullying prevention attitudes;
3) Teach anti-cyberbullying strategies;
4) Enable anonymous online reporting;
5) Combine prevention with consequences (, p.380).
These recommendations were made by the students themselves and the authors conclude that
they would help when designing and implementing university anti-cyberbullying programmes. Such
research and subsequent recommendations indicate the need for a rather more complex whole
university sector approach to tackling the problem than is currently available. Furthermore, the
involvement of the students themselves is crucial, especially given the age of undergraduate
students. They are adults and they need to be consulted in what works to reduce cyberbullying and
thus make their learning environment more positive, especially in the light of the move to a heavy
reliance on the online world for everything within the university sector, from online registration and
Int. J. Environ. Res. Public Health 2019, 16, 1217 10 of 14
timetables, to attendance monitoring, assignment submission and virtual learning environments.
Universities continue to advance in adapting online systems and practices. Thus, it follows that
mechanisms could also be introduced and improved to support students who have to use and engage
with the online world.
To what extent has cyberbullying across the lifespan of education, that is from primary/elementary school,
through college to university, been identified as an issue?
The evidence from the literature that we reviewed indicates that cyberbullying across the
educational lifespan continues to be a critical issue for a proportion of students. Despite the wealth
of high-quality research over three decades, the problem still needs to be addressed as a matter of
urgency. Cyberbullying, to some extent, is a continuity and attitudes towards it need to change. While
there are some overlaps with traditional bullying, there are clearly aspects unique to the online
existence that have to be considered. Traditional anti-bullying interventions may not always be
sufficient to capture the complexities of cyberbullying. The following gaps in knowledge need to be
1) One important gap concerns the widespread lack of knowledge amongst educators and their
students about the legal consequences of cyberbullying behaviour across the educational
2) A second concerns the finding that cyberbullying is distressing at all stages of the
educational lifespan but there is a lot of evidence now to support the view that cybervictims
become less likely to report it as they reach FE and HE levels. The gap in understanding
appears to be at university level and the assumption that students as young adults no longer
need support in dealing with cyberbullying.
3) Furthermore, the bystanders express less empathy and more moral disengagement the older
they get, with university students showing the least sensitivity to peers’ distress.
4) Finally, by the time they reach adolescence and young adulthood cybervictims have run out
of options for the help and support which they are more likely to get at primary school but
which are less likely to feature as they progress through the educational lifespan They can
resort to acceptance of their fate with all the attendant mental health difficulties that this
entails or they can take revenge on their tormentors by becoming cyberbullies themselves.
Neither is a good coping strategy. The gap here is we need more information on successful
and unsuccessful strategies adopted by cybervictims across the educational lifespan.
What are the implications for educational establishments and educators to reduce and prevent
cyberbullying across the educational lifespan?
Looking at cyberbullying in educational silos is not helpful. Students do not arrive at university
and their problems begin. Rather, looking at education as a longitudinal journey is more helpful.
Good practice could and should be shared amongst schools, colleges and universities in order to
safeguard and educate students at all levels of their education. The following action points emerged
from the literature search:
1) At primary school level and to an extent at secondary level, schools are increasingly
developing Social Emotional Learning (SEL) , restorative practices  or emotional
rehabilitation  interventions to address the issue of cyberbullying, with an emphasis on
the destructive nature of moral disengagement. Peer support systems are widespread .
Participant role theory is also successfully used in Finland . However, at FE and HE
levels this is not happening. We have already mentioned the work that UUK  advocated
around bystander training but to date this is only used in a few institutions and is yet to roll
out across the sector. For those students that do identify as victims, there need to be
improved systems, such as student welfare and counselling, to help them. Perhaps what
Int. J. Environ. Res. Public Health 2019, 16, 1217 11 of 14
need to be introduced at the FE and HE level are more comprehensive pastoral systems with
appropriate training for the staff involved
2) While there is a strong emphasis at school level on social skills, the development of empathy
and the need for restorative practice to mediate in disputes, the legal aspects of
cyberbullying are scarcely mentioned. By contrast, legal aspects of cyberbullying are
increasingly on the agenda at FE and HE levels since the students are by now young adults.
When cyberbullying incidents become criminal acts, the police are involved and legal
proceedings may ensue. This indicates an imbalance at different levels of the educational
lifespan. What is needed is legal awareness training across the educational lifespan.
3) There is strong evidence of both continuities and discontinuities in cyberbullying across the
educational lifespan but, to date, there is little information on the nature of successful and
unsuccessful coping strategies used by the targets of cyberbullying. Consequently,
researchers and practitioners need to continue to collaborate to design methods for
equipping future generations with the tools to navigate the internet safely and, in a socially
4) Primary and secondary schools have invested a great deal in counteracting the harmful
effects of xenophobia, misogyny and homophobia; this is less evident at FE and HE levels.
There should be considerably more sharing of expertise between schools, colleges and
universities about interventions that are effective in this domain.
5) Finally, the literature indicates an urgent need to consider cyberbullying in its cultural
context - its social and environmental ecology. The issue of moral disengagement is scarcely
mentioned in the curriculum or in the pastoral care systems at HE and FE levels despite the
evidence of cultural issues such as “laddism” , xenophobia , sexism [10,49] and
homophobia  in FE and HE settings. Cyberbullying needs to be addressed and
understood in all of its cultureal contexts across the educational lifespan
One thing that is for certain is that the internet is not going to disappear. Technology will evolve,
and more social media platforms will emerge. What this article shows is the urgent need to address
certain gaps in the literature and implement successful interventions right across the educational
lifespan to tackle cyberbullying.
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