Cyberbullying and the dark tetrad: advice for adults

Understanding the problem

If you’ve spent time online engaging with others through instant messages, gaming, or social media you’re likely to have seen or even been the target of online aggressors. It’s an ubiquitous and unpleasant part of the online landscape. The bulk of research literature on cyberbullying focuses on children and teens.  There’s no comprehensive accounting for how many adults have experienced

aggression or mistreatment online. A relatively large (N = 20,849) study of cyberbullying in adults in New Zealand found that about 15% of adults had experienced cyberbullying in their lifetime.

It’s important to understand that these study statistics may not be generalizable to all people or situations, but they are interesting. They are good starting points for a general understanding of the problem and for insight into much needed future research:

  1. Rates of cyberbullying vary by country. Americans report high rates of cyberbullying—over 30% of students in the US report having experienced it. Countries with high internet use will have higher rates than those with lower rates of internet use. There can be variance in different demographic groups for the same reason.
  2. Women report higher rates than men. Additionally, men are more likely to experience cyberbullying in online gaming environments where women experience it more in messaging and social media environments.
  3. Younger people experience higher rates than older people. Young people spend more time in online environments than those over the age of 65. This may change with time as internet use becomes even more common than it already is. Over 40% of young adult respondents have experienced cyberbullying.

The prevalence is probably even higher than what is shown in studies. The social isolation that people experienced during the last two years of the COVID-19 pandemic may have driven more people into online arenas where cyberbullying happens. Also, many adults have no opportunity or avenue (such as a survey response) to report their experiences. Young people may be hesitant to report their experiences for fear of punishment or losing access to devices. And any number of different devices, technologies, and applications can connect us to online social arenas: smartphones, computers, gaming systems, smart TVs, tablets, etc. There’s an almost endless list of ways we can stumble into an online aggressor.

Cyberbullying in detail

Cyberbullying is “any behavior performed through electronic or digital media by individuals or groups that repeatedly communicates hostile or aggressive messages intended to inflict harm or discomfort on others” (Tokunga, 2010).

Cyberbullying is different than traditional bullying in many ways:

  1. Cyberbullying is insidious–it can reach you in the safety of your own home. If you go online, this kind of bullying can find you. It doesn’t just stay in the school yard or the workplace. And it can happen around the clock and for long durations.
  2. Large swathes of people can witness it. The aggression can be witnessed by a huge audience—potentially millions. An embarrassing and hurtful episode can transcend geographical boundaries and go viral across the globe. Messages can be endlessly reproduced and reposted. And once something is on the internet, it can’t be taken back.
  3. You may not know the identity of the aggressor. The degree of anonymity the aggressor has makes it easier to do more harm.
  4. There’s often little recourse. There’s little in-real-life feedback (like non-verbal communication from body postures) for the aggressor to cue into an empathic response. You’re not in the same physical environment, so the attack cannot be physically stopped. Online witnesses may not help–they may even join in.

Cyberbullying can impact the mental health of victims. Distressing feelings, sadness, anger, frustration, confusion, and general distress are common. Depression, anxiety, and even suicidality can result in extreme cases.

What is the dark tetrad?

The dark tetrad are characterological traits that are associated with problematic, aggressive, or antisocial behaviors people may exhibit in online arenas.

  1. Machiavellianism is a desire to manipulate others for personal gain, often through deceit.
  2. Psychopathy occurs when people are impulsive, callous, and limited in their ability to feel empathy or remorse.
  3. Narcissism is an overblown sense of self-importance, superiority, or entitlement often coupled with a need for power.
  4. Sadism occurs when people take pleasure in the suffering of others.

Men tend to exhibit more dark traits than women and are more often perpetrators of cyberbullying than women. Although all of these traits are associated with cyberbullying, Machiavellianism and psychopathy are especially strongly correlated.

There are batteries of checklists and tools to help identify these traits in research literature, but these tools don’t help us in real time when we’ve got an online aggressor targeting us.

