Kernaghan, D., & Elwood, J. (2013). All the (cyber) world’s a stage: Framing cyberbullying as a performance. Cyberpsychology: Journal of Psychosocial Research on Cyberspace, 7(1), Article 5. doi:
All the (cyber) world’s a stage: Framing cyberbullying as a performance

All the (cyber) world’s a stage: Framing cyberbullying as a performance

Donna Kernaghan1, Jannette Elwood2
1 The National Children’s Bureau, Belfast, United Kingdom
2 Queen’s University, Belfast, United Kingdom


This paper explores the ways in which the use of technology presents girls with new and alternative ways to participate in and experience bullying. The focus is particularly on how girls experience and participate in ‘cyberbullying’ via Instant Messenger (IM) programmes and social networking sites (SNS). A mixed method approach was employed with girls aged 12–15 years old in Northern Ireland which captured 494 questionnaire responses and eight online interviews conducted using instant messenger.

Findings show that girls of this age group are high IM and SNS users. These forms of communication may be used to impersonate others, convey hurtful or malicious comments or share private or embarrassing information with online audiences. The data indicates that these online forms of bullying may be facilitated within friendship groups in an offline context in order for them to have access to such information and access to the appropriate audience. Furthermore, the research indicates that older girls experience and participate in cyberbullying more than younger girls.

This article positions these findings within the conceptual framework of Goffman’s understanding of social interactions as a performance and proposes a model which applies this framework of performance to the phenomenon of cyberbullying.

Keywords: cyberbullying; instant messenger; social networking sites; bullying as performance

doi: 10.5817/CP2013-1-5


Bullying is a multifaceted phenomenon which has been an issue for research for several decades. This study focussed on understanding female experiences of bullying and by extension cyberbullying. Having identified a gap in the literature regarding girls’ experiences and participation in bullying, the aim of this study was to explore bullying from a female perspective. Research has found that girls’ attempts to harm others tend to focus on damaging another child's friendships or feelings of inclusion within their peer groups (Crick & Grotpeter, 1995; Underwood, 2004). Furthermore, research suggests that girls prefer to use indirect or ‘hidden’ ways to bully others such as spreading rumours, non verbal aggression, or social exclusion (Besag, 2006; Brown, 2003; Pipher, 1994; Simmons, 2002), so it is particularly interesting to consider what role online forms of communication play in relation to girls’ friendships and interactions and how they may be used to bully others.

Bullying using technology is the latest manifestation of the phenomenon to attract research attention. This type of bullying is mainly referred to in the literature as ‘cyberbullying’ (Dooley, Pyzalski, & Cross, 2009; Hinduja & Patchin, 2009; Shariff, 2008; Smith, Mahdavi, Carvalho, Fisher, Russell, & Tippett, 2008; Vandebosch & Van Cleemput, 2009; Willard, 2007), although it may also be referred to as ‘electronic bullying’ or ‘online social cruelty’ (Kowalski, Limber, & Agatston, 2008) or internet harassment (Ybarra & Mitchell, 2004). There is a tendency for definitions of cyberbullying to comprise of two elements: (i) some or the whole definition of traditional bullying and; (ii) a list of electronic devices through which cyberbullying can occur (Dooley et al., 2009; Vandebosch & Van Cleemput, 2009). Willard defines cyberbullying as “sending or posting harmful material or engaging in other forms of social aggression using the Internet or other digital technologies” (Willard, 2007, p.265). This particular definition was useful for this study due to the emphasis of social aggression which is particularly relevant in discussions with young girls around female bullying. Some of the social media associated with cyberbullying may be used to conduct traditional bullying behaviour such as name calling, spreading rumours and harassment. Media commonly used in cyberbullying is often focussed around text messaging, pictures or photos or video clips, phone calls, email, chat rooms, instant messaging and websites (Smith et al., 2008).

Research also suggests that like traditional forms of bullying, cyberbullying can be repetitive, intentional and involve an imbalance of power. Similarly, the recognised roles identified in the literature of ‘bully’ for the perpetrator of bullying, ‘target’ for the victim of bullying and ‘bystander’ as the witness to a bullying interaction can also be extended into discussions of cyberbullying to explore the complex interactions that take place. While similarities between bullying and cyberbullying are recognisable, the next section will outline the characteristics that make cyberbullying distinctive from traditional types of bullying.

