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ISSN 1678-4464

37 nº.4

Rio de Janeiro, Abril 2021


Sobre vítimas, agressores e espectadores: uma meta-etnografia dos papéis no cyberbullying

Constanza Moretti, Damián Herkovits


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Sobre vítimas, agressores e espectadores: uma meta-etnografia dos papéis no cyberbullying

Cyberbullying; Relações Interpessoais; Violência; Adolescente; Revisão



Cyberbullying among adolescents is a practice that has been introduced as a novel problem in the fields of health and education. The literature defines it as an intentional aggression (verbal, emotional, or social) by a person or group using electronic devices, repeated over time, against another person who cannot easily defend himself or herself 1,2,3. This definition is an adaptation to online spaces of the concept of school bullying, emerging in the early 21st century, when research began on cyberbullying in the United States and Europe. However, various researchers contend that this definition is incomplete and inconsistent with the characteristics of online space, and that it is necessary to focus on the way information and communication technologies (ICTs) modify the conceptualization of aggressions among adolescents. For example, the authors state that the online space builds new forms of unequal power, especially in time and space, thus allowing unhindered access to the victim and the possibility of acting from anonymity, which facilitates attacking without disclosing the aggressor's identity 1,2,3,4,5,5,6. Another discussion addresses the issue of repetition, since cyberbullying does not involve only the number of attacks on the same person, given that unlimited reproduction of a single act amplifies the harm qualitatively 1,2,3,4,5. These characteristics, plus the aggression's permanent recording in space and participation by an expanded audience, forge new dynamics in cyberbullying that require specific analysis and theorization. Studies in various countries report that the prevalence in adolescents ranges from 10% to 40%, and that victims can suffer psychosomatic problems, depression, stress, low school performance, difficulties in peer relations, and even self-mutilation and suicidal ideation 4,6,7.

According to the literature, cyberbullying involves three basic roles, namely perpetrators, victims, and bystanders, and individuals may alternate these roles according to the context 5,8,9. Among these roles, bystanders tend to take a central position, since their actions and reactions can change the course of events. That is, they can reduce the incidents' effects by offering support to the victims, reinforce the aggression by joining the harassment, reproduce the online material, and/or act passively, thereby legitimizing the act 10.

Studies on cyberbullying mainly analyze the differences with offline bullying 1,2,3, identify prevalence 11,12, build epidemiological profiles 11,13,14,15, develop predictive behavioral models 16,17,18,19, validate measurement scales 20,21,22,23, establish consequences for health 6,7, and evaluate intervention programs in schools 24,25. These studies tend to focus on the identification of personal attributes of adolescents acting as risk factors to explain cyberbullying, without including perspectives aimed at understanding the context in which cyberbullying takes place or its meanings for those practicing it. Meanwhile, qualitative studies describe beliefs, values, and practices of adolescents that have experienced cyberbullying in one of its roles or online sociability in general, but they fail to address the interactions between the roles or reconstruct the dynamics of the attacks 26,27,28,29. In this sense, research is still needed on the relational and symbolic processes that trigger cyberbullying and the links to the context. Another challenge for this field is the development of a theoretical interpretation beyond the cases' unique characteristics.

Based on this reading, we focused on understanding the recurrent beliefs, values, and practices mobilized by adolescents in each of the roles they play in cyberbullying, the crosscutting contextual characteristics that impel them to act or refrain from acting, and how this process is inscribed in their daily sociability. Our objective was to conduct an interpretative synthesis of qualitative studies in different social contexts to identify crosscutting patterns in the dynamics of cyberbullying and online sociability. We conducted a meta-ethnography of scientific articles for this purpose. Meta-ethnography differs from other reviews because it summarizes findings through translations of core meanings between studies, with the aim of conducting a new theoretical interpretation, based on the persons' perspectives and experiences 30. In this case, based on symbolic interactionism, we analyzed cyberbullying as a unique expression of online sociability 31,32,33. We thus contend that it is a practice associated with identity-building processes, based on mechanisms of peer identification/opposition, by which positions of recognition are also reproduced and vie with each other in their sociability 34,35,36,37. In this process, cyberbullying sanctions behaviors that transgress a dominant symbolic order of what an adolescent should be and is 38. Finally, we analyze the results' implications for designing policies on cyberbullying in adolescents.


