Cyberbullying – Where Did It All Start?

You would be hard pressed to find a parent who doesn’t worry about cyberbullying, and rightly so. Cyberbullying can be absolutely devastating for victims. A quick ‘google’ provides parents with a list of tragic cases of young adults who have suffered significant psychological trauma or even lost their lives as a result of unchecked cyberbullying.

Where did it all begin? Clearly bullying existed before the onset of the ‘cyber’ world. It is not a new concept. Many anthropologists believe bullying was in fact evident right from the birth of our species and was inherited from our primal ancestors. According to Christopher Boehm, PhD in his book Moral Origins, monkeys and chimpanzees regularly engaged in bullying-like behaviours which provided advantages such as enhanced social status, much needed resources or ‘reproductive opportunities’ (aka the best looking mate!) to the bully.

Fast forward to the birth of the homo-sapiens and add to the mix the human ingredients of language and culture, and bullying is transformed from a social dominance or survival strategy to an insidious and destructive activity. Anthropologist Hogan Sherrow believes the ability of language to facilitate communicate, coordinate behaviours, express thoughts and gossip has completely altered the intensity and impact of bullying.

Sherrow also believes that cultural practices and norms play a huge role. Research conducted in 2005 entitled ‘Bullying and Symptoms Among School-Aged Children: International Comparative Cross Sectional Study in 28 Countries’ showed that the most intensive bullying was found in countries where violence and social intolerance are most commonplace. The most severe bullying was reported among boys in Lithuania with the least severe happening among girls in Sweden.

In our modern day society where violent video games and TV shows are tolerated, celebrities worshipped and sexualised content ‘managed’, a cultural norm is created. This norm impacts the thoughts and actions of our young people and plays on our inherent tendencies to coerce others into conformity, according to Sherrow. The fact that ‘us’ humans are also heavily influenced by the opinions or suggestions from authority figures is another way that cultural norms and values are created.  This may be a school friend with a strong personality, a teacher, celebrity or journalist.

Without doubt the tendency to bully others is deeply rooted in our evolutionary history and clearly still forms part of our neurological wiring. Just stick your head into any day-care centre! However this primitive ‘survival of the fittest’ strategy clearly comes unstuck when cultures condone and celebrate violence, beauty or sexualised content while supressing or demonising completely natural aspects of the human condition such as homosexuality, physical or racial differences.

So, when thinking about ways to teach your kids about the potentially devastating effects of cyberbullying, think back to our furry ancestors and peel back the layers. Once they are stripped back, it becomes crystal clear – if we are serious about moving forward and genuinely tackling the issue of cyberbullying we need to take a serious look at the issues of language and culture.

I believe children and young people need to be taught responsible language use. They need to be taught non-inflammatory ways to use language, smart verbal problem solving skills and educated about the impact their choice of words can have on others. Likewise, we need to take a serious look at some of the cultural values that are now commonplace our society and ask ourselves whether we are truly comfortable with the level of violence and celebrity obsession that is now the norm.

Till Next Time,


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