Characteristics of Cyberbullying

Cyberspace operates beyond physical space and in this way so too does cyberbullying. Studies have shown that cyberbullying usually takes place outside of school (Shariff, 2008; Smith et al., 2008). Furthermore, the EU Kids Online survey of 25,142 children in 25 countries found that 85% of the children that used the internet accessed it at home (Lobe, Livingstone, Ólafsson, & Vodeb, 2011). This shift from a physical to a virtual space in bullying is important as bounded space no longer applies (Li, Smith, & Cross, 2012). Unlike traditional bullying, a target of cyberbullying cannot leave a place and know that the bullying will end (Slonje & Smith, 2008). In this way, cyberbullying may seep into areas of personal space becoming impossible to ignore (Gerson & Rappaport, 2011) and resulting in the target having no safe space to escape (Li et al., 2012). It also means that traditional boundaries of the school and the day become meaningless as cyberbullying can occur twenty four hours a day, seven days a week (Cowie & Jennifer, 2008; Dooley et al., 2009; Kowalski et al., 2008; Willard, 2007). Additionally, the growth of mobile phones and hand held devices which can access the internet any place, any time has increased children’s and young people’s ability to remain constantly connected online (Li et al., 2012).

The nature of communicating in non-physical spaces facilitates the potential for anonymous interactions. It has been argued that bullies who choose to use electronic means can hide their real identity and make themselves anonymous or invisible (Hinduja & Patchin, 2009; Kowalski et al., 2008; Li et al., 2012; Shariff, 2008). Anonymity can be created by use of temporary email addresses, using pseudonyms when using instant messenger or using an unknown mobile number. It has been suggested that this perception of invisibility and anonymity online acts as a disinhibitor in that people are more likely to do and say things online that they would not do or say in a face to face situation (Hinduja & Patchin, 2009; Luders, Brandtzaey, & Dunkels, 2009; Willard, 2007). For example, Kowalski et al. (2008) found that from 3,700 middle school children who had experienced cyberbullying, close to 50% did not know the identity of the bully whereas in Ybarra and Mitchell’s (2004) study of 1501 regular internet users 69% of targets did not know who the bully was. Studies have found that the target’s feelings of fear, frustration and powerlessness may increase if the identity of the bully is unknown as the target does not know who they can trust (Cowie & Jennifer, 2008; Smith et al., 2008; Shariff, 2008; Vandebosch & Cleemput, 2009; Willard, 2007).

Another key characteristic of cyberbullying is the potential to reach a limitless audience that would otherwise be impossible (Cowie & Jennifer, 2008; Dooley et al., 2009; Shariff, 2008). Due to the boundless nature of cyberspace, the audience is not confined to the school setting but has the potential to be viewed by a global audience (Dooley et al., 2009; Hinduja & Patchin, 2009; Li et al., 2012). Mobile phones can be used to text information, pictures or videos to large numbers of people in seconds. This dissemination of information can also be replicated through email, micro blogging accounts such as Twitter, social networking sites, file sharing sites or instant messenger to appear on the internet. This may also result in images or files being challenging to retrieve and erase entirely (boyd, 2007; Dooley et al., 2009; Shariff, 2008). This type of activity can have significant effects. For example, there may be a greater impact in humiliating the target as an increased number of people know or have viewed the image (Hinduja & Patchin, 2009; Smith et al., 2008). The second effect is that the role of the bystander as one who witnesses an interaction between the bully and target may change. Li et al. (2012) identified that the bystander may be in one of three positions when witnessing cyberbullying. The bystander could be with: (i) the bully during a cyberbullying interaction or; (ii) the victim when a threat was received or; (iii) viewing the message on the internet alone. As the bystander does not have to physically watch an episode of bullying, bystanders may view uploaded content or malevolent comments on social networking sites as entertainment and not develop any empathy for the target. This change in role of the bystander due to the cyberspace environment may make the transition to the cyberbully role easier (Cowie & Jennifer, 2008).

Research regarding traditional forms of bullying has established that unsupervised areas of children’s spaces may increase the risk of bullying (Rigby, 2007; Tattum & Herbert, 1993; Thompson, Arora, & Sharp, 2002). The EU Kids Online survey found that half of the 25,142 children who used the internet accessed it in their bedroom while one third use their mobile or other hand held device to access the internet (Duerager & Livingstone, 2012). This can have an impact on how parents and other adults can effectively regulate and supervise children’s internet use at home. There is the perception, by some, that adults can lack authority in cyberspace and are ill equipped or unwilling to intervene if issues arise (Cross, Monks, Campbell, Spears, & Slee, 2011). However, results from the EU Kids Online survey (Duerager & Livingstone, 2012) report that four fifths of parents surveyed were confident that they could deal with any online issue that may bother their children. This study also found that two thirds of children said that their parents know a lot or quite a lot about their online activities. The role of adults in children’s cyberspace interactions needs further research but it is important that barriers to young people talking about cyberbullying experiences to adults are limited.

