Anyone can be a cyberbully, not just people who are unhinged

April 25, 2022
Written By:
Jared Wadley

People who have high premeditated or impulsive aggressive tendencies online are likely to cyberbully others, according to a new University of Michigan study.

But anyone can be an online offender—not just certain groups of people, the study indicated.

Researchers from the School of Information and the Law School examined what psychological characteristics predicted how internet users behaved in aggressive online conflict.

Online harassment can range from a brief, single incident between strangers to sustained threats. U-M researchers sought to learn more about these behaviors and their consequences.

“We focus on specific behaviors that are most likely harmful rather than the label ‘harassment,'” said Song Mi Lee, the study’s lead author and School of Information doctoral student.

More than 300 adults completed self-reports about situations of disapproval or anger against other people. About 162 of them engaged in at least one harassing behavior.

Among the factors studied included impulsivity, moral disagreements, disinhibition, reactive/proactive aggression and impulsive/premeditated aggression.

The respondents were asked if they have called someone an offensive name, have spread reputation-damaging rumors about someone, have shared embarrassing photos or videos of someone without their permission and more.

“This approach, we believe, captures more accurate self-reports than bluntly yet ambiguously asking, ‘Have you ever harassed others online?'” Lee said. “We want to get rid of the idea that harassers are a particular group, or a special species. Everyone has the capacity to cause harm to others in online spaces.”

Some common assumptions about perpetrators of online harassment have been tied to demographic factors, such as white men or those with certain political views. Many previous studies focused on how particular populations tend to engage in harassing behavior, Lee said.

But the study shows a different picture—psychological factors such as aggressive tendencies are stronger predictors of online harassing behavior. The current iteration of the survey with a nationally representative sample also supports this finding.

Lee said social media platforms have relied on after-the-fact remediation of online harassment, such as deleting posts or banning reported users—after the harm has already been done.

“We explore if we can have preemptive measures against online harm, which requires a more in-depth understanding of who harasses others online, and why,” she said.

The study will be among nearly 60 papers, workshops and panel discussions by School of Information faculty and students at the annual ACM CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems April 30-May 5 in New Orleans.

Lee co-authored the study with professor Cliff Lampe and associate professor Sarita Schoenebeck from the School of Information, and professor J.J. Prescott of the Law School.


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