Assessing the relationship between cyber and traditional forms of bullying and sexual harassment: Stepping stones or displacement?



The purpose of this study was to determine whether cyberbullying and cyber-sexual harassment perpetration serve as antecedents or stepping stones to traditional bullying and sexual harassment, or whether traditional bullying and sexual harassment victimization encourage displacement in the form of anonymous aggressive activities like cyberbullying and cyber-sexual harassment. This research question was evaluated in a sample of 2,039 (52% female) high school students from the Illinois Study of Bullying and Sexual Violence (ISBSV) using two waves of longitudinal data. Two hypotheses were tested in two separate analyses, using bullying and cyberbullying data in one analysis, and sexual harassment and cyber-sexual harassment data in the other analysis. The stepping-stone hypothesis predicted that children would use the anonymity of cyber-bullying/harassment as a stepping stone or learning curve toward eventual involvement in face-to-face bullying/harassment. The displacement hypothesis, by contrast, held that children victimized face-to-face with traditional forms of bullying/harassment would seek release from their victimization by engaging in the largely anonymous activities of cyberbullying and cyber-sexual harassment. In both the bullying and harassment analyses, the pathway running from traditional bullying/harassment victimization to cyber-bullying/harassment perpetration proved significant, consistent with the displacement hypothesis. The pathway running from cyber aggression to traditional aggression failed to achieve significance in both the bullying and harassment analyses, providing no support for the stepping-stone hypothesis. These results imply that anonymity plays an important role in linking traditional and cyber forms of bullying and harassment.

Bullying; sexual harassment; cyber-behavior
Author biographies

Glenn D. Walters

Kutztown University

Glenn D. Walters, Ph.D., is a Professor in the Department of Criminal Justice at Kutztown University in Kutztown, Pennsylvania.  His research interests include criminal thinking, mediation and moderation analysis, and the relationships between bullying victimization, bullying perpetration, and delinquency.


Dorothy L. Espelage

University of Florida

Dorothy L. Espelage, PhD, is a professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Florida. She has authored over 140 peer-reviewed journal articles, five edited books, and 30 chapters on traditional and cyber-bullying, homophobic teasing, sexual harassment, dating violence, and gang violence.

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