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Study: Cyberbullies attack women over sex, men over intelligence… and both in public

TACOMA — A new study shows cyberbullies don’t shy away from the public spotlight, and they often attack people they know.

The study, authored by assistant professor Nicholas Brody at the University of Puget Sound,  also shows women are more likely to be bullied about their sexual activity than men. Men are often bullied about their intelligence or their sporting prowess.

“Cyberbullying: Topics, strategies, and sex differences”  examined what cyberbullying on social sites “actually looks like, ” Brody said.

"There are many studies on the effects of cyberbullying," Brody said. "But we knew less about what strategies bullies are using in online environments and what the topics tended to focus on."

Over 400 participants recalled bullying incidents that occurred on social media. Quickly, the numbers showed that most  online harassment -- over a third -- comes from friends or former romantic partners; not from strangers.

"Essentially we see what our participants described as is 'drama' between friends or romantic partners," Brody said.

Often times, Brody said, bullying starts when teasing moves from the off-line world and personal interactions to the online world, where threats and harassment are grow more serous.

Strangers bullying strangers does still occur, but it's found a lot less.

Brody found that bullies don't often hide their actions. They post hurtful messages in public forums for everyone to see, not privately with direct messages.

"For the most part, many of the incidents were public," Brody said.

The public bullying is troublesome because it is more likely to threaten a victims' self-image than private messages.

The study found a variety of factors influence whether or not a bystander will intervene. If a witness feels connected and has a strong relationship with the victim, they jump in. The more anonymous the relationship between a witness and a victim, the more likely it is to go on without intervention.

"The relationship we have with the victim is often a stronger driver of our behavior than the severity of the incident, or how mean it is," Brody said.

Cyberbulling is often seen as a pattern of repeated incidents that happens over time, Brody said. But certain single instances -- such as Thursday when President Donald Trump tweeted about news anchors -- can constitute harassment.

"One single threatening message can have repeated effects," Brody said.

Brody said the study can help educators and friends of victims recognize what cyberbullying is, and know when to stop it.