One commonly stated problem by young people with reporting cyberbullying to parents is the fear that parents will seek to resolve the problem by confiscating their laptops, internet access or mobile phones (Kowalski et al., 2008; Mishna, Saini, & Solomon, 2009). This can seem as a double punishment to the target of cyberbullying. Shariff (2008) suggests there is a perception by adults that technology is a means to an end whereas, young people view it as an integral part of their life. Mishna et al. (2009) also highlighted that the anonymous nature of such activities may prevent children and young people from telling adults as they are unable to identify the bully. On the other hand, due to the text base nature of cyberbullying, young people are able to provide evidence to adults by showing text messages, emails or their social networking profile which may make it easier to tell adults about their experiences of cyberbullying (Slonje & Smith, 2008).

As outlined above, cyberbullying has distinctive characteristics due to the ‘space’ it uses. The conceptual framework of performance drawn from Goffman’s work in the ‘Presentation of Self in Everyday Life’ (1959) offers not only a way of thinking about space in terms of performance but also a way of thinking about how people may act differently depending on the audience and setting which we argue are relevant to an exploration of cyberbullying. Parallels may be drawn between the distinction of the roles of performer, audience and outsider as defined by Goffman regarding performance and the roles of target, bully and bystander that have been defined in bullying research (Besag, 2006; Olweus, 1993; Rigby, 2007). By framing bullying as a performance, a framework is provided that enables us to consider the bystander group as an audience and how different settings may affect how young people act towards others. By using Goffman’s framework, it is also possible to consider social interactions and to frame these interactions in terms of a performance complete with actors, an audience, ‘front’ and ‘back’ stages and scenery. A brief overview of these central concepts of the framework will be given as they are used later to frame a consideration of cyberbullying as performance amongst young girls which enables a greater understanding of the phenomena to be explored.

Goffman’s Performance of Self and Cyberspace: Setting the Scene

In order to set the scene for a performance, Goffman made the distinction between three regions or places of social space in which an individual interacts. He refers firstly to the ‘front’ which is the public performance area, and secondly to the private ‘backstage’ area. The ‘backstage’ region is a place where the performer can privately prepare for the performance or where members of a group can openly construct the impression they are planning to give. Unlike the front stage, the backstage region is the place where the performer can reliably expect that no member of the audience will intrude into this area. This is a crucial characteristic of the backstage area as difficulties could be caused if the audience could access the backstage. Goffman suggests the third region is ‘the outside’ which is defined as “all places other than the two already identified” (p.135). ‘Outsiders’ are not part of the performance but may unexpectedly enter a performance in progress which creates a different presentation of self. While these three regions are separate during any performance, they may also function as both the front and backstage depending on the audience. It is our contention that it is possible to apply these distinctions between the front and back stage to interactions in cyberspace.

Performance and Performers

Goffman has identified three crucial roles in a performance to be; (i) those who perform; (ii) those who are performed to and; (iii) outsiders who neither participate nor observe the performance. Those who perform in the interaction attempt to manage and control the impression that they desire to make on the audience. Goffman referred to this as ‘impression management’. During the performance, information is exchanged about all the individuals present in two ways. Firstly, the performer creates a ‘given’ impression through their verbal expression. This is the impression the performer wishes the audience to have. Performers may create a false impression by misrepresenting themselves or lying to the audience to achieve the ideal they wish to project. Secondly, information can be conveyed by the expression ‘given off’ through non verbal communication which is more difficult for the performer to have control over. In order for the performance to be successful, both the expressions ‘given’ and ‘given off’ need to convince the audience that the performer is genuine. While the type of performances online differs from Goffman’s original definition due to the physical distance and written means of communication between the actors, it is possible to recognise the three key roles in the performance Goffman used.

It has been recognised by several studies that the defined roles of performer, audience and outsiders can be a useful way to frame online interactions (Lin, Wu, & Hsieh, 2009; Miller, 1995; Riva & Galimberti, 2001; Ross, 2007). It is also the case that the overall aim of the performer in cyberspace is to create an appropriate presentation of self for their perceived audience. Online impression management may be much more tightly controlled through the impression ‘given off’. There can be choice in the medium used to communicate which can ensure that the audience can be largely known, for instance in communication through text messages, instant messenger and email, while presentation on chatrooms, social networking sites and blogs are in front to a largely unknown audience. Online performances also make it easier to maintain multiple versions of self at the same time (Manago et al., 2008). For example, an individual may have a profile on an online dating site, a professional online profile and a profile on a social networking site each aimed at a different audience. However, Miller (1995) makes the point that implicit information may be visible to the audience in terms of the style and vocabulary used, which links are visible or who they are friends with. Furthermore, others can control information related to the impression ‘given off’ and may reveal photographs, videos or IM chat conversations to the wrong audience causing disparity in the online performance.