Meta-ethnography consists of a type of meta-synthesis of studies conducted with a qualitative methodology, in which the process involves seven stages that occur simultaneously and interactively 30,39. The first two stages consist of the identification of the research problem and selection of relevant studies for establishing a corpus for analysis. To identify the studies, we consulted the BVS, PubMed, SciELO, and Scopus databases due to their international recognition and thematic specialization in health and social sciences. To select the search terms, an exploratory stage was performed that identified and tested a set of words that could retrieve studies on cyberbullying. These words are the following: online bullying; cyber victimization, online aggression, cyber harassment, cyber abuse, peer victimization AND Internet, stalking AND Internet, cyber space AND violence, social media AND violence, Internet AND violence, social networking AND violence, sexting AND violence, Facebook AND violence, Twitter Messaging AND violence, hate speech AND Internet. The reading and analysis of the results and construction of a preliminary corpus showed that the broad terms retrieved mainly other phenomena of online space and that all the studies that address cyberbullying mention it specifically as such, although they discuss its conceptualization. Although the descriptor cyberbullying entered the MeSH thesaurus in 2019, researchers have used this term since the early 21st century 1. Thus, for the final search, we decided to use only cyberbullying as a free term Table 1.



Tab.: 1
Table 1 Number of citations retrieved from the selected databases. April, 2019.


Based on the references obtained from the searches, we selected the articles that met the following criteria: qualitative methodology that revealed the points of view of the persons interviewed, cyberbullying as the object of study, defined as such by the researchers, and study population of adolescents 11 to 18 years of age. We excluded studies that mentioned cyberbullying indirectly or that assessed intervention programs in schools. Figure 1 illustrates the process of building the corpus. The final corpus for analysis was 33 studies, shown in Box 1. The corpus was evaluated with the tool Critical Appraisal Skills Programme (CASP. https://casp-uk.net/wp-content/uploads/2018/03/CASP-Qualitative-Checklist-2018_fillable_form.pdf), with the purpose of analyzing the quality of the qualitative studies. The evaluation and discussion concluded that the material displays quality in terms of the clarity of records and is sufficient for the proposed objective. Box 2 shows the details of the analysis.



Figure 1 Diagram of the selection process for the study's corpus.




Tab.: 2
Box 1 Characteristics of the study corpus.




Tab.: 3
Box 2 Analysis of study corpus based on Critical Appraisal Skills Programme (CASP).


Third, from the selected articles, we analyzed the findings, discussion, and conclusions sections to detect core themes in each, to understand how they relate to each other, in the fourth stage. In this reading, we found that in all the studies, the adolescents report experiences of their own or their peers on cyberbullying and sociability. The studies tend to focus on a single role and offer results that complement each other. Thus, according to the meta-ethnographic proposals, we performed a synthesis based on the composition of an “argumentative line”, which consists of inferring structures of meaning from the parts (independent studies on roles) that allow understanding the whole (cyberbullying). We thus analyze the similarities and differences between cases and integrate them into a holistic interpretative framework.

The fifth stage involves the systematic translation of the previously defined core themes. The translation lies in establishing analogies between the studies based on the texts' meanings. It is not only the data that are synthesized, but also what is implicit in them. The sixth stage consisted of a synthesis of the translations performed between the studies, aimed at building a coherent whole from the parts as a function of the theoretical framework. The description of the findings is thus presented, taking the corpus as a totality, without citing the articles individually. The seventh stage is the presentation of the synthesis, aimed at offering at new interpretation of the object of study traversing the entire set of studies.


Adolescents report that regardless of gender, they can perform three roles in cyberbullying: victims, perpetrators, or bystanders 26,27,28,29,40,41,42,43,44,45,46,47,48,49,50,51,52,53,54,55,56,57,58,59,60,61,62,63,64,65,66,67,68. When speaking of their own personal experiences and/or of their peers, they do not speak of the roles as a “permanent state”, but as a situational position they occupy 40,50,52. Thus, the same persons may be attackers and victims in different scenarios 42,43,49,50,52,63,68. Bystanders also play a varying role. They may reinforce the attack by backing the perpetrators, defend the victim, or simply watch 41,42,44,45,48,50,51,52,68. While cyberbullying can display recurrent positions between those exercising the roles of victims, perpetrators, and bystanders, for the adolescents, communication mediated by technologies makes it difficult to discern between roles when observing an attack. Adolescents are unaware of its contextualization, the event's trajectory, and whether it originates in the offline space or continues in parallel to it. In part, this ambivalence and alternance occur because the linkage between the online and offline spaces is constant, and persons occupy different positions in the two spaces 42,43,46,49,52,67,68. The attacks take on a complex dynamic and generate the perception that they never end, due to the movements between spaces and participation by more actors 26,28,52,61.

