By Maria Konnikova
Courtesy of The New Yorker

This summer, American Psychologist, the official journal of the American Psychological Association, released a special issue on the topic of bullying and victimization. Bullying is, presumably, as old as humanity, but research into it is relatively young: in 1997, when Susan Swearer, one of the issue’s two editors, first started studying the problem, she was one of the first researchers in the United States to do so. Back then, only four states had official statutes against bullying behavior, and the only existing longitudinal work had come out of Scandinavia, in the seventies. After Columbine, however, the landscape changed. The popular narrative at the time held that the shooters, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, had been bullied, and that idea—which has since been challenged—prompted a nationwide conversation about bullying, which researchers around the country began studying in earnest. This special issue marks one of the first attempts to systematically review what we’ve learned in the last two decades—and, especially, to explore whether and how the Internet has changed the bullying landscape.

In some ways, bullying research has affirmed what we already know. Bullying is the result of an unequal power dynamic—the strong attacking the weak. It can happen in different ways: through physical violence, verbal abuse (in person or online), or the management of relationships (spreading rumors, humiliation, and exclusion). It is usually prolonged (most bullies are repeat offenders) and widespread (a bully targets multiple victims). Longitudinal work shows that bullies and victims can switch places: there is an entire category of bully-victims—people who are victims in one set of circumstances and perpetrators in another. Finally, emerging research demonstrates that bullying follows us throughout life. Workplace and professional bullying is just as common as childhood bullying; often, it’s just less obvious. (At work—one hopes—people don’t steal your bicycle or give you a wedgie.)

To date, no one has systematically studied how different bullying settings affect bullying behavior—whether bullying in the Northeast differs from bullying the Midwest, or whether bullying in certain cultures, neighborhoods, or professions comes with its own characteristics. What Swearer has noticed, however, in her nearly two decades of bullying research is a persistent—and seemingly fundamental—environmental distinction between urban and rural bullying. In urban and even mid-sized city environments, anonymity is possible. Even if you’re bullied in school, you can have a supportive friend group at your local pickup basketball game. And there are multiple schools and multiple neighborhoods, which means you can float from one to the other, leaving bullying behind you in the process.

By contrast, in rural settings, “There aren’t options,” Swearer said, when we spoke earlier this month. “It’s impossible to get away.” The next school may be a hundred miles distant, so you are stuck where you are. What’s more, everyone knows everyone. The problems of reporting a bully—or, if you are a bully, of becoming less of one—become much more intractable, because your reputation surrounds you, and behavioral patterns are harder to escape. “Your world becomes an isolated and small place,” Swearer says. Isolation itself, she points out, can lead to a sense of helplessness and lack of control—feelings that are associated with some of the worst, most persistent psychological problems in any population, including bullying.

In some ways, when it comes to bullying, the Internet has made the world more rural. Before the Internet, bullying ended when you withdrew from whatever environment you were in. But now, the bullying dynamic is harder to contain and harder to ignore. If you’re harassed on your Facebook page, all of your social circles know about it; as long as you have access to the network, a ceaseless stream of notifications leaves you vulnerable to victimhood. Bullying may not have become more prevalent—in fact, a recent review of international data suggests that its incidence has declined by as much as ten per cent around the world. But getting away from it has become more difficult.

The inescapability of “cyberbullying” has huge consequences not just for children but also for adults. While workplace bullying is still a new field of study, adults seem to experience bullying just as much as kids do. A 2012 study from the University of Nottingham and the University of Sheffield, in the U.K., found that eight out of ten of the three hundred and twenty adults surveyed across three different universities had been victims of cyberbullying in the last six months; about a quarter reported feeling humiliated or ignored, or being the subject of online gossip, at least once a week. The effects of adult bullying can be just as severe, if not more so, than those of childhood bullying. While students can go to their teachers if they’re being bullied, if you report your boss, you could be out of a job. And adult victims of cyberbullying tend to suffer higher levels of mental strain and lower job satisfaction than those subjected to more traditional forms of bullying. An undermining colleague can be put out of mind at the end of the day. But someone who persecutes you over e-mail, social networks, or anonymous comments is far more difficult to avoid and dismiss.

Many forms of adult bullying are uncomfortably close to the sorts of shaming behaviors outlined by Jon Ronson in his recent book, “So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed.” (Alexandra Schwartz wrote about Ronson’s book for this web site, earlier this year.) Ronson documents the rise of cyberbrigadeswhich unite in virtual outrage, on Twitter, Reddit, or elsewhere online, to disparage someone’s words or behavior. Participants often feel that their abusive actions flow from justified outrage—but all bullies think that their behavior is justified. “We know from moral disengagement work that all bullies feel morally justified in their actions,” Swearer pointed out. Ask people why they bully, and they rarely say, “Because I can.” They say, “Because I need to.” Bullies believe they are teaching someone a lesson; they claim that their victims are, through their own actions or faults, asking for it, and that they need to be called out and corrected. “They say it’s retaliatory. ‘I just retaliated,’ ” Swearer said. “They build narratives of their behaviors.” Many of the bullies Swearer has dealt with don’t seem to have realized that what they did was bullying: they demonstrate “a lack of insight and self-awareness.” Instead, they see themselves as righteous crusaders.

In children, it’s possible to instill self-awareness about bullying through schoolwide interventions. Catherine Bradshaw, a psychologist and associate dean at the University of Virginia who studies bullying prevention, has found that the most effective approaches are multilayered and include training, behavior-modification guidelines, and systems for detailed data collection. (More, in other words, than a stray assembly or distributed book.) Unfortunately, the equivalent for adults can be hard to find. Many adult bullies hide behind the idea that bullying happens only among children. They conceive of themselves as adults who know better and are offering their hard-earned wisdom to others. The Internet makes that sort of certainty easier to attain: looking at their screens, adult bullies rarely see the impact of their words and actions. Instead, they comfortably bask in self-righteous glory. The U.K. study from 2012 found that online bystanders, too, are disengaged. Observing the actions of cyberbullies, they were less concerned than when they watched in-person bullying.

In short, the picture that’s emerged suggests that the Internet has made bullying both harder to escape and harder to identify. It has also, perhaps, made bullies out of some of us who would otherwise not be. We are immersed in an online world in which consequences often go unseen—and that has made it easier to deceive ourselves about what we are doing. The first step to preventing bullying among adults, therefore, might be simple: introspection.