It may also be the case that online representations of self contradict offline presentations of self. Ringrose (2010) illustrates this through how girls in her study performed as ‘sexy’ on Bebo through their choice of profile pictures showing heavy makeup and cleavage, their choice of backgrounds, through explicit textual references to sex and choosing usernames such as ‘slut’ or ‘whore’. This may be problematic as the virtual audience to a SNS profile for young people may consist of the same audience that witnesses their offline performance in physical spaces such as school or youth clubs. As two extreme and conflicting impressions are being portrayed through the online and offline performance to the same audience, the authenticity of each performance is questioned causing the audience to doubt all impressions projected by the performer.


As in other theoretical models, Goffman’s concept of the audience as part of the performance is extremely important. Although members of the audience may perform to others, the primary role of the audience in this model is to observe the performers. The performer must persuade the audience that they are sincere. In team performances, the role of audience and performer has to be static with no individual allowed to join both the audience and performers during a performance. Goffman introduces the concept of "audience segregation" where the individual plays a certain role depending on who the audience is (p. 57). Unlike face to face interactions, the presentation of self in cyberspace is on a global scale in front of an audience which is potentially unknown and infinite. Problems arise when the audience is used to a certain type of performance from an individual or team but observes another performance which does not create the same impression. As discussed, the impression created on a social networking profile may not resemble an individual’s real life identity.

As outlined previously, performances in cyberspace do have important differences to face to face interactions which limit how applicable Goffman’s framework may be in analysing the results regarding cyberbullying. It has also been highlighted that the division between regions online is more complex than the division of regions in face to face performance. Lin et al. (2009) argue it is difficult to have an absolute distinction between front and back stage regions online as Goffman defined in a physical setting. As this distinction between regions may be less definite online, this may have implications in separating the audience from the backstage region. In this way, Goffman’s framework has potential limitations when being applied to human interactions in cyberspace as it is possible that the regions of backstage and front stage may overlap and that the audience may have access to the backstage region. However, while acknowledging these limitations, it is important to highlight that the key concepts regarding performances, audience and regions have been recognised by others as being a useful framework to analyse online interactions (Lin et al., 2009; Ross, 2007). Thus, we intend to show how Goffman’s perspective of relating social interactions to a staged performance is particularly beneficial to the analysis of results in this study regarding cyberbullying. The research questions posed with regard to cyberbullying relate to Goffman’s framework in that they focussed on identifying how girls ‘perform bullying’ through the ways in which they use electronic means to communicate and interact within their friendship groups and how this creates experiences of bullying which may be typical of living in a social media determined environment. Goffman provides a way of recognising and understanding different roles that young girls may play out in their social worlds and how these may change depending on the setting and audience.



Participants in this study were female students of age 12-15 years old drawn from secondary schools across Northern Ireland. A stratified random sampling technique was used to select schools which represented the different sections of the education system within Northern Ireland. The three variables used to sample schools included: (i) academic achievement (grammar or non grammar school); (ii) co-educational or single sex; and (iii) socio-economic background measured by the Free School Meals (FSM) Index. Thirty schools were approached to take part in the study with eight schools agreeing to participate (26.7%). In total, 494 students participated in a self completing questionnaire. The sample consisted of students from Year 9 (12-13 year old) (41.1%, n = 203); Year 10 (13–14 year old) (33.8%, n = 167); and Year 11 (14–15 year old) (25.1%, n = 124). The mean age of the sample was 13.5 years (standard deviation: 0.895). Subsequently, eight students from this sample volunteered to participate in an online interview via Instant Messenger.



A Research Advisory Group (RAG) comprising of 4 female students of the same age range was used prior to data collection. The group piloted the questionnaire to advise and ensure that it was suitable and interesting for girls of this age group and that the questions and close responses offered were appropriate. The questionnaire consisted of 60 items that were used to explore four key areas of interest relevant to the study: (i) female friendship; (ii) experiences of bullying generally; (iii) cyberbullying specifically; and (iv) the perception of help available to them regarding bullying. The questionnaire took approximately 15–20 minutes to complete and was administered in schools between December 2008 and June 2009. Unlike other bullying questionnaires, a definition of bullying was not presented for participants to work with, as a key aim of the study was to find out how girls themselves define bullying and what methods they associate with bullying. It was important to not use a definition which may have influenced the participants’ own ideas. Participants were instead asked to indicate if they had ever experienced bullying or being a bully. If answered yes, participants were asked further details about their experiences of bullying such as the frequency, methods used and where it took place. Through these questions a ‘picture’ was formed of what young girls perceived bullying to be, its constituent parts, how it was played out on them and within their social environments. In this way a working definition of bullying for the project was established, described through categorisations of the data (see below).