Adolescents as aggressors: what they do and why

In all the expressions of cyberbullying, the adolescents are exposed to situations of humiliation, in which their image and social value are harmed 26,27,28,29,40,41,42,43,44,45,46,47,48,49,50,51,52,53,54,55,56,57,58,59,60,61,62,63,64,65,66,67,68. The most frequent modalities are criticizing or insulting 27,29,42,43,44,45,46,49,50,51,52,53,54,56,57,61,64,65,67,68; sharing/disclosing personal information, photos, and videos (whether or not manipulated with editing software) 27,29,40,43,44,45,46,48,50,51,52,57,58,64,67; threatening 42,44,45,46,50,51,52,54,57,61,65,67,68; hacking personal accounts to send humiliating photos or write comments that harm the account holder's social ties 28,45,49,51,53,54,58,61,65,67; creating specific pages to post information, images, or criticisms of someone 45,46,50,57,58,64,67; and excluding someone from online groups and activities 43,45,46,49,50,51,56,58,61,63,67.

We identified in these reports the principal motivations triggering cyberbullying. The first relates to “canceling” those who fail to meet the standards for behavior and appearance. Adolescents, through cyberbullying, highlight in their peers aspects that are sensitive for feeling recognized, especially attributes that fail to meet social standards for behavior 26,27,42,43,47,49,50,52,54,56,61,67,68, aesthetic production 26,27,43,47,49,50,52,53,54,56,58,62, and sexual orientation 26,27,29,46,49,54,56,64. Victims are attacked because they are different, and because of what others think of them, as a function of socially established ways of being 26,27,29,42,43,49,54,56,65,67,68. In the reports, the adolescents assign a certain degree of responsibility to the victims themselves for being attacked, claiming that they are the ones who decide to be different, or that they have done something that led to the attack 27,29,42,50,56,58,61,68.

Although cyberbullying takes place in the online space, the attacks tend to be targeted to persons the attackers know in person 26,47,49,64,65. Adolescents' use these practices to seek to build social belonging 26,27,40,41,42,43,47,48,49,50,54,64,67,68. That is, by making fun, they believe they can entertain their peers, build bonds, and obtain recognition that gives them social status 27,40,41,42,43,47,48,49,50,64,67,68. The scorekeeping is done by the bystanders, who approve the act by the number of “likes” or other devices that indicate approval of their posts on the networks 27,41,47,49,53,56. This strategy is easier to implement when the attacks are targeted to a person who already has a negative peer assessment, because bystanders are more likely to legitimize the aggression, and the victims lack strong interpersonal ties to defend them 26,49,54,56,65. Attackers also attempt to include, as bystanders, members of their own social group that support the aggression 47,49,50,52,64,65.

The second reason for cyberbullying that we identified is revenge 26,43,46,47,48,49,50,51,52,54,58,61,65,67. In this case, adolescents attack someone who has offended them in some way, especially in arguments 26,29,43,46,47,48,49,50,51,52,54,56,58,61,65,67. Among the situations that give rise to revenge, they comment that it is common for adolescents who have suffered cyberbullying and/or school bullying to attack back at their aggressors 43,47,49,50,52,54,65,67. They describe frequent victims of school bullying as odd, shy, and small 42,47,49,50,65,67. In offline spaces, these physical characteristics express inequalities of power that are not present in the online space 42,47,49,50,67,68. They thus understand that the ICTs empower these persons to respond to the perpetrators with attacks 47,49,50,67. When this happens, they feel that their behavior is justified, that is, it is legitimate for victims to act in self-defense with counterattacks 43,50. In this sense, the online space is seen as a tool that allows individuals that have been victims of attacks in the offline space to counterattack in the online space 47,49,50,67.

Adolescents as victims: experiences and reactions to attacks

For adolescents, cyberbullying is experienced as an attack that does not end with the act itself, because it persists in the online space and in the memory of the potential audience 29,40,42,43,44,48,51,52,54,58,63,65,68. In a space where image represents a medium for experiencing one's identity and values, practices aimed at disseminating photos and videos are perceived as more harmful than written or physical attacks 42,43,44,54,55,58,68. Thus, the mere presence of an audience aggravates the acts, because this kind of violence leaves a permanent stain on the individual's online identity 29,40,43,44,48,51,55,58,65. These conditions mean that the attack's possible repetition is secondary, and that the adolescents feel that a single act is sufficient to feel hurt and humiliated 49,54,58.

