Creative Inquiry

Project Spotlights

Cyberbullying and Beyond: Psychology in the Digital Age

The October 2006 suicide of 13-year-old Megan Meier shocked parents and students nationwide. Meier, barely out of childhood and into adolescence, had felt such torment when a boy who had befriended her on MySpace.com suddenly turned on her, inflicting cruel remarks and public insults. According to subsequent law proceedings and police investigations, the boy was actually a mother-daughter team who had created the fake account to befriend and subsequently hurt Meier. Her story is just one example of many teen suicides attributed to cyberbullying.

Dr. Robin Kowalski, a professor in Clemson's Department of Psychology, works with a team of graduate and undergraduate students to investigate the relatively recent phenomenon of cyberbullying. According to Kowalski, the nature of cyberbullying differs from traditional bullying in two ways. First, there can be greater perceived anonymity on the Internet; perpetrators do not have to identify themselves, which can be very disarming for the victim. Second, the Internet provides continuous accessibility. Whereas a student is typically protected from traditional bullying once the school day ends, cyberbullying can occur at any time. Even if the computer or cell phone is turned off, messages can still be sent to the victim, and the victim knows that the information is there.

The Cyberbullying Creative Inquiry team has been working since 2004, and students have the opportunity to study multiple aspects of cyberbullying. One study conducted by the team has confirmed that, unfortunately, cyberbullying does not end with a high school diploma; about one in ten students have reported being victims of cyberbullying while in college. In fact, Dr. Kowalski and the students show that college cyberbullying victimization is associated with a myriad of psychological traits, including lowered self-evaluation, negative emotions, loneliness, depression, and anxiety. Brooke Baker, a junior Psychology major on the team, remarked that the research is so salient because "we constantly learn more about ourselves and people we're close to."

Students also assist in performing studies on the nature of cyber-communication. For instance, a recent study examined the willingness of participants to intervene in an incident of cyberbullying. For the experiment, researchers engaged in a scripted Instant Messaging chat room conversation with a participant, in which another "participant" (secretly a member of the team) was bullied by several others. In another set of studies, the team tested how participants reacted to either uncivil or sexually harassing supervisors in the workplace. Participants were placed in a simulated work environment where they completed math problems for a "boss," communicating solely via email. The rude, shocking, or sexually harassing comments caused participants to experience more negative emotions and feel less willing to work with their supervisor.

With so many different ongoing projects, it is no surprise that Dr. Kowalski's students have presented their research at numerous conferences and even been published in several peer-reviewed journals, including Journal of Positive Psychology and Progress in Transplantation. Most recently, students have presented research at the 2012 Southeastern Psychological Association (SEPA) annual conference in New Orleans, Louisiana, and another regional conference in Johnson City, Tennessee. Clemson undergraduates on the team are frequent presenters at SEPA, where they have won a Psi Chi Research award, as well as national conferences, such as the one for the American Psychological Association (APA).

Currently, the team is beginning to explore different territory in psychological research. They plan to extend their current research on cyberbullying to children and young adults with disabilities like dyslexia and ADHD. These groups face special challenges in the text- and stimuli-filled domain of the Internet, and may therefore be more vulnerable to victimization. In addition, the team is beginning to take on an entirely different topic: sports psychology. Reading papers on how a passion can become an obsession, the team hopes to eventually work with coaches at Clemson and sports medicine clinics to investigate the relationship between passion and sports.

Wherever the team may go with their research endeavors, the overarching goal of the team is to better understand how humans interact with the society and people surrounding them. "The Creative Inquiry team has opened my eyes more to the need of research in general," stated Carrie Smith, an undergraduate on the team. "Hopefully," Smith adds, "from conducting this research we will be able to have spread awareness and also help others to step up and take courage to protect the victim being cyberbullied."