Online interviews using Instant Messenger

The interview sample was drawn from two sources; (i) those who had participated in the questionnaire and volunteered their email address in order to receive further information about online interviews and; (ii) from girls who contacted the researcher through a Bebo SNS profile which was set up for the duration of the research as a way of communicating information about the research and about bullying more generally. A final sample of eight girls from Year 9 and 10 volunteered to take part in an online interview using instant messenger. Interviews were conducted between June and July 2009 and lasted in duration from 45 minutes to 90 minutes. The interview schedule was formulated through focussing on the exploration of significant issues that emerged from the quantitative data (both closed and open responses). Interview data was thematically coded and analysed. This was carried out thematically by comparing and contrasting responses to open ended questions on the questionnaire and from interviews. It was decided not to use a software package to do this due to the amount of ‘text speak’ used in the interviews transcripts. Codes were created that identified themes emerging from the data. Three main categories emerged with relation to cyberbullying: (i) general views and perspectives of cyberbullying; (ii) mobile phones; and (iii) use of internet communications such as social networking sites and instant messenger. These categories are explored in more detail in the results section below.


For the administration of the questionnaire survey, the principal for each school was contacted first to establish access to participants. When access was secured, a consent leaflet for both parent/guardians and participants to sign was sent home to inform about the aims and methods of the research. Questionnaires were either sent to a school for a teacher to administer the survey during appropriate call periods or the researcher (Kernaghan) attended the school and administered the survey to participants. Both approaches resulted in the participants being informed about the research and given appropriate contact information if they were affected by any of the issues raised in the survey or by the research more generally.

The online interviews using Instant Messenger were conducted sequentially with the questionnaire administration. Respondents who volunteered to take part in the online interviews were contacted by email explaining the issues the interview would cover, possible length of discussion and that it was a voluntary process were they were free to stop at any time or skip any question they did not want to answer. It was also explained to the participants that they should not use their real name but create a ‘screen name’ for the purpose of the interview, which all participants did. A second email was sent to confirm dates and times for the interview. As all the girls already had a Windows Live Messenger Account, all the interviews were carried out using this type of instant messenger also known as MSN. The extracts from the online interviews presented in this paper retain the original pseudonym screen names, font and colours chosen by each participant.


Everyday Use of Technology

The use of technology by young girls can be seen to be a normal and integral part of their everyday lives. Of the girls who took part in the questionnaire, 96.1% had internet access in their own homes. Results found the majority of participants (88.1%, n = 435) used IM. Of the participants who used IM, 55.5% used it every day. An additional 23.9% used IM 2-3 times a week, while 8.0% used IM once a week. Similarly, the majority of participants had their own social networking site (SNS) profile (86.4%, n = 427). Of the participants who had a profile on a social networking site, 48.0% visited it every day. A further 30.5% used it 2–3 times a week while 8.8% visited their profile once a week. These results go some way to illustrate the familiarity that most participants had with both IM and SNSs profiles. The results presented here will focus on participants’ experiences of how Instant Messenger and social networking sites can be used to cyberbully others.

IM Use and experiences

Instant Messenger (IM) is an online textual conversation which is usually a fast paced exchange where acronyms, numbers and emoticons are used to convey the meaning. As it provides another way for girls to communicate with each other, it is also possible that gossip and rumours can be spread in this way. One 13 year old participant in the survey wrote:

I think MSN is used to talk about people behind their backs”.

IM was perceived by most participants as the online space in which girls could potentially be bullied (34.7%). In order to gain greater understanding of this finding, participants of the online interviews were asked why instant messenger was seen as a place that girls could experience bullying:

DK: A lot of girls in my questionnaires said that Instant Messenger is where most girls get bullied on the internet, what do you think?

mm yea that would probably be true, becoz bebo and myspace etc are much more public so people might not want to do it on there

Cokees+carleeee; best friends forever:
as more will be said than face to face and like i said most girls wont save there convos

Babe Ox... Random Mood =D......:
cuz u can have a different name on it and not have yur pic up so they cud be any1 and the person wud never no

As shown above, IM was recognised by participants to have more privacy than social networking sites. The participants also highlight that there is a hidden element as users can change their names and conceal their real identity. This facilitates behaviour online that would be more difficult in real life. For instance, girls can use IM as a way to directly bully others. Of those that used IM, 25.4% of participants admitted that they had typed hurtful things on IM that they would not say face-to-face. While a malicious exchange between two girls may not be bullying, often other girls are invited into the conversation which may cause a group to be abusive to one single girl as illustrated in the example from an online interview below:

Well I am ready, won't you let it begin!:
Its true, because if there happens to be a bullying situation over msn you can easily add people into the conversation and then they could stick up for the friend.

