Why Do People Bully Online? A Qualitative Inquiry of Household Dysfunction among Cyberbullies

The current study was conducted to explore how household dysfunction affects cyberbullying behavior, building on the findings of past studies. It followed a qualitative exploratory design and a purposive sampling technique. Six participants (4 men and 2 women) with ages ranging from 18-24 years were approached using Facebook comments and screened using the Cyberbullying Scale (Husna, 2020) with a Semantic Differential Scaling Model. Data were collected using the semi-structured interview technique. The two main research questions mapped out the study, including what causes cyberbullying behavior among people and how household dysfunction leads to cyberbullying. Data were transcribed, and codes were assigned by following the guidelines of the instrument’s coding manual (Saldana, 2015). Themes were reviewed using the reflexive thematic analysis (Braun & Clarke, 2019). The final themes included parental disengagement, dysfunctional family dynamics, and invalidation. The findings suggest that children’s opinions are either silenced or disregarded in their homes, their accomplishments are downplayed, their competence is questioned, there is a lack of parental responsiveness to their needs, and children are singled out for unjustified blame. 

Keywords. Household Dysfunction, Cyber-Bullying, Invalidation, Chaotic Family Dynamics, Parental Disengagement

Cyberbullying is a behavior that people use to intimidate someone online or use dehumanizing language against someone. Over the years, children have acquired a tendency toward the internet and mobile phones (Lenhart et al. 2011). These tools send defaming and calumniating content to a third party (Kowalski & Limber 2007). 

Although cyberbullying is still a relatively new field of research, cyberbullying among adults is considered to be a serious public health issue. To deal with it, the major causes of it should be identified specifically the role of family dynamics on cyberbullies (Raskauskas, 2015 & Bradshaw, 2017). The social learning theory of aggression by Bandura (1978) is followed in this research. The social learning theory of aggression explains how aggressive patterns develop, what provokes people to behave aggressively, and what sustains such actions after they have been initiated.

Previous studies have emphasized family factors' impact on cyberbullying (Charalampous et al., 2018; Yang et al., 2018). A dysfunctional family is a cause of cyberbullying. In a dysfunctional family, conflict, misbehavior, and often child neglect or abuse by a parent occur continuously and regularly, leading other members to accommodate such actions. Also, higher family dysfunction and poor peer relations were associated with a higher risk of indirect cyberbullying victimization (Hong et al., 2021). Family variables play a key role in cyberbullying perpetration and victimization (Lopez et al., 2019). Studies have shown that childhood psychological abuse is an important predictor of cyberbullying perpetration among college students (Jin et al., 2017a). Adverse childhood Experiences (ACEs) have lasting effects on physical and mental health in youth and include experiences of abuse, neglect, and household dysfunction that led to cyberbullying (Deven et al., 2022). Young adults with higher levels of trait anger tend to experience anger, which may set the conditions for cognitive distortions conducive to justifying cyberbullying and enhancing their moral disengagement (Wang et al., 2017).

Internet frequency was also found to significantly predict cyber-victimization and cyberbullying, showing that as the time spent on the Internet increases, so do the chances to bully someone (Balakrishnan, 2015). 

Some studies suggest that aggressive parental communication is related to severe cyberbullying victims, while open communication is a potential protective factor (Larranaga et al., 2016). Parental neglect, parental abuse, parental inconsistency in the supervision of adolescents' online behavior, and family dysfunction are related to the direct or indirect harm of cyberbullying (Hong et al., 2018, Katz et al., 2019). Results reveal that adolescents who their parents neglect are more likely to engage in cyberbullying perpetration (Wang et al., 2022). In addition to this, previous research has also focused on studying the connection between the family context and involvement in bullying or cyberbullying, and this idea has been linked to the parenting styles of the parents. The research seems to point out where the problem may be originating from, but it is still rather imprecise (Nocentini et al. 2018).

The present study aimed to extend prior contributions and provide a comprehensive review of cyberbullying, focusing on the household environment correlating cyberbullying. 

Research Questions

What causes cyberbullying behavior among people?

How household dysfunction leads to cyberbullying?


