Author: Sophie Smit (European Schoolnet)

Today, the 8th of March, is International Women’s Day (IWD). Countries all over the world pay attention to women’s rights and achievements. This year theme is ‘Gender equality today for a sustainable tomorrow’. The issue of gender (inequalities) online has been of interest for researchers and is often called cyberfeminism. In this article research regarding cyberbullying and gender are discussed.

Girls and boys nowadays grow up in a digital world, where they interact with each other on a daily basis. Sometimes they behave differently online, for example, boys play more games online (EU Kids Online, 2020; Smith 2016 as in Smith, López-Castro, Robinson & Görzig, 2019, Nixon, 2010). Girls seem to use the internet to interact with people (Festl & Quandt, 2016). The interest of gender in the digital world is referred to as cyberfeminism (Navarro & Jasinski, 2013).

From a cyberfeminism perspective, the online world is often described as either:

a potential liberating space for women – cybertopian – or another medium leading to oppression of womencyber dystopian.

(p.288; Navarro & Jasinski, 2013; Milford, 2015; Brophy, 2010).

The Internet in the early days, was primarily a ‘male domain’. More men used to have access to computers and internet than women. As more women participated online, sex-related difference in online behavior emerged  (Chrisholm, 2006, 78). Online experiences for girls can be categorised as empowering or vulnerable (Milford, 2015). With the increase of internet use, some feminist scholars were hoping for a ‘cyberutopia’, an online environment where the user is solely judged on their online presence and not on sex, gender, or race (and so on) (Brophy, 2010). They considered the online environment as a place with the possibility to act without the ‘burden’ of the body (Paterson, 1998 as in Brophy, 2010).

In every field of research, it is important to look at the role of gender. As Wong, Cheung and Xiao (2017) describe it:

Gender is a crucial individual difference factor influencing human behavior (p. 250).’

One of the risks identified by debates on girls and digital technology is the risk of cyberbullying and cyber gender harassment (Milford, 2015).

Are there gender differences in cyberbullying involvement? 

Previous research on traditional bullying indeed shows gender differences in perpetration. In traditional bullying, boys are more likely to engage in bullying behavior (Olweus, 2012 as in Wong, Cheung, Xiao, 2017; Jolliffe & Farrington, 2006 as in Ang and Goh, 2010). This is often explained through the general aggression model (GAM), that illustrates that boys display more physical violence in comparison to girls. The anonymous online environment might enable girls to be more manipulative online (Ang & Goh, 2010). This is the so-called online disinhibition effect (Wong, Cheung, Xiao, 2018).

Researchers started to wonder, with the increase of cyberbullying instances, if here is also a gender bias for cyberbullying perpetration (this includes cyberbullying perpetration and victimisation). What has become obvious is that the role of gender is more complicated when it comes to bullying online (Smith, Lopez-Castro, Robinson & Gorzig, 2019).

Early research in the field of cyberbullying by Li (2006) shows that boys were more likely to be bullies online in comparison with girls. However, since this early research, following studies have inconsistent results regarding gender differences (Ang & Goh, 2010; Wong, Cheung, Xiao & Chan, 2015; Wong, Cheung & Xiao, 2017; Wong et al. 2018; Foody, McGuire, Kuldas & Norman, 2019; Nixon, 2014; Tokunaga, 2010). Some studies confirmed that boys were more likely than girls to be involved in cyberbullying as a perpetrator (Smith et al. 2008 and Wang, Iannotti & Luk, 2012 as in Wong, Cheung, Xiao & Chan, 2015; Carvalho, Branquinho & Gaspar de Matos, 2021; Sun, Fan & Du, 2016; Wang, Wang & Lei, 2021; Hindujah, 2021).

Other research shows a difference in prevalence rates with more girls reporting to be victims of cyberbullying (Slonje & Smith, 2008; Uusitalo, Mualmivaara, Letho, 2016; Tokunaga, 2010; Nixon, 2014; Notar, Padgett, Roden, 2013).

