Ash Catton

PhD Candidate, Clinical Psychology Student

Cyberbullying: Deindividuation or Self-Esteem?

June 02, 2017

The Internet is a tool that has become entrenched in the daily lives of billions of people. It has afforded us with a means of instant communication with each other across the globe. Such Computer Mediated Communication (CMC) can be either voice, visual, or text oriented. The nature of the latter form of CMC has been the subject of much study within the Social Psychology domain. Of interest is the negative aspect of text-oriented CMC such as cyber-bullying and trolling. Cyberbullying is the use of CMC to harm a defenceless individual (Palermiti, Servidio, Giuseppina Bartolo, & Costabile, 2016), whereas trolling is malicious behaviour with the intent to cause disruption, aggravation, and/or to trap the target into pointless discourse (Coles & West, 2015). New Zealand is not immune to the pervasiveness of these negative behaviours, with 11.5% of the population reporting the experience of cyberbullying in 2015 (Steiner-Fox et al., 2016). Such behaviours have been examined extensively in the literature with a traditional focus on deindividuation.

1.1 Historical Accounts of Deindividuation

Deindividuation was a term coined in the 1950’s by Leon Festinger to describe our tendency to overcome ‘inner restraints’ (internalised behaviour-governing norms) to satisfy certain needs that cannot be otherwise achieved (Festinger, Pipitone, & Newcomb, 1952). By priming an alternative depersonalising external norm, he noted that participants were more loose and extreme in their expression of negative attitudes. Festinger et al. (1952) noted that group membership was a necessary condition for deindividuation, and this would be built upon in the studies that followed.

Diener followed with a more concrete account of deindividuation by emphasising the role of anonymity, disconnection from the self, and a sense of feeling more integrated with one’s environment (Diener, 1977). His challenge to researchers for a causal account of deindividuation  was met that suggested that cue valence was a significant predictor of deindividuation (Johnson & Downing, 1979). Cues can be considered part of a norm, where perceived pro/anti-social cues result in behaviour performed in accordance with their specification. Johnson and Downing (1979) showed that the valence of costume cues, a nurse’s uniform or KKK robe, had significant influence on the emergence of deindividuation.

1.2 The SIDE Model

The connection between CMC and deindividuation can be traced back to the 1980’s where Kiesler, Siegel, and McGuire (1984) aimed to determine if the lack of social structure in cyberspace predicted a more salient manifestation of deindividuation. They argued that the absence of social feedback and hierarchy meant that assertiveness was increased and communication depersonalised. Deindividuation within the CMC domain was revised with Reicher, Spears, and Postmes (1995). They presented the Social Identity Model of Deindividuation (SIDE), to overcome the assumption of previous studies of the salience and consistency of the individualistic self-concept. They argued that increased conformity requires both membership and anonymity thus not simply a lack of self-awareness. The implications suggested the salience of identity was sufficiently fluid to adapt to a social or personal situation. The advantage of this model over the classic version is that it accounts for conformity as a natural consequence of group membership.

Subsequently, this model was expanded to specify that deindividuation was relative to situation-specific norms (Postmes & Spears, 1998), as well as the suggestion that anonymity is more significant predictor of the following of primed norms (Postmes, Spears, Sakhel, & de Groot, 2001). Douglas and McGarty (2002) presented the Strategic SIDE model to indicate that in-group identifiability influences language use towards anonymous outgroup targets in more stereotypical ways. This finding was supported by Postmes, Spears, and Lea (2002) who concluded that stereotypes are more salient in depersonalised conditions.

1.3 Self-Esteem: A Challenge to the SIDE Model

Christie and Dill (2015) were unable to support SIDE’s requirement for a salient social identity. Their study did not manipulate group membership, instead focusing on factors such as autonomy, social anxiety, and self-esteem. Relevant to this proposed study is the finding that high self-esteem coupled with anonymity was a significant predictor of negative evaluations of anonymous out-group targets. This conclusion is relevant to real-world CMC aggression as it is possible that group membership is not as salient when an individual makes negative statements online. Further, Christie and Dill (2015) noted as a potential limitation of their study that ‘double anonymity’ may have played a key role in their findings. As participants in the anonymous conditions were assigned to evaluate anonymous messages, a requirement not made across all conditions, that this may have had some impact.

While the connection between self-esteem and traditional forms of bullying are well documented, the connection between self-esteem and cyberbullying has had little attention in the literature. Smith (2016) makes a conceptual connection between bullying and dominance and the paper concludes that more work needs to be done to establish the cause of cyberbullying. One study to connect cyberbullying and self-esteem noted that males with high self-esteem were more likely to be perpetrators of cyberbullying (Palermiti et al., 2016). Thus, there is significant scope for developing this possible link further and contrasting it with the more traditional SIDE account.


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Steiner-Fox, H. W., Dutt, S. J., Christiansen, S. J., Newton, H. J., Matika, C. M., Lindsay, C., . . . Stronge, S. (2016). Rates of cyberbullying among women and men in New Zealand in 2015. NZAVS Policy Brief, 3.


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