Study Design

The present research followed an interpretive qualitative research design as it tended to focus on meanings from participants ‘perspectives (Bevir & Kedar, 2008). It was designed to rely heavily on qualitative data. This study hoped to extract themes from the indigenous data. Moreover, open-ended questions were posed to access and extract in-depth insight into the phenomena under research.

Sampling and Procedure

A protocol was developed on how to access the participants. The entire steps in accessing participants were followed correspondingly. Few posts on Facebook were scrutinized. Different comments on Facebook that reflected bullying behavior were highlighted; thus, participants were reached through Facebook. After this, they were screened using the Cyberbullying Scale. The Cyberbullying Scale was used with a Semantic Differential Scaling Model. Based on the results of the study (Husna et al., 2020), it can be recapitulated that the Cyberbullying Scale is valid and dependable. A cutoff score of 35 on the measure indicates cyberbullying behavior. 

Participants scoring 35 or above on the Cyberbullying Scale were recruited for the present study. 10 participants were screened; consequently, 6 participants (4 men and 2 women) proceeded with screening and were selected for ages ranging from 18 to 24 years. They were selected voluntarily on their interests to unbosomer their thoughts about cyberbullying. Moreover, participants who didn’t lie between the ages of 18 to 34 years were excluded because the study aimed to seek the phenomena among young adults.

Semi-structured interview technique was used as a data collection method. Questions were asked of the respondents within a predetermined thematic framework. Rubin and Rubin's (1995, 2005) interview guide was followed on how to avoid pitfalls while interviewing.

Information was conveyed to the respondents on how information gained from them will be used. Interviews began with easy questions followed by tough and tricky questions. Interviews were ended with a thank you for acknowledging the respondents 

All the willing participants were informed about the selection process and the research purpose. Individuals who were familiar with the experience and were able to maturely communicate their feelings were recruited. Rapport was built between the participants to ensure the quality and authenticity of the research output. To ensure voluntary participation, consent forms were supplied a day before the semi-structured interview session. They were informed about the time and duration of the discussion. Semi-structured interviews were preceded by the following steps: 

Succinct interview questions were designed by setting goals on what to achieve from such an interview. 

Keeping given selection bias, participants were assembled. 

Phone calls as a medium to conduct the interview were chosen. 

While conducting the interview, the environmental conditions were kept constant; the tone of voice was moderated to avoid any bias. Data were collected till the point of saturation. 

This research included six interview sessions ranging from 20 to 30 minutes to obtain productive and comprehensive data. Sessions were conducted from 12:30 PM to 1:30 PM over the phone. Recruited participants were briefed about the nature and scope of the discussion. All responses were audiotaped, and consent forms were provided to all the participants. Before formally starting data collection, they were briefed about the purpose of the research.

Ethical considerations

All the ethics mentioned in the research protocol were followed. Participants were informed about the purpose of conducting interviews, activities involved, risks, and benefits. The anonymity and confidentiality of participants were supported. Informed consent from respondents was taken to record their audios.

Transcription and Analysis

The obtained data were transcribed by consulting the transcription manual (Dresing & Pehl, 2015). The audio recordings were carefully transcribed in written form. Data were coded by consulting the coding manual for qualitative researchers (Saldana, 2013) and were analyzed by consulting reflexive thematic analysis (Braun & Clarke, 2012).

Data Analysis Strategy

Transcribed data were analyzed and coded by consulting the respective manuals for guidelines. Data was reread to become familiar with what the data entails; then the initial codes were formed. The coding process is rarely completed from one sweep through the data. Codes were refined by adding, subtracting, combining, or splitting content. Data were collapsed into labels to create categories for more efficient analysis. Inferences were made about what the codes meant. Codes were then combined into overarching themes that accurately depicted the data.

Themes were named, and after reviewing the themes and subsequently, the final report was produced. 

The themes were merged from the thematic analysis applied to the verbatim transcription of participants.

Theme 1: Invalidation

Invalidation comes when kids' opinions are either suppressed or dismissed and when parents depreciate their children's achievements, making them feel worthless. Children's competence is doubted, and this doubt leads them to suffocate and pass their aggression in many other ways; these kids are often prey to self-doubt. Doubt is an unpleasant experience, and that unpleasant state could be removed by adding meaning to it. The sense of doubt leads to feelings of helplessness (Thompson et al., 2001).

