The Rise of Cyber-Victimization

Article by Graham C.L. Davey /
Psychology Today /
November 16, 2017 /
Click here to view original /

I suspect that very few of you are aware that Sigmund Freud wrote a book about jokes. No, not the Sigmund Freud collection of hilarious after-dinner jokes and anecdotes. It’s called The Joke and its Relation to the Unconscious and it explores the psychological purpose of joke telling, wit, comedy, and teasing [1]. He argues that jokes and witticisms are often socially acceptable ways of expressing views and emotions that otherwise would cause offense.

A joke usually involves a joke-teller, an audience or listener, and a butt or scapegoat, with the joke itself often directing hostility or cynicism towards the butt of the joke but in a socially acceptable way that involves pleasure and laughter (at least for the joke teller and the audience). The joke can represent a concealed form of aggression that bestows the joke teller with some degree of dominance and social control and the butt of the joke with stigma and rejection. Even entire countries are known for their own specific targets of “put-down” humor [2]. The French poke fun at the Belgians, Canadians love to tell jokes about people from Newfoundland (“Newfie” jokes), and in the past, the butt of English jokes has often been the Irish.

For school-aged kids, a joke often comes in the form of teasing or name-calling (which is only a short step away from verbal bullying), but even in a child’s world a joke and a tease can still be a concealed form of aggression that can cause harm to its targets. Adults with social anxiety disorder are more likely to report having had a childhood history of teasing, and one study reported that over 92 percent of individuals they interviewed suffering from social anxiety disorder reported severe teasing in childhood [3]. The playground bully can cause as much damage with a well-directed cynical remark as with a slap or a punch.

Peer ‘relational victimization’ can also be a significant risk factor for later social anxiety. Relational victimization refers to such things as exclusion from a social group and also emotional bullying, and can result in the victim having fewer friends, less peer acceptance, and difficulty making new friends, and relational victimization may even have a greater impact on social anxiety than overt physical victimization [4]. In addition, given that the modern day school kid spends much of their time socializing via social media, there is growing evidence that cyber victimization can also lead to social anxiety [5], and kids who are peer-victimized in a traditional face-to-face context are often cyber-victimized by peers as well.

If you’re a blossoming bully, cyber-victimization has a lot to recommend it. It has the potential for anonymity of the perpetrator and the ability to broadcast damaging information to a significantly wider audience than in traditional forms of playground bullying. Furthermore, turning off your laptop or smartphone doesn’t prevent the cyber attack from being seen by peers. Cyber-bullying offers little escape for the victim. Anyone with a laptop or a smartphone can be cyber-bullied. Whereas bullying used to happen in the confines of the school grounds, the Internet now enables bullying to occur at any time and in front of a potentially infinite audience.

In schoolyard bullying, the victim is frequently the physically weaker kid preyed on by an older and bigger peer, but online, the ranks of the bully can now be joined by the weaker kids where computer prowess is more important than physical brawn [6]. Being bullied is a significant risk factor for subsequent social anxiety, but bullying is changing. It’s moving from the schoolyard to the Internet, it’s becoming relational rather than physical.

In theory, anyone with a smartphone and a belligerent inclination can become a cyber-bully, and the audience that can observe these acts of cyber-bullying is potentially unlimited and geographically far-reaching. Unless we can find effective ways to manage cyber-bullying amongst school kids, we must accept that we’ll have growing levels of adolescent and adult anxiety, especially in the form of social anxiety.


[1] Freud S (2002) The Joke and its Relation to the Unconscious. Penguin Modern Classics.


[3] McCabe, R., Antony, M., Summerfeldt, L., Liss, A., & Swinson, R. (2003). Preliminary examination of the relationship between anxiety disorders in adults and self-reported history of teasing or bullying experiences. Cognitive Behaviour Therapy, 32, 187–93.

[4] Tillfors, M., Persson, S., Willen, M., & Burk, W. (2012). Prospective links between social anxiety and adolescent peer relations. Journal of Adolescence, 35, 1255–1263.

[5] Landoll, R., La Greca, A., Lai, B., Chan, S., & Herge, W. (2015). Cyber victimization by peers: Prospective associations with adolescent social anxiety and depressive symptoms. Journal of Adolescence, 42, 77–86.

[6] Rosewarne L (2017) “Nothing crueler than high school students”: The cyberbully in film and television. International Journal of Technoethics, 8, 1-17.