Do Technology and Social Media Enable Relational Aggression?

By Hill Walker

In the past decade or so, our collective awareness of bullying and its harmful effects has grown, due in part to media exposure. Forty-four states now have antibullying laws ranging from highly restrictive to merely increasing public awareness. The U.S. Supreme Court, the U.S. Justice Department, and national media have all initiated actions to address this growing social toxin in our society.

Definitions and commentary about bullying, which can involve physical intimidation and threats, now commonly include less direct forms of aggression, sometimes referred to as peer harassment or indirect aggression. A subset of this form of bullying is the phenomenon of relational aggression. This is a less confrontational but much more sinister form of aggression because it involves reputational damage that is often not discovered by the victim until after considerable damage has occurred. Relational aggression involves peers ganging up on a targeted victim, often in a conspiratorial fashion, in order to inflict malicious reputational damage.

While the overt bullying and harassment of peers is more likely at younger ages, relational aggression occurs more often among older students in middle and high schools. It involves deliberate plans and attempts to “trash” someone’s reputation and social status for reasons that are invariably not defensible. Relational aggression is accomplished through such techniques as spreading false rumors, revealing confidential information, excluding the person from peer-controlled activities, and rejecting or interfering with his or her attempts to form social relationships among peers. All of these techniques are designed to isolate and socially punish the target(s) and can cause considerable psychological damage, which is all-too-often associated with tragic consequences experienced by the victim.

Recently there have been numerous media accounts of suicides and attempted suicides by the victims of these relentless peer actions. Such events disrupt students’ schooling experience and cause many to miss school in order to avoid the cruelty and shaming associated with bullying.

Cyberbullying: A Whole New Realm


Experts on bullying, harassment, and aggression have been aware of relational aggression for some time. Research shows that even very young children will endorse negative beliefs and characterizations of their peers. However, research on this phenomenon remains at a generally low level of scale, and there have been very few reports of schools’ involvement in addressing or coping successfully with relational aggression that occurs outside the school or in the context of peer-controlled settings that are poorly monitored or supervised by adults and school staff (e.g., playgrounds, before- and after-school areas, school bus stops, cafeterias). Because of its subtle and covert nature, relational aggression is very often difficult for schools to detect and address effectively.

The development of social media technology and the widespread use of cell phones and computers by our children and youth have added a complex and potentially more destructive element to the occurrence of relational aggression among peers. This subrosa form of bullying, harassment, and aggression is called cyberbullying. Aside from interpersonal exchanges, cell phones are now the primary means that peers use to commit acts of mean-spirited relational aggression. Relational aggression perpetuated through cyberbullying is potentially even more psychologically destructive due to its impersonal and often anonymous nature. For example, it is now possible for a single person to send an unlimited number of messages to a cyberbullying victim and make each message appear as if it came from a different individual.

Approximately half of all adolescents say they have been bullied at least once online, and about the same percentage admit to engaging in cyberbullying. More than a third of youth report that they have been the target of online threats. A quarter of teens have been bullied repeatedly through their cell phones or the Internet. In half of all cases, parents are not told about cyberbullying incidents.

The pervasiveness of cyberbullying, its covert nature, and the reluctance of victims to report its occurrence pose serious problems and obstacles for adults who seek to prevent and control it. Laws against bullying often do not address cyberbullying, and they are perceived as less than effective.

Approaches to Addressing Cyberbullying


If one thing seems clear, it is that cyberbullying reaches beyond the purview of the school and is a shared responsibility of youth, parents, and educators. To effectively combat this fast-growing problem, it is essential that these three groups work together effectively. Ideally, a school professional such as a school psychologist, counselor, behavioral specialist, or social worker could take the lead in coordinating these efforts.


A leading expert on cyberbullying is Nancy Willard, who is an attorney and trained special educator (M.S., J.D.). She has been investigating, researching, writing about, and consulting on this topic for the past decade. Willard is the founding director of Embracing Digital Youth. She is author of the following books on the topic of cyberbullying: Cyberbullying and Cyberthreats: Responding to the Challenge of Online Social Cruelty, Threats, and Distress (Research Press); Cyber Safe Kids, Cyber Savvy Teens: Helping Young People Learn to Use the Internet in a Safe and Responsible Manner (Jossey Bass); and Cyber Savvy: Embracing Digital Safety and Civility (In Press; Corwin Press). She has developed a sensible approach to addressing cyberbullying that appears to be school and community compatible. It includes the following major components:

  • Surveying local conditions involving cyberbullying and providing feedback of results to create positive peer norms designed to change it
  • Promotion of safe and responsible uses of the Internet
  • Design and training in instructional activities for teachers
  • Use of school progress indicators and positive reinforcement to strengthen responsible Internet use
  • Program evaluation


There seems to be little doubt that technology and social media enable relational aggression. Our challenge as a society is to forge constructive uses of this media in the context of peer relations.


Hill Walker, Ph.D., is codirector of the Institute on Violence and Destructive Behavior at the University of Oregon’s College of Education.

About Hill Walker

Books by Hill Walker: Systematic Screening for Behavior DisordersFirst Step to SuccessThe Acting-Out Child



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