Victims feel powerless in the face of the aggression, because they cannot control the bystanders' participation, eliminate the audiovisual material to stop its spread 29,48,49,54,57,64, or escape the situation. That is, they cannot detain the posting of messages they receive 26,29,46,49,51,52,57,60,65. The discomfort is worse if the aggressors act anonymously, since they do not understand who is attacking them or why 26,29,40,43,48,49,54,65,67.

They often express anger towards their attackers over the humiliation and powerlessness by insults, spreading of rumors, or setting up specific webpages to expose them 29,43,47,49,50,52,54,57,58,65,67. Another way of reacting is to downplay the cyberbullying by depicting it as an ordinary practice or a joke that can happen to anyone that participates in this space 27,45,48,51,56,58,60,61. They explain that acting as if it has not affected them prevents spreading rumors about it, and shows that it was not something to keep private, that is, it was not the object of shame or hiding 45,61.

Despite their vulnerability, in the face of an attack, adolescents emphasize their wish to autonomously control the situation they are going through 41,43,44,45,52,54,56,58,60. This position is seen in their resistance to talk about their experiences with adults 26,29,43,44,45,52,54,56,57,58,60,61. They generally feel that adults fail to understand the online space, its values and practices, and their reactions cause new problems for them to deal with 26,29,43,44,45,52,54,56,57,62. On the one hand, they refer to the possibility of experiencing other processes of victimization, based on complaints by parents to the school officials. Adolescents view the school's conflict-resolution mechanisms as situations of exposure in which the victims feel they are on display 42,43,44,45,51,52,54,60,62,67. Thus, the attackers realize they were denounced and may carry out new acts of aggression and social canceling 42,43,52,54,60,62,68. The second scenario relates to adults' control of the adolescent's online sociability. When adults intervene, some of their decisions aim to limit access to the electronic devices and/or supervise social network behavior in order to avoid new attacks 29,43,44,45,52,54,58,59,60,62. However, the possibility of being left out of their online sociability is something adolescents wish to avoid, because it means socially isolating themselves 29,43,54,57. Therefore, they tend to only speak to adults if they feel they cannot handle the situation themselves and they fear for their safety 43,44,45,56,58,59,60,61,62. Otherwise, they prefer to seek backing and ask for advice from their peers or older siblings who understand the experiences because they are also part of the online space 29,40,43,44,45,53,54,57,58,59,60,61,62. Girls are more inclined than boys to request help. Boys are more reticent, including about talking with their peers, because it could be viewed as a sign of weakness. They feel they must appear strong, and one way of doing so is to manage the situation alone or to physically confront their attackers 26,27,43,49,52,54,65.

While adolescents that are attacked sustain their online sociability, they tend to modify the ways they use the technologies 27,41,43,49,51,52,55,56,57,60. They mainly reduce the personal exposure of information and photos 27,41,43,49,51,52,55,56,60, learning security techniques with their accounts, and are more cautious in their interactions 55,57,59.

Adolescents as bystanders and their motivations for participating

Adolescents report that in the presence of an act of aggression, their intervention as bystanders depends on contextual aspects such as their ties with the victims and attackers, the type of aggression, and the gender of those involved 28,42,44,45,52,62,68. One of the reasons for taking so many variables into account is that to defend the victim also means exposing themselves to reprisals by the initial perpetrator, or by others 26,28,42,43,44,52,56,62,68.

Before deciding to intervene, they mention the need to gather as much information as possible about the acts. The risk of accusing or defending based on a misinterpretation would be a justification for criticism from their peers 42,44,45,62,68. This is because they access scenes that are part of a process they are unfamiliar with, so what appear to be attacks may actually be jokes between friends 40,42,43,44,45,49,54,67,68, or they may not know if the protagonists were perpetrators or victims 42,43,50,52,68. When bystanders know the protagonists, it is simple for them to gather information, but when they do not, they prefer not to intervene 42,44,62,68.