However, most studies did not find any gender differences in cyberbullying involvement (see Smith et al. 2008 and Griezel et al. 2008 as in Wong, Cheung, Xiao & Chan, 2015; Nixon, 2014; Tokunaga, 2010). Other research findings have not always been clear (Kowalski, Giumetti, Schroeder & Lattanner, 2014; Festl & Quandt, 2016).

Possible explanations for cyberbullying victimisation of girls

If there is indeed a gender difference in cyberbullying victimization for girls, the question arises why girls are victimised more often. According to Uusitalo-Malmivaara & Letho (2016) a possible explanation is that girls have a more indirect and hidden nature of bullying or they could possibly label online comments quicker as instances of cyberbullying, where boys might see it as ‘jokes’ (Lagerspetz, Bjorkqvist & Peltonen, 1988 as in Uusitalo-Malmivaara & Letho, 2016). Another explanation for more girls being cyberbullied is the inaccessibility to physical bullying in an electronic context (Tokunaga, 2010). Girls in real life may not have the physical capacities to bully but in an online environment they are able to cyberbully (Carvalho, Branquinho & Gaspar de Matos, 2021). The last explanation can be that girls are more attracted to social networking sites, where cyberbullying often happens, and therefore are at a greater risk of becoming a cyberbully victim (Smith et al. 2019). Girls thus have a different motivation when going online. They seek out online environments for social networking and – as mentioned earlier – boys are more often online to play games (Snell & Englander, 2010 as in Nixon, 2014).

Other areas where gender plays a role in cyberbullying

Although gender differences in prevalence of cyberbullying might not be obvious, other studies focused on additional areas where gender can play a role. Girls react different to being a victim of cyberbullying. Boys are more likely to start to bully others online when they experience being cyberbullied, girls tend to conceal their feelings more (Wong et al. 2018). Moreover, the place where cyberbullying can occur differs for boys and girls. More girls are victims of cyberbullying on WhatsApp, Facebook, Snapchat, and Instagram. Boys were more frequently victimized on YouTube, multiplayer online games, Xbox, and PlayStation, for example (Foody, McGuire, Kuldas & Norman, 2019). Further, the nature of online activities for boys and girls seems to have a connection to cyberbullying involvement. Girls who are victimised, show more intensive online social activities and higher amounts of online contact with strangers. Boys show higher exposure to antisocial media content that predicts victimization (Festl & Quandt, 2016). Boys and girls might experience different forms of cyberbullying. Girls that are victims report more often that others spread false rumors about them in comparison with boys (Anderson, 2018). Last, the consequences of cyberbullying can differ for boys and girls. Research by Kowalski et al. (2014) carefully suggests that for girls there seems to be a stronger relationship between cyberbullying victimisation and depression, suggesting more damaging consequences of cyberbullying in comparison with boys.

Implications of gender findings for prevention and intervention strategies

Studying gender differences is relevant for the development of intervention strategies that focus on cyberbullying instances (Smith et al. 2019). Some research suggests using a gender-sensitive approach for victims. The conflicting outcomes of research on gender in cyberbullying indicate that there is no ‘one size fits all’ strategy that can be used for prevention and intervention (Kowalski et al. 2014, p. 1127). Further research should take these inconsistencies in research as evidence that there needs to be more flexibility in designing intervention and prevention programs so that everyone’s needs are met. Moreover, cyberfeminism scholars pointed to the danger of thinking in binaries, where girls are perceived to be more likely to be vulnerable online in contrast to boys. As mentioned by Milford (2015):

Issues involving gender and virtual space are not, in fact, that simple: girls’ virtual experiences are complexly nuanced and not universal. (p. 73)

In the end, to get closer to a true cyberutopia for both boys and girls, researchers should be careful to solely apply dichotomous lenses on online experiences but remain aware of possible group differences at the same time. The use of binary language, that describes girls as having either vulnerable or empowering experiences leaves little room for other interpretations. The importance of language in talking about gender inequalities is recognized by the United Nations, they published materials on how to use gender-inclusive language. More research is needed to get a better understanding of the possible relations between cyberbullying and gender and opportunities to integrate this in interventions and prevention programs.