Cyberbullying and media literacy

Author: Martha R. Villabona works at Subdirección General de Cooperación Territorial e Innovación Educativa of the Spanish Ministry of Education and Vocational Training, where she coordinates the area of multiple literacies.

Photo: James Sutton / Unsplash

Evidence suggests that cyberbullying is more widespread among adolescents and young adults than among older people.

This type of violence done intentionally using digital devices represents a wide range of online behaviors, such as: name-calling, online impersonation, solicitation for sex, sending coercive text messages, spreading online rumors, inserting offensive comments or isolation for example, being excluded of a chat room. Other form of aggression is spreading harmful and at times not so truthful information, leading to a devastating impact of the targeted individual in the real world. Actions such as posting offensive or embarrassing messages or photos of this individual in a public forum, modifying photos, text, videos, and polls would be a few of these examples.

Evidence suggests there are a variety of factors that explain the increasing incidence of cyberbullying acts. There are environmental factors such as social pressure 1. Other factors are personal, being an example the lack of family cohesion and education 2 and lastly, there are intrapersonal factors or personality traits like narcissism that increase the incidence of cyberbullying 3.

In relation to social pressure, bystanders in a cyberbullying situation play a key role. These individuals could either stop the aggression and reduce the negative impact on the victim, or reinforce the bully by joining in. Social pressure has been defined as a process that involves other people actively encouraging or pressuring the adolescent to act or think in a certain way, which will make the adolescent motivated to do so 4. As the peer group is a key factor in initiating or maintaining a case of bullying, then peers could exert social pressure on bystanders to join in the cyberbullying. This was demonstrated in a study that included over five hundred adolescents, where bystanders’ perception that their friends approve of cyberbullying was related to an experience of social pressure to participate in cyberbullying as a bystander and to higher levels of subsequent participation in cyberbullying.

We know that many adolescents are unaware of the real-life impact their behavior on social networks can have because they do not know how to use them critically and correctly. If they are media literate, they can acquire the ability to access, create, analyze, and critically evaluate messages in a variety of digital formats, spaces, and contexts 5. These specific skills can help young people keep themselves and others be safe online.

Media literacy for children and adolescents implies that they know the reach that social media posts, both their own and others, can have. This enables them to act, either by using the functionalities to report content or by creating new content to mitigate the harm of a particular content. In this sense, a victim of cyberbullying or a witness can respond by diverting the attention of the cyberbully or defuse a conflict situation by writing a counter-speech. This action will aim to reduce conflict and promote civility. Examples of counter-speech include making warnings of online or offline consequences, reacting with humor, responding with a positive tone, or establishing a positive relationship with another person or group of people by demonstrating affiliation 6.

Since the time when anyone can post information on social networks can vary and carries a high degree of flexibility makes intentionally created misleading information called disinformation easier and this has spread in all areas of society, this is indeed harmful. In the school environment, the creation of hoaxes and false content is a fact and, in many cases, derives in bullying and cyberbullying. Therefore, media literacy helps children and adolescents to analyze and not disseminate the content they see or receive on their social networks. This was demonstrated by a study conducted in the United States 7 in which the investigators analyzed over one thousand YouTube videos viewed by children. They found that one in ten videos showed racial bias, negative portrayals of ethnicities, racial slurs, and harmful stereotypes, such as inappropriate accents. These do not present a reliable or representative picture of society and expose children at an early age to harmful stereotypes and unrealistic portrayals of individuals or groups. The same study found that teaching about race and ethnicity was extremely sparse, only two hideous out of these thousand reviewed discussed race and ethnicity.

In conclusion, the daily use of social media by teens and adults is unavoidable, however education and strategies to increase awareness of consequences of misuse should be implemented at different levels. Media literacy and its three basic skills: create, analyze and evaluate could potentially prevent young people from adopting unhealthy attitudes and behaviors and help stop other individuals from being bullied or, at least, reduce the impact of the harm they receive. This piece should serve as a call for institutions and government agencies to support action in this matter, and prospective studies are needed to determine effective interventions to reduce cyberbullying and its severe consequences.

More on the subject:

Online harassment toward women
Personality traits and bullying behavior


  1. Bastiaensens, S., Pabian, S., Vandebosch, H., Poels, K., Van Cleemput, K., DeSmet, A., & De Bourdeaudhuij, I. (2016). From normative influence to social pressure: How relevant others affect whether bystanders join in cyberbullying. Social Development, 25(1), 193 211.
  2. Kostas A. Fanti, Andreas G. Demetriou & Veronica V. Hawa (2012) A longitudinal study of cyberbullying: Examining riskand protective factors, European Journal of Developmental Psychology, 9:2, 168-181,
  3. Kowalski, R. M., Giumetti, G. W., Schroeder, A. N., & Lattanner, M. R. (2014). Bullying in the digital age: A critical review and meta-analysis of cyberbullying research among youth. Psychological Bulletin, 140(4), 1073–1137.
  4. Santor, D. A., Messervey, D., & Kusumakar, V. (2000). Measuring peer pressure, popularity, and conformity in adolescent boys and girls: Predicting school performance, sexual attitudes, and substance abuse. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 29(2), 163–182.
  5. Aufderheide, P., Media literacy: From a report of the national leadership conference on media literacy, in Media literacy in the information age. 2018, Routledge. p. 79-86.
  6. Mathew, B., Saha, P., Tharad, H., Rajgaria, S., Singhania, P., Maity, S. K., Goyal, P., & Mukherjee, A. (2019). Thou Shalt Not Hate: Countering Online Hate Speech. Proceedings of the International AAAI Conference on Web and Social Media, 13(01), 369-380.
  7. Rollins, D., Bridgewater, E., Munzer, T., Weeks, H. M., Schaller, A., Yancich, M., Gipson, W., Drogos, K., Robb, M. B., & Radesky, J.S. (2022). Who is the “you” in YouTube? Missed opportunities in race and representation in children’s YouTube videos. Common Sense.

Written by

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.Required fields are marked *