They generally report acting in favor of the victims, when these are their friends 28,42,44,61,62,68. Even if they would prefer not to get involved for fear of being attacked themselves, they feel they have an obligation, since it affects them more to be socially castigated for not respecting the values of closeness than for being the target of attack 28,42,44,62,68. Since the peer groups tend to be those acting in favor, adolescents that do not belong to any group do not have peers to intervene in their defense or to contain the conflict, and are thus in a position of greater vulnerability 42,44,49,50,65,68. Nevertheless, some adolescents tend to act despite not having any ties. They do so motivated by a feeling of empathy, either because they have been victims themselves on previous occasions or because they see themselves with enough power to serve as references 28,42,44,52. The bystanders' social value thus comes into play 44,44,52. When they enjoy good social status, defined as “popular” or “strong”, they are expected to act in favor of their friends and are criticized if they decide not to do so 28,42. Meanwhile, bystanders that do not enjoy such status do not feel secure enough to intervene, for fear of also being attacked 28,42,43,44,52,54.

To avoid acts that would expose them to further processes of victimization, adolescents report that they would participate more in defense of the victims if they could do so anonymously 28,52,53. One strategy they consider is to approach the attackers and victims independently and in private, to avoid shaming or provoking them in public 42,52. They also consider the severity of the attack. They tend not to intervene when they interpret the event as a joke among friends 40,42,43,44,45,49,54,67. On the other hand, intervention is legitimized as the frequency or type of attack increases 28,42,44,58,62,67. Repetition of the act, physical threats, and the perception that the victims are unable to defend themselves motivates bystanders to intervene 42,44,62. Finally, bystanders take gender into account to determine their action. Adolescent girls are more inclined to express the emotions triggered by cyberbullying, and the attempt to defend themselves results from long and complex struggles to include other persons in the discussion, while boys are more reserved and downplay the attack's effects on their lives 44,45,56,60. Thus, female victims tend to try not to get involved or to do so through private messages 44.

Presentation of the synthesis: cyberbullying as an expression of online sociability

Goffman 32 states that persons in daily sociability behave like actors that play roles intended to meet certain expectations towards them. In their actions, they tend to appear as people expect them to, choosing certain personal attributes and hiding others that tend to discredit them. Thus, interaction always involves the representation of a façade of oneself adjusted to the social expectations related to each actor's position, identity, and intentions. We can say that social networks act as the façade where adolescents are constantly acting out themselves. The personal material posted on social networks is built for the audience comprising the online space and is made available for the audience to express what they think about it through clicks, sharing, and “likes”. Competition for recognition thus rages in the social networks, translated as symbolic and social capital for those who obtain it 69. For adolescents, the importance of gaining recognition is related to identity-building, whereby they can define who they are based on feedback from others on their posts, because “the self” is built as a product of this interaction 32.

According to their capital, adolescents occupy certain positions in their sociability and establish power relations permeated by expectations of mutual recognition. In this context, we view cyberbullying as one of the mechanisms by which adolescents organize, produce, and reproduce power positions attributed by recognition through acts of identification with and differentiation from their peers 34,35,37. Focusing on the various practices with which cyberbullying is carried out, we find that the characteristic permeating them is that the aim is to damage the target's image and social status. The intention is not merely to “do harm”; it is to harm identity by assigning a negative and critical value to aspects of the person's body, aesthetic production, personality, and behavior. In Goffman's 32 terms, we can say that the attack aims to discredit the façade displayed by other adolescents.

We identified, in the corpus, the motivations that trigger cyberbullying. The first involves the ways peer recognition comes into play, based on the built-up façades. As highlighted by Goffman 32, the audience believe in the role they are playing, but they also evaluate and judge whether it is adequate, based on their behavioral expectations. According to Butler 38, the body's engenderment lies in conventions that sanction and proscribe how each person performs their own body. Following Butler, we can say that cyberbullying also reflects the surveillance and judgment of gender acts. Through it, adolescents sanction the attributes and behaviors that transgress the ideals comprising their valuative repertoires 70. In pursuit of their identity, the ideals operate as their referential margins, as the point they hope to reach. They thus criticize aspects whose values they reject, with which they do not identify. Thus, the findings show that adolescents rationalize attacks targeted to these persons. In some cases, they hold the victims accountable for not behaving as they should, and in other cases, while they do not agree with the attack (that is, they do not think it is right, nor would they do it themselves), they do understand why it is happening.