It is important to highlight that IM conversations do not exist in an online vacuum but are interwoven into friendships girls have at school. In this way, it may be argued that bullying which may start in school can be extended through exchanges on IM or arguments on IM may result in conflict spilling out in schools. In one way, this type of direct cyberbullying using IM may be easier for the target to stop as they can block the bully, sign out and also save conversations as proof and show an adult. However, as discussed, girls tend to use more indirect methods of bullying which IM also facilitates in the form of ‘cutting and pasting’ conversations and impersonating other people as discussed below.

“Cut and paste” IM conversations

The most common type of IM bullying (47.1%) reported by participants in this study was having a private IM conversation “cut and pasted”. This is when all or part of an IM conversation that was meant to be private is copied by a participant and saved or ‘pasted’ in such a way as it can be shared with others not involved in the original conversation. Older girls in Year 11 (59.5%) and Year 10 (57.1%) were more likely to report doing this than younger girls in Year 9 (30.2%). A Chi-square test showed that there was a significant relationship between these two variables (p < .001; Chi-square = 32.182; df = 2). However, the post test carried out found the strength of the association was weak (Cramer’s V = .275). Similar to watching a ‘happy slap’ 1, an IM cut and paste conversation appears to provide the audience with a better idea of what has happened than hearing about it from someone else. It is relatively simple for the bully to do and the target will not know that this has happened at the time. It also means that the bully does not need to use the information immediately. This is not the only way conversations can be seen by an unintended audience.

Impersonation of others

As the participants have highlighted above, IM conversations can have a hidden element in that girls can change their screen name, change their picture and conceal their real identity. By sharing passwords, it is simple for people to log into IM as someone else. The results from the survey show that 26.1% of respondents that used IM had pretended to be someone else in an IM conversation (Table 1). This group included 23.8% from Year 9, 25.2% from girls in Year 10 and 30.6% from girls in Year 11. Conversely, 39.6% of participants who used IM said that someone else has pretended to be them on IM. This may be problematic within friendships as secrets seemingly shared in confidence are revealed unwittingly to the wrong person or abuse comes from an unexpected area.

Bullying via Instant Messenger

In every aspect of bullying on IM, older girls have had more of these types of experiences than younger girls. This study found that girls in Year 11 had higher rates of participating in IM bullying and have been targeted more by the different aspects of bullying in IM. Table 1 shows the percentages reported for each age group by those that report using IM.

Table 1. Actions on Instant Messenger by Year Group.

While age is a factor, there is also the issue of different experiences of bullying. The definitions of roles such as ‘bully’ and ‘target’ emerged from the data through the self reports of the participants who reported positively when asked, either having bullied others (26.3%, n = 128) or been bullied themselves (56.0%, n = 274). The role of ‘bystander’ (37.2%, n = 184) was interpreted as those that reported never being a target and never bullying others. Additionally, the role of ‘bully-target’ (19.2%, n = 96) emerged through combining responses that reported experience of both bullying others and being a target of bullying themselves. By analysing the results within these different categorisations it was shown that the bully and bully-target groups report more frequently being involved in the four IM actions listed in Table 1. For example, 42.4% of the bully-target group and 42.1% of the bully group reported typing hurtful things on IM that they would not say face-to-face compared to the participants in the target group (28.9%) and bystander group (16.5%). This would seem to indicate that girls who have had some type of experience of bullying others may tend to also bully others using instant messenger. The next section will look at how girls use social networking sites and how this may affect their experiences of bullying.

SNS Use and Experiences

Social networking sites (SNS) like Bebo and Facebook give young people the opportunity to create an online profile of themselves and project the impression they wish. From the respondents surveyed in 2008-2009, Bebo by far was the most popular SNS (79.2%). A further 10.3% said that they had profiles on both Bebo and Facebook. The main reason participants gave for choosing their SNS was ‘most of my friends use this one’ (73.7%). The two main features that girls tended to use emerging from the data were comments (30.1%) and pictures (25.2%). These features will be discussed further regarding how they may be used for bullying.


Comments can be sent privately or written publicly on a profile that can be accessed by members of the SNS site depending on privacy settings. In this study, 30.1% of participants who had a SNS profile reported that they had experience of having a nasty comment being left on their social networking profile. Participation rates were fairly evenly spread over the three year groups as girls in Year 11 (28.2%), Year 10 (31.7%), and Year 11 (30.9%) reported experiencing this type of cyberbullying. Unlike bullying in a face to face situation, SNSs may have large public spaces with a potentially larger audience as explained by a participant in the online interviews below:

Well I am ready, won't you let it begin!:
I don't think i said it before but during the bullying this time last year with that girl it was the main way of saying stuff to her over bebo and text messages it was mainly bebo since everyone had access to one at least

This may cause greater humiliation for the target as more people tend to be drawn into a situation which may result in more abusive comments. Leaving nasty comments on someone else’s SNS profile was reported by 14.9% of girls participating in the questionnaire. Again, older girls in Year 11 (20.3%) had more experience of this than girls in Year 10 (16.8%) and Year 9 (10.0%). Although this is a direct type of bullying, the target can take action by deleting abusive or nasty comments from their profile and blocking the person from being able to view their profile again.

