Cyberbullying: Implications for Social Work Assessment

By DePaolis, Kathryn | School Social Work Journal, Spring 2015 | Go to article overview

Cyberbullying: Implications for Social Work Assessment


DePaolis, Kathryn, School Social Work Journal


Bullying has garnered increased national attention as a result of greater awareness of its harmful impact on children and youth and public outcry following the suicides of several bullied youth. Despite the current interest in this issue, bullying, in its traditional form, has existed in society for decades and is a common occurrence in American schools. Bullying has been defined as an individual being exposed to repeated negative actions by one or more peers that occur over time. Fundamental to the definition of traditional bullying is an imbalance of power between the bully and victim whereby the victim feels unable to defend himself or herself against the bullying (Olweus, 1993). Traditional forms of bullying typically involve face to face interactions such as hitting, pushing, or kicking (physical); calling someone mean names or taunting (verbal); and ignoring or purposely excluding someone from the peer group (social/relational). Research has shown that bullying has a significant negative impact on children's and adolescents' emotional, social, and academic development (Card & Hodges 2008).

The rapid development of and increasing access to newer forms of interactive communication technologies (ICTs; e.g., text messaging, smartphones, and social media sites) have created new ways for youth to communicate and interact with each other. Although ICTs provide some youth with tools to develop and maintain positive social relationships, they have also led to a new form of bullying: cyberbullying. Studies estimate that a majority of youth use the Internet at least once a week (Ybarra, 2004), are utilizing text messaging on a regular basis (Patchin & Hinduja, 2006), and are able to access the Internet from the privacy of their bedrooms (Tokunaga, 2010). Thus, ICTs have become of critical concern to researchers, educators, and parents because they are now a common mechanism of bullying.

Research on cyberbullying has found that, similar to traditional bullying, it is a threat to children's and adolescents' emotional and social functioning (Patchin & Hinduja, 2006; Raskauskas & Stoltz, 2007) and that it negatively affects school and community environments. Scholars have defined bullying as an ecological phenomenon resulting from complex interactions between multiple individual and environmental factors (Swearer & Espelage, 2004). Similarly, scholars suggest that cyberbullying prevention and intervention strategies would benefit from an ecological perspective that looks beyond individual characteristics to consider peer, family, community, and societal contexts as well (Couvillon & Ilieva, 2011; Snakenborg, VanAcker, & Gable, 2011). This ecological framework is congruent with social work's unique person-in-environment perspective. Social work, as a field, demands an understanding of how environmental factors affect individual problems, which places social workers in an optimal position to take an active role in addressing the wide-reaching impact of cyberbullying.

As a result of growing concerns about bullying, most states have enacted policies that require schools to address bullying, including cyberbullying. Accordingly, school social workers will be called on to address this issue and must have adequate knowledge to effectively assess, iden- tify, and intervene with youth affected by cyberbullying. Yet to date there is a critical shortage of information on cyberbullying in the social work literature. Even prominent school social work texts (Kelly, Raines, Stone, & Frey, 2010) provide little direction for school social workers on how to identify and address cyberbullying. Therefore, the purpose of this article is to enhance the social work knowledge base on cyberbullying and provide school social workers with much needed assessment strategies and guidelines.

Cyberbullying Defined

At present, there is no universally accepted definition of cyberbullying, although a variety of definitions have been used to describe this emerging form of bullying. …

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