Many of us probably recall the days of playground scuffles—the pushing, shoving and name-calling. It was never fun to be on the receiving end of such aggression.

Social scientists have long documented the negative impacts of bullying behavior and how it victimizes young children and adolescents. Recently, a team of Iowa State University researchers took these studies a step further to determine if bullying behavior and victimization continue into young adulthood, and what personality traits both aggressors and victims possess. And, understanding that cyberbullying is an unfortunate reality in today’s technologically savvy society, the team also looked at whether college-age students are more likely to be victims or perpetrators of cyberbullying.

The Study

Monica Marsee, associate professor of psychology; Nicole Hayes, psychology graduate student; and Daniel Russell, professor of human development and family studies, published the study, “Latent Profile Analysis of Traditional and Cyber-Aggression and Victimization: Associations with Dark Triad Traits and Psychopathology Symptoms,” in the Journal of Psychopathology and Behavioral Assessment in September 2020.

Marsee, who mentored Hayes as the study’s lead investigator, has conducted research about bullying behaviors in children and teens throughout her academic career. For this study, she wondered whether aggressive and bullying behavior transcended from youth into adulthood, and whether individuals who engage in cyberbullying have similar psychopathology characteristics as those who engage in or are victims of traditional aggression.

“We wanted to see if we could extend some of the findings that were relevant to younger samples of teens into this age group,” Marsee said. “Particularly, we were interested in whether people are still bullying or being bullied in college, and if it is associated with mental health issues.”

Secondly, Marsee and the team wondered if individuals who engage in cyberbullying have similar personality traits to those who are traditional aggressors.

“Personality traits can be predictors of who’s going to engage in aggression, or who is going to be victimized by these types,” she said. “I was curious whether or not we could identify groups of people based on the types of bullying and victimization they experienced—traditional vs. cyber—and see whether or not they looked similar.”

The Methodology

The researchers asked 540 college-age students to complete an online, self-reporting questionnaire. The students were asked to reveal their bullying behaviors and experiences, if any, as well as their personality traits. The questions were based on numerous published psychological surveys.

“The survey asked them about themselves and also what they may have done to other people. Then we used their responses to statistically aggregate them into groups based upon how similar they were,” Marsee said.

The Findings

After analyzing the results, Marsee and the research team divided the students into four categories:

  • Non-involved (do not engage in any aggressive behavior nor are they victimized), 80.7%
  • Traditional aggression, victim only (do not engage in any aggressive behavior toward others, but they are victimized), 10.3%
  • Traditional aggressor and victim (engage in aggressive behavior toward others and they also are victimized), 4.8%
  • Combined aggressor and victim (engage in both traditional and cyber aggression and are also victimized), 4.1%

In addition, Marsee’s research team discovered that each group of students showed varying degrees of maladaptive personality characteristics, such as narcissism, psychopathy and callous-unemotional traits, which could help counselors and clinicians better assess a young adult’s mental health.

“A lot of research on bullying shows that if you are a bully and a victim, you are at higher risk for depression and anxiety, and that you may have personality traits that are indicative of future problems,” Marsee said. “We wanted to see whether these groups naturally form using these statistical methods. So, if you have someone going to a counselor saying, ‘I’m experiencing this type of victimization frequently,’ it may give a clinician more information to gather insight into why this might be happening.”

The findings of this paper are similar to others that have focused on teens and children, but a few facets of the study jumped out at Marsee.

“I was surprised that we didn’t find a group of people who only engaged in cyber behaviors, or who were only victimized by cyber behaviors,” Marsee said. “It was surprising to me that everyone who reported any kind of cyber problems also reported face-to-face bullying and victimization.”

Marsee and her research team also expected to find a group of students who only engaged in aggressive behavior, whether it be traditional or cyber. Surprisingly, this did not come to pass. Students who reported higher levels of aggressive behavior also admitted to high levels of victimization.

Online Awareness

Of the students in Marsee’s sample, 19% reported being victimized by physical, relational and/or cyber-aggression, suggesting that college-age students continue to struggle with peer aggression as they enter young adulthood. The research team also concluded that college students who experience cyber-aggression or cyber-victimization in addition to traditional forms also report higher instances of depression, anxiety and other emotional issues.

In the future, Marsee would like clinicians and counselors to ask students how much time they spend online.

“Just as a broad stroke, I would hope that if college students are coming into counseling and reporting that they have depression, anxiety or they are experiencing interpersonal problems, that clinicians would delve more into what is happening to them online,” Marsee said. “A clinician could ask how much time are you spending online, what are you doing and how is that affecting your mental health?”

Marsee encourages anyone who works with college students—from professors to academic advisors to counselors—to consider whether cyberbulling may be impacting their well-being.

“Think about the potential pervasive nature of cyberbullying and the fact that it can keep spreading in perpetuity and, essentially, never be erased,” Marsee said. “It feels bigger than it actually is to some victims. Everything that happens online almost takes on more importance to the victims than what happens in real life.”