The second type of bullying through SNS comments is more indirect. Conversations can be carried out about the target by using identifying terms but not using their name so only a small group can understand the meaning of the comments. Due to the ambiguity of such comments, rumours may spread both online and in an offline context such as school. As one 15 year old respondent recounted in the questionnaire:

When bullying is used over Bebo only the person that is getting bullying notices, because usually they don’t include names. So only a few people realise who it is about”.

Furthermore, this is problematic as comments do not need to be written on the target’s own profile. It is difficult to censor what people choose to write on their own profile particularly if no names are used. The target is powerless to delete something written about them on someone else’s profile. Another incidence of indirect bullying through SNS has been reported by a 13 year old participant in the survey into how ‘hacking’ into SNS accounts as shown below:

Someone hacked my Bebo and sent nasty comments to one of my good friends. They were pretending to be me…”

Similarly, impersonating someone else on IM, pretending to be someone else through writing comments on social networking profiles gives more freedom to bully someone directly while protecting the bully’s identity as shown below:

DK: do you think it is easier to say nasty stuff on the internet?

Babe Ox... Random Mood =D...... :
yea cuz u cud write anyfin and ders no proof it was u or sum1 else

In the same way, by pretending someone hacked into your SNS, girls have the opportunity to directly leave offensive or hurtful comments without taking responsibility for writing them. This could be equated to talking behind someone’s back and then denying it.


Participants also reported enjoying putting up photos of themselves and friends on their profile. By choosing flattering photos of themselves, girls can manage the impression that they would like to create. This carefully crafted image can become damaged when embarrassing or unattractive photos are put up by others without permission. Of the participants who had SNS profile, 32.2% said that they have had embarrassing photos posted on the internet against their will. In terms of year group, girls in Year 11 reported experiencing this more (37.4%) compared to girls in Year 10 (35.5%) and Year 9 (26.1%). Conversely, 19.0% have put embarrassing photos of another person on the internet without their permission. Again, the pattern of older girls being more likely to be involved seems to be repeated as more Year 11 girls reported doing this (24.1%) than girls in Year 10 (19.9%) and Year 9 (15.3%). It is interesting that 15.2% of participants reported both having an embarrassing photo put up against their will and putting up a photo of someone else without their permission. Due to the potentially large audience, this may cause additional humiliation and may contradict the image the target was trying to cultivate. It also gives multiple girls the opportunity to comment on photos which can be distressing and may also spill out into school.


Cyberspace is a new space where the performance of bullying may take place using mobile phones or the internet. Over ninety five percent of the participants in the study could access the internet at home and owned a mobile phone. While these new forms of technology may facilitate more ways to communicate with friends, the data from the study highlights that girls use these means of communication as an additional way to bully others. The findings presented here particularly looked at participants’ experiences of bullying and being a target of bullying through instant messenger (IM) and social networking sites (SNSs). Instant Messenger was identified as the online space where the majority of respondents reported experiencing and participating in cyberbullying. Findings from this study have also shown that girls may experience bullying in cyberspace in a range of ways such as having personal conversations on IM ‘cut and pasted’ to be shared with others; being impersonated; malicious or hurtful comments publicly being posted on their SNS profile; and embarrassing photographs posted online against their will. The data would indicate that these online forms of bullying may be facilitated within friendship groups in an offline context in order for them to have access to photographs of the target or access to the target’s social networking profile. We would argue that the intimate knowledge girls learn about each other in their friendships may be used in two different ways in terms of cyberbullying. Firstly, it may be characteristic of girls to disclose information of a personal nature amongst their friends (Besag, 2006; Simmons, 2002). This intimate knowledge may be stored and used at a future time to cause humiliation such as sharing secrets or embarrassing photographs with others. Secondly, female friends may also have access to personal information by sharing passwords, having mobile phone numbers, email addresses and being a friend on a SNS profile which may create a context in which cyberbullying can occur.

