How is childhood trauma associated with cyberbullying in adult life?

Stavroula Paligeorgou

Cyberbullying can be considered a worldwide 21st century social problem. Mental health, too, is an issue that concerns many people, especially during the global pandemic. In an attempt to understand and explain people’s online criticism and bad intentions in the form of cyberbullying, knowledge of what a traumatic event is, how this affects a child long-term, as well as what the personality traits of a possible bully are, it is necessary to make some connections.

Life is not all about pleasant and carefree moments or predicting and planning experiences. When growing up, it is necessary to learn how to understand and deal with different kind of situations, even those that can traumatize us. The National Institute of Mental Health defines childhood trauma as: “The experience of an event by a child that is emotionally painful or distressful, which results in lasting emotional and physical effects.” The child might directly experience or indirectly witness a distressing situation that threatens their life or physical security. The National Child Traumatic Stress Network underlines how significantly a young child is affected by either witnessing or hearing traumatic events happening to a loved one. This is because in early life their sense of safety depends on the perceived safety of their attachment figures. The most common causes of childhood trauma include: family dysfunction or chaos, bullying/cyberbullying, death of a loved one, emotional abuse, physical abuse or neglect, sexual abuse, war/terrorism, and separation from a parent or caregiver ( However, not every child exposed to these kinds of events is traumatized. The impact they might have on the development and later life of those who are, though, is unpredictable.

More specifically, the feelings that a child can experience as a result of a traumatic event can have a negative effect on their continued physical, emotional, social or intellectual development. Signs that can help a parent identify trauma in their child on a behavioral level include temper outbursts, insomnia, difficulty concentrating and socializing, and clinginess. Emotional signs of trauma include inconsolable crying, nightmares, sadness, anxiety, depression, anger, and irritability. Parents can contribute to dealing with these phenomena by creating a safe domestic environment where children can be understood, being dialectical in approach, teaching them soothing techniques, and helping them develop resilience. It goes without saying that a child that manifests these signs should not only depend on the help of parents or loved ones, but also that of a licensed mental health expert, such as a psychologist.
Unaddressed trauma can have long-term effects on quality and length of life. These effects include substance abuse, biological and neurological disorders (as a traumatic event can shape the oxytocin system and change the way neurotransmitters function), chronic depression and/or anxiety disorder, dropping out of school, obesity, suicide etc. (Baracz & Buisman-Pijlman, October 2017). Unfortunately, during their life traumatized children will come across reminders of the traumatic experience, which will possibly trigger emotional and/or physical reactions such as anxiety and rapid heartbeat. After they reach adulthood, some people may even re-create and repetitively relive the trauma in their present lives, for many different reasons (Kardiner A: The Traumatic Neuroses of War, 1941). A number of researchers have observed that retraumatization and revictimization of people who have experienced trauma, especially in childhood, are all too common phenomena. For instance, it has been found that women who were sexually abused as children are more likely to be sexually or physically abused in their marriages (The Secret Trauma: Incest in the Lives of Girls and Women, 1986). Others take on the role of abuser, relying on the fact that reenactment reflects a maladaptive defensive posture which is an attempt never to reexperience the terror and helplessness they once felt. Many childhood victims of sexual abuse become abusers of others (Goodwin J, McCarthy T, DiVasto P, 1982).

As for cyberbullying1, not only is it one of the most common causes of childhood trauma, but it is also a possible consequence of it. In the study “Pathways from Childhood Bullying to Victimization to Young Adult Depressive and Anxiety Symptoms” (2021), Lee deduces that childhood cyberbullying victimization increased subsequent traditional and cyberbullying victimization (…). To understand in depth the association of childhood trauma and cyberbullying, it would be apt to search for a link between personality traits which result from experience of trauma and those that indicate a predisposition for cyberbullying. Studies have shown that Big Five and Dark Triad (Machiavellianism, narcissism, psychopathy) personality traits are related to traditional bullying and cyberbullying behaviors in adolescents as well as in adults. Agreeableness and sadism2 in particular have been related to cyberbullying (Craparo, Schimmenti and Caretti, 2013). Another study proves the connection between Machiavellianism and cyberbullying (Sorokowski et al., 2018). These findings are important because these dark personality traits fully mediate the relationship between childhood emotional abuse and cyberbullying, especially among men (Childhood Emotional Abuse and Cyberbullying Perpetration: The Role of Dark Personality Traits, 2019). Emotional abuse is undeniably a continuing traumatizing experience, giving further confirmation of the link between childhood trauma and cyberbullying.
All in all, the information and arguments stated above suggest an undeniable link between cyberbullying and childhood trauma. Unresolved trauma can provoke a vicious circle of traumatic experience. Everyone’s best solution is to seek help with it.

1) A form of abuse conducted on electronic media. It can range from mean messages to threats, unconsented videos and pictures of children. As it is not perpetrated in person, its duration can be indefinite and it can be anonymous, so leading to more lasting pain. (
2) Scholars cite sadism as an addition to the Dark Triad in the study of antisocial and delinquent behaviors.