The second motivation is revenge. That is, the attacks are used to resolve a prior conflict to sanction persons that threatened their expectations of recognition 36. When the adolescents' worth is placed in check, they seek to restore it via the aggression by discrediting another's image for an audience. According to Gimenez 34, individuals occupying dominated positions either accept the dominant definition of their identity or rebel to be able to challenge the value scale that puts them in a devalued position. In such cases, the online space offers them a medium to resist, because physical distance and anonymity protects them from continuing to be victimized and offers them the conditions to attempt to change positions in their recognition.

We observed that the motivations included the struggle for recognition, through a process of identification by opposition, by which I am what the other is not. As observed by Goffman 33, when a discrediting attribute is attached to a person - a stigma - the other's normality is also confirmed. Thus, in the act of aggression, adolescents establish an opposition and position themselves hierarchically vis-à-vis another person, invoking dominant discourses 34,37. If the aggression is legitimized by their peers, aggressors recover for themselves the value of defending the dominant valuative repertoires and thereby obtain or sustain social and symbolic capital. Meanwhile, the attacked persons lose this capital and are left in a position of inferiority and/or exclusion from the view of others 34. From this perspective, the aggression is not static, nor does it establish fixed positions. It should be viewed as a dynamic process with constant vying for peer recognition, affirmation of identity, and positions to occupy in sociability. Cyberbullying can thus feature alternating roles. Those in a position of inferiority in one scene may attempt to change their position in another 34.

Regarding bystanders, we found that when they support the attack, they assume that they are bearers of social standards that they defend and thus seek recognition for their position. However, when they do not support the attack, insofar as possible they prefer not to get involved, because it exposes them to attack as well. This happens when they confuse friendly kidding with an attack. If they intervene believing that it is an attack, the reaction by the attackers will not only be critical but will also highlight that they do not belong to the group that understands the meaning of the joke. That is, failure to understand is tantamount to not belonging, and for them this means disclosing their position in the configuration of relations. By intervening, they wage their social and symbolic capital, due both to reactions by the attackers and the attacked, and by the judgement of the audience, because their action is permanently recorded in online space. They thus report that they are more willing to participate privately, that is, making contact in person or via a private chat with the attackers and attacked. This allows them to intervene without compromising their capital in the eyes of their audience or their position in the framework of sociability.

Factors that call on them to intervene publicly are group belonging and the type of attack. Members of the attacked person's group are expected to come to their defense. If the help comes via private channels, the victims may feel supported by their close ties, although this does not eliminate the harm caused by the public exposure of material that attacks their identity. Thus, the attacked individuals wish their peers to intervene publicly to show the audience that they are backed by persons willing to defend them. If their peers fail to intervene, other bystanders may criticize them for failing to honor the duty required by the bond they have with the attacked person. Regarding the attack's severity, the adolescents' symbolic repertoires describe attacks with different degrees of tolerance. Some are taken for granted because of their frequency (usually insults) or are not considered sufficiently intolerable for them to wage their capital on some action. When they believe the attacks are intolerable according to their repertoires, they are more willing to intervene, even when the victim does not belong to their own group.

Victims of cyberbullying are exposed to situations of humiliation with an audience. If the audience legitimizes the aggression, the victim's self-image with which they expected to be valued is discredited and altered 32,33. The adolescents feel shame, sadness, insecurity, depression, and social isolation due to this victimization. Damage to the persons' value has implications for their ways of forging bonds, by altering their self-esteem and their perception of other people´s expectations towards them 32,33. Thus, cyberbullying modifies their social position in the configuration of peer relations. Since the attack persists, recorded in the online space, they feel that the damage is permanent. The attack can be inscribed as a stigma, because when they meet new persons, the adolescents fear that they may have seen (or may see in the future) the material that tarnishes their image 33. Goffman 32 emphasizes that individuals do not present themselves the same way in all social groups, because they have different expectations of behavior. The attack's persistence prevents individuals from making use of this segmentation and control of the impressions, so they lose autonomy and security in their social interaction. The attack becomes a stigma, forcing them to control the presentation of their personal attributes, on grounds that others may identify them as discreditable 33.

Once their social recognition is damaged, adolescents may seek to repair it using various alternatives (not necessarily mutually exclusive) 36. They may seek support and backing (recognition) in their group of belonging, they may ignore the attack and pretend that their dignity was not harmed (for example, taking it as ordinary kidding), or they may respond to their attackers and seek recognition from their peers to sanction the aggressive behavior.

