Sticks and Stones May Break My Bones….and Words Can Hurt Me Too


Authored By: Angelica Aguirre, PhD, BCBA-D

Minnesota State University, Mankato

Image by Soumil Kumar on Pexels

The old children’s rhyme “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me” was used as early as 1862 to refrain people from engaging in verbal bullying (Martin, 2020). Since technology is now more accessible in homes, work, and schools, this phrase seems to have lost its meaning. While access to technology provides an easier way for individuals to socialize (Kowalski et al. 2014), the internet also makes it easier for individuals to engage in aggression towards others (also known as cyberbullying). Although cyberbullying can occur in a number of different forms and settings (e.g., internet, phones, video consoles), cyberbullying is generally defined as “aggression that is intentionally and repeatedly carried out in an electronic context (e.g., e-mail, blogs, instant messages, text messages) against a person who cannot easily defend themselves” (Kowalski et al. 2014, p.1073).

What Does the Data Say About Cyberbullying?

Most cyberbullying research to date has been focused on youth. According to a meta-analysis on cyberbullying, the prevalence of cyberbullying victimization ranges between 10-40%. Recently, the National Center for Education Statistics (2019) reported cyberbullying was the highest among middle school students (33%), followed by high school students (30%). Adolescents that have experienced cyberbullying reported problems such as poor school attendance and academic achievement, low self-esteem, anxiety, social issues, depression, aggression, self-harm, and suicidal ideations (see Bradbury et al, 2018; Gardella et al., 2017). In addition, those that engage in bullying behavior have also been shown to have poor academic achievement, conduct issues, hyperactivity, and lack empathy (Arseneault & Shakoor, 2010; Gini, 2008).

Unique Issues Related to Cyberbullying

Cyberbullying has grown exponentially in recent years, and social media accounts have taken several measures to try to fight against it. However, there are a number of issues that make it difficult to reduce cyberbullying (StopBullying.Org). 1. Bullying content can be viewed not only by the victim, but also by others depending on the digital forum. For example, if a negative image is shared on a public account on Instagram© the content can be shared to the bullying victim and all of their followers. This gives the bully a larger audience.  2. Bullying content is immediately and consistently available, which may not allow a victim any relief from the bullying. This is different from “traditional bullying” where victims experience bullying in single episodes. 3. Digital communication is more permanent. If cyberbullying content is not removed, it could harm the reputation of the victim, and even the bully if shared in a public forum. 4. Cyberbullying can be subtle and difficult to track, making it hard to block the behavior from occurring. Parents and teachers typically do not know cyberbullying is occurring unless reported by a victim or if they come across the bullying content by accident. Furthermore, some cyberbullies create fake social media accounts, making it difficult to identify them.

How Can Behavior Analysis Help?

As our society becomes more digital, behavior analysts can play an important role in the understanding and reduction of cyberbullying. Although the interactions in cyberbullying do not occur in person, language plays an important role. As noted in previous posts in this blog, B.F. Skinner (1957) defined language or verbal behavior from a functional perspective, as any behavior of a speaker that is reinforced by a listener trained by their verbal community to do so. In his analysis, he defined several elementary verbal operants. One operant that I think plays a big factor in cyberbullying is the mand. In basic terms, a mand is essentially a request from a listener for a preferred event. This event could be attention and access (or removal) of a tangible item(s). In the case of cyberbullying, the speaker (bully) who is not receiving much attention, may tweet a listener (the victim) on Twitter© “you are stupid” (or something much worse), which may lead the victim and the larger audience to respond negatively. This consequence may lead to tons of positive and negative attention for the cyberbully, which may result in future occurrence of similar posts in the future.

Relational Frame Theory (RFT) can also help us understand the effects of cyberbullying, especially for the victim. A complete summary of RFT is beyond the scope of this entry, but I encourage interested readers to visit the Symbolic Language and Thought blog for additional content on this topic. Specifically for cyberbullying, transformation of stimulus function may be the most important property of relation framing when it comes to the victim. Transformation of function in relational framing occurs when the function of a stimulus is transformed in relation between one stimulus and another. For example, when a victim reads the tweet “you are stupid” (or something much worse) they may relate the word “stupid” to themselves along with a multitude of private behaviors (feelings) that results in negative consequences (e.g., avoiding work and peers, increasing negative self-talk). Although there is some behavior analytic literature in reducing bullying behaviors (Ross & Horner, 2009; Stannis et al., 2019), much work remains to be done in this area (read Take a Bite out of Bullying with Behavior Analysis).

Over the last couple of years, my research team has taken interest in this area of research. Last year, we successfully used a stimulus equivalence protocol and in-situ training to teach young children to identify different types of bullying (Sowle & Aguirre, in prep). Currently, we are evaluating Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) by examining mindfulness and values-training on its effect on self-reported cyberbullying with college students. ACT, which is derived from RFT, focuses on increasing an individual’s psychological flexibility in order to live towards their values (Berkout et al., 2019). By continuing to examine a functional approach to language, “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me” may come to have meaning once more.

Dr. Angelica Aguirre is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychology at Minnesota State University, Mankato. She received her Ph.D. in Rehabilitation with an emphasis in Behavior Analysis and Therapy from Southern Illinois University, Carbondale. She has worked in the field of ABA and autism/learning disabilities for over 12 years. Her research focuses on evaluating basic and complex verbal behavior, private events (i.e., thinking and problem-solving strategies), derived relational responding, and social skills. Her research has been published in a variety of behavior analysis journals and she currently sits on the editorial board of The Analysis of Verbal Behavior and The Psychological Record. She is Co-Editor of the Verbal Behavior Matters Blog.