Toward a Theoretical Framework for Cyberbullying: (The Impact of Power Imbalance, Neutralization and Communication Medium)




Aivazpour, Zahra

Journal Title

Journal ISSN

Volume Title



As Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) become a part of people’s daily routines, cybercrime and online deviant behaviors are also increasing. Cyberbullying, which is defined by some sources as a systematic abuse of power using willful and repeated harm inflicted through ICTs, is one of the deviant behaviors that is of high concern. Reports show that cyberbullying is prevalent among teenagers as well as adults. In multiple cases, cyberbullying has lead victims to feel suicidal, or even commit suicide.

The main objective of this research is to develop a theoretical framework to explain why individuals engage in cyberbullying via theory and constructs not studied before. To this end, we identified three components of cyberbullying: power differential, prevalence and ICT usage. We adopted neutralization theory along with control balance theory as our theoretical lens. Control balance theory was employed to explain power differential between bullies and victims on social media. Neutralization techniques enhance our understanding of cyberbullying prevalence on the Internet. Further we discuss how social media features impact cyberbullying. We also examine the impact of social dominance orientation, as a personality characteristics on cyberbullying intention. Last, we argue bystanders can play a significant role in quelling cyberbullying. In order to estimate the model, we use a vignette-based experimental design. Five scenarios are adapted from past literature representing five common cyberbullying themes (verbal aggression, fat-shaming, slut-shaming, revenge porn and gay-shaming). We collected 512 data in total via MTurk. Our results show that control deficit and social dominance orientation increase cyberbullying intention, whereas control surplus has a negative impact on cyberbullying. Anonymity amplifies the impact of neutralization, social dominance and control deficit, as we hypothesized. Finally, outsider bystanders were found to increase cyberbullying intention.

The expected contributions of this research work are as follows: first, we develop a theoretical framework to explain why individuals bully on social media. Our theoretical framework examines three neutralization techniques: claim of relative acceptability, justification by comparison and justification by postponement to predict cyberbullying. To the best of our knowledge these techniques have never been examined in IS literature and in particular in cyberbullying context. Further, there is little research on the role of bystanders in cyberbullying literature. We develop measurement items to investigate the role of assistant, defender and outsider bystanders reactions to cyberbullying. In this research work, we also discuss how the moderating effect of anonymity can amplify justification and sense of control. Second, we argue the virtual world distances the perpetrators from victims, making it easier to ignore the feelings of the victims, or justify the bullying act.

Considering practical outcomes, this study can provide insights for social media application development. For example, media features that encourage bystanders to intervene would prevent cyberbullying to escalate. We also posit that the social media applications that enhance social presence can thwart cyberbullying.


This item is available only to currently enrolled UTSA students, faculty or staff. To download, navigate to Log In in the top right-hand corner of this screen, then select Log in with my UTSA ID.


Anonymity, Control Balance Theory, Cyberbullying, Neutralization, Social Dominance, Social Media



Information Systems and Cyber Security