While victims may decrease their participation in social networks, they do not avoid them entirely. This suggests the importance of online space in their sociability. They may refrain from posting information to avoid exposing themselves to attacks, but they continue to watch what happens, while participating more cautiously. Their desire to stay online relates to the importance of feeling that they belong to groups. They thus prefer to seek backing from their peer groups. Adolescent girls are more inclined than their male counterparts to seek help. Boys tend more to withstand the aggression or respond with physical counterattacks. This attitude is related to stereotypical masculinity, which requires one to display strength and courage 35.

Conceiving cyberbullying as a unique expression of online sociability aims to acknowledge identity-building processes through the recognition provided by persons with whom one interacts and the competition for such recognition and configuration of power relations among adolescents.

Final remarks

A meta-ethnography is complete when it succeeds in identifying a synthesis in a set of texts, the meaning of which both contains and transcends them 30. The current meta-ethnography allowed summarizing the findings from 33 studies that complement and reinforce each other, building a line of argument that provides a more complete view of cyberbullying through the three most common roles played by its protagonists. The results are significant for the field of collective health, providing theoretical elements for understanding this violence among adolescents, to discuss and design public policies to deal with it, and to generate new questions for more in-depth study of cyberbullying.

The results show that the common characteristic in the expressions of cyberbullying is the intent to attack the victims' social value. To analyze it, we addressed identity-building as a constant process stemming from the recognition awarded by others. In this framework, we contend that cyberbullying is exercised as an identity-building mechanism, based on processes of peer identification and opposition. That is, by discrediting a person due to an attribute of their personality, aesthetic production, behavior, and sexuality, the aggressor marks a difference and displays identification with the opposite attributes (in relation to the target). Second, we found that in this process, cyberbullying both reproduces and competes for positions of recognition; discrediting a person in the eyes of an audience and affecting the sources of social value that sustain this position. Third, cyberbullying is a punitive practice against transgressions of a dominant socio-symbolic order, because it sanctions and legitimizes specific forms of being and acting. Based on the above, we contend that cyberbullying is not a new violence, but a new expression of types of violence already rooted in processes of identification, power, and gender.

The proposal to analyze cyberbullying via symbolic interactionism and disputes for recognition is an innovative alternative in the field of study. Most of the studies provide explanations based on the construction of epidemiological profiles and predictive models of behavior, based on theories such as general stress, moral disengagement, planned behavior, and bystander effect 5,14,16,18,19. These perspectives tend to individualize and medicalize the causes of cyberbullying and assign a central role to the online space (especially anonymity) as a determinant factor, rather than identifying how adolescents make use of the online space and how cyberbullying intertwines in their sociability.

Consistent with these predominant explanations, current policies to prevent cyberbullying mostly involve lectures on the “risks” of internet exposure, recommendations for the protection of personal data, and strong encouragement for parental supervision of their children's online sociability 24,25,71,72. However, these preventive measures appear insufficient or scarcely adequate. Partly, because we find that adolescents try to hide their experiences with cyberbullying to avoid being controlled or prevented from online sociability, so that adults' participation should be based on the understanding of the role of online space in their lives rather than based on sanctions or restrictions. Besides, adolescents are apparently not ignorant of the risks or the means to protect themselves; rather, the aggressions are learned and rooted in their sociability through the search for recognition and relations of peer identification and opposition. Therefore, to provide information on risks and consequences for health, to increase parental supervision, and to reduce adolescents´ participation are insufficient recommendations for addressing the core problem. Rather, we contend that public policies should focus on ways to produce recognition among adolescents other than via differences and competition with their peers by discrediting one another's identity. We thus highlight the need to design policies incorporating the perspective of the intended target population.

Finally, the meta-ethnography allowed identifying cross-sectional patterns in cyberbullying and pools of knowledge on this aggression. While we identified gender differences in the articles' findings on practices and discourses of boys and girls, none of the studies took the gender perspective as the methodological and analytical construction. Future research could focus on how cyberbullying is constructed and expressed in ways of producing gender identities, performing case studies with a view towards all the persons involved to reconstruct the process of aggression, and analyzing how the characteristics of online sociability enable and legitimize this violence.


The authors wish to thank the Institute of Collective Health of Nacional University of Lanus, the Argentine National Council for Scientific and Technological Research (CONICET), and the Latin-American Center for Studies on Violence and Health of Oswaldo Cruz Foundation (Fiocruz) for supporting this study.


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