What adults can do about it

It’s important to understand the motivations of cyberbullies—they do it for the LULZ. Cyberbullies want to get a reaction from you, they might have a limited ability to empathize with your pain, and they might even get something out of hurting you. Knowing this, my primary advice is don’t feed the trolls.

The general recommendations for countering bullying in real life comes from decades of research on assertive communication. Most of this literature is intended for use in a school yard and is not actually too helpful for adults experiencing online aggression.  This body of literature says you should:

  1. Strengthen the target.
  2. Become less vulnerable and less interesting to your attacker.
  3. Deflect attacks by ignoring, repeating, using self-deprecation, or “fogging” the attacker.

Fogging “involves openly acknowledging that the bully may actually believe the negative things he or she is saying and refusing to be disturbed or intimidated.”

A great analogy for these recommendations is known as the Grey Rock Method. With this method, you try not to engage or you engage with the bully as little as possible. You become as boring and unmovable as a grey rock. With the fogging technique you say a few words only, like “that’s interesting,” or “you could be right,” or “I believe you think I’m [whatever it is the bully thinks].” You then limit contact to the extent possible.

The problem with this literature is that the bulk of it was developed before the advent of the internet. Knowing that your online responses could be captured and reposted endlessly may make these recommendations less useful. Immediately blocking your attacker and not engaging at all might be the best advice. also recommends that you:

  1. Do not post provocative, scandalous, or inflammatory remarks online.
  2. Do not reply to or retaliate against incidents of cyberbullying.
  3. Regularly change passwords to sites and applications, and immediately delete profiles that have been hacked.
  4. Avoid sites, networks, and applications that have poor security, provide easy access to personal information, or encourage interactions among strangers.
  5. Ensure that information is approved before it is posted or shared socially.
  6. Limit involvement in social networking to a few familiar sites.
  7. Avoid joining sites that do not have adequate privacy settings.

It’s important to report online abuse to authorities if they occur in the context of a school or work setting. Also, report all credible threats of violence to law enforcement. Call the local police if you think you’re in danger or if you need a restraining order.

Report offensive posts and accounts to the social media platforms they’re happening on.

There are some useful blocking tools you can take advantage of as well. Megablock will mute a  twitter post for you and block its author and everyone who likes that tweet in one fell swoop.

Does the Grey Rock Method work in real life?

It definitely helps, but it’s probably most useful in diffusing verbal attacks.

Anecdotally, I have worked with suspected psychopaths in locked settings before. Being calm, boring, and “Grey Rocking” was critical in my interactions with these folks. It’s important to understand that psychopaths are not at all like their Hollywood portrayals. They’re generally not very smart, believe it or not. They lie very fluidly–so fluidly they’ll contradict themselves egregiously within the span of a single conversation. They’re also very impulsive, so situational awareness matters a lot. I was sure not to have pens in my pocket or any object that could be used as a weapon on or near my person. I was never alone when interacting. I stayed calm even when verbally targeted, I maintained a bland facial expression, and I spoke softly. I did not make extended eye contact and I limited my time in that arena.

Here’s a youtube video discussing the work of Dr. Robert Hare, a seminal author on psychopathy.

Having insight into the dark tetrad probably isn’t that useful in helping folks identify attackers before they strike. Understanding motivations driving a person to want to hurt others is useful, but often in hindsight. You don’t know these traits are there until that person has already hurt someone. Knowing about the dark tetrad helps in that if some traits are present, you might be able to expect some of the other traits to be there as well. Having some dark traits is not diagnostic–it doesn’t mean someone would check off all the boxes of Hare’s Psychopathy Checklist. I also don’t think you can rely on the Grey Rock Method alone to fully protect yourself from someone who really wants to hurt you. Using this method in a locked setting where multiple health care workers are together for safety is very different than facing a physical attacker out in the community. The Grey Rock Method is definitely helpful for verbal attacks, for which assertive communication is mostly tailored.

Dark tetrad traits are also frequently seen in those with antisocial personality disorder. If you’d like to learn more about antisocial personality disorder, see: Antisocial Personality Disorder: Symptoms, Causes and Treatment.