“I worked hard to achieve the first position in my university final exams, but when I shared this exciting news with my parents, they said, it’s not hard to gain the first position in your university.”

“I am good at decision making but my family believes that I make worse decisions”. Repeatedly, respondents reported that they were facing invalidation that indicated self-doubt. 

Theme 2: Chaotic Family Dynamics

Parents use a restrictive parenting style that demands compliance with verbal intimidation, and scapegoating was practiced for unmerited blame. Dysfunctional, conflictual family relationships increase social adjustment problems during adolescence, which contributes to the odds of engagement in cyberbullying perpetration (Buelga et al., 2017). In sum, the growing body of studies investigating the role of dynamic family variables has found evidence that family communication and family cohesion are deeply associated with adolescents’ cyberbullying behavior.

A recent narrative review of primary studies about parenting and bullying showed that family contextual factors (e.g., parental mental health and domestic violence) and family relational factors (e.g., child abuse, maladaptive parenting, and communication) were related to more bullying (Novenine et al., 2019).

“My father is a drug addict; we lack basic communication and are often criticized without any particular reason.”

“Yes, I suffered from verbal abuse and hate from my paternal side when I decided to live with my mother after my parent’s separation.”

Responses of respondents showed that they suffered from chaotic family dynamics.

Theme 3: Parental Disengagement

Parents show a lack of responsiveness to a child’s needs. Children receive neglect and little guidance from parents. Parenting is crucial in children’s social, emotional, and moral development. According to Bandura (1991), parents teach moral standards to their children by guiding their behavior and explaining the standards of conduct that are considered right. Hoffman (2000) proposed that a so-called inductive discipline, which consists of reasoning about morally desirable and undesirable behaviors, is often used to teach parental moral values.

Although some studies found that maladaptive parenting is related to moral disengagement in children (Hyde et al., 2010), there is a relationship between parental induction of moral disengagement, moral emotions, and moral disengagement in children, bullying, and cyberbullying.

“Because both of my parents were busy, they pay truly little attention to my daily activities."1 of the respondent was involved in cyberbullying, and responses show that he had affected childhood because of parental disengagement.


While research on cyberbullying perpetration among college students has grown during the last decade (Jenaro et al., 2017), cyberbullying attitudes have remained a relatively unexplored field. Therefore, the limited number of studies on cyberbullying perpetration attitudes is generally exploratory (Wong et al., 2017). The findings of this study suggest that parents who don't let their children express their opinions lead to cyberbullying behavior among them. Children derive their self-worth from the support given by their parents. But if parents depreciate the achievements and efforts and belittle the experiences of children can have worse ramifications on them. Thus, they show their inhibited aggression by intimidating someone and posting derogatory comments online. This finding corresponds to one of the previous studies.

Childhood psychological abuse refers to the continuous and repeated adoption of a series of inappropriate behaviors by adults, including the five types of behaviors, namely, terrorizing, ignoring, belittling, intermeddling, and corrupting, which causes tremendous damage to children’s cognitive, emotional, and behavioral development (Pan et al., 2010). It was also found that when parents doubt the competence of their children, they, in turn, cover their hidden negative feelings by doubting themselves. Consequently, they use dehumanizing language against someone on social media. Scapegoating is also found as a form of verbal abuse. Parents distinguish children for not adequately earning blame.

Children threaten others online because of neglectful parenting, lack of affection, and lack of responsiveness toward their needs from parents. All these points are found to the powerful predictors of cyberbullying attitudes among children. The present research aimed to determine household dysfunction's effects on cyber bullies. As cyberbullies were approached through Facebook, they can give socially acceptable statements about not being judged as

"cyberbullies". This is the limitation of the study. Despite this limitation, the finding of this research is novel yet unique.


If parents do not respond well to children's needs, depreciate their achievements, supply little support and scapegoat, this leads to cyberbullying behavior among children. More research on cyberbullying is needed, especially in family dynamics. International cooperation and multi-pronged and systematic approaches are highly encouraged to deal with cyberbullying. Further research should involve large groups to explore the potential causes of cyberbullying.


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