This research would indicate older girls experience cyberbullying more than younger girls as both the bully and the target. This involvement of older girls in cyberbullying is in contrast to the findings in other research studies (Collins, McAleavy, & Adamson, 2004; Livesey, McAleavy, Donegan, Duffy, O’Hagan, & Adamson, 2007; Sullivan, Cleary, & Sullivan, 2004; Whitney & Smith, 1993) regarding more traditional forms of bullying which indicate that bullying decreases with age. The results of the present study seem to confirm the emerging trend that other research has found regarding cyberbullying being more prevalent with older children (Livingstone, Haddon, Görzig, & Ólafsson, 2010, Slonje & Smith, 2008; Tarapdar & Kellett, 2011; Ybarra & Mitchell, 2004). In particular, this study found older girls in Year 11 more frequently reported bullying others through social networking sites and instant messenger than girls in Year 9 and 10. It is also the case, that as a group, girls in Year 11 report more use generally of both instant messenger and social networking sites than the younger girls. Participants also acknowledged in the online interviews that participating in cyberbullying is easier than other forms of bullying as a face to face confrontation may be avoided. These reasons may in part explain why girls in Year 11 appear to choose to bully others more through the internet than traditional forms of bullying. From the results presented in this study, cyberbullying can be shown to be a versatile way for girls to bully others due to the range of methods available, the ability to conceal their identity and to avoid a face to face confrontation. Thus, cyberbullying can be viewed as a more sophisticated way to bully. Cyberbullying may be seen to require more advanced social skills in order to remain anonymous and navigate online social networks. This setting allows greater flexibility in the presentation of self as more time is given to deliberately construct the performance which real life social interactions do not afford (Livingstone, 2008; Manago et al., 2008; Ringrose, 2010; Rosen, 2007). It also allows girls who choose to bully in this way more control over the impression they ‘give off’ due to the physical distance so they maintain their performance of being non aggressive yet can still express anger and bully others online.

Through using Goffman’s framework of performance, cyberspace interactions may be carried out by the bully in the private backstage region which impacts on the target in the public front stage region. As the backstage region is a place that performers may privately prepare away from the audience, this provides time and space for the bully to plan the ways in which they wish to target others. The physical distance which cyberspace interactions facilitate may also result in the bully managing the impression ‘given off’, the ability for the bully to conceal their identity and the tone and meaning being open to wider interpretation. In this way, it may be shown that cyberbullying involves more complex ways to bully others than more traditional methods. From a synthesis of Goffman’s framework and the data generated by this study, Figure 1 was developed to illustrate how these characteristics of cyberbullying can be conceptualised as a performance.

Figure 1: Model of the Characteristics of Cyberbullying in relation to Bully and Target.

Figure 1 also illustrates how the characteristics of cyberspace may serve to amplify the effect of bullying on the target in the front region. This is particularly significant as this study found that participants tended to define bullying behaviour by the effect it had on the target. Cyberbullying interactions are not bound by time or physical space. Unlike more traditional types of methods, the target may experience bullying via text, phone call, comments on social networking sites and other ways any time of the day or any place. This may increase the target’s anxiety and cause them to feel that they cannot escape cyberbullying. This fear may be further compounded as the bully has the potential to hide their identity. While the bully may operate in the private backstage area and conceal their identity, the target is bullied in the public front region with an audience present. As discussed previously, the audience in Goffman’s framework is inextricably linked to the public front stage. This relationship is illustrated in Figure 1 as the audience remains present in the front stage but is prohibited from entering the back stage region. The presence of the audience is essential to create a distinction between the front and back regions. The arrows signify that the audience in cyberspace may individually witness cyberbullying at different times and places rather than collectively in the same physical space as would be the case in many face to face performances of bullying.

In terms of cyberspace, the audience may be larger than that of conventional bullying and may be potentially infinite. The evidence of how girls report using cyberspace for communication and interaction with each other in this study suggests that the audience contains a high peer presence. In contrast, the literature would seem to indicate that this space also has a low adult presence (Livingstone, 2008). These characteristics of cyberspace may result in greater fear and humiliation of the target compared to an offline performance of bullying. These factors illustrate to some extent how cyberbullying may result in intensifying the performance of bullying as the target may experience bullying in relatively safe physical spaces at any time, the audience may be made up of large numbers of their own peer group and the bully has the potential of remaining anonymous. Results would seem to suggest that while it may be easier to use cyberbullying as a way to bully others, it may cause greater distress for the target than more conventional forms of bullying.


1. A ‘happy slap’ has been defined as an “unprovoked physical attack where the main purpose is filming and taking pictures for later distribution on the Internet or via mobile phones” (Staksrud, 2009, p.150).


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Correspondence to:
Donna Kernaghan
The National Children Bureau, Northern Ireland
Albany House
73 - 75 Great Victoria Street
Belfast BT2 7AF
United Kingdom

Email: dkernaghan02(at)

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