Profiling has been used by investigators from many fields as a tool to assist in identification of their target. The author’s research proposes that by adapting Felson and Cohen’s Routine Activities Theory, it is possible to create a profile of potential cyber-victims by understanding the way in which adolescents use the internet.Amanda Todd (15, Canada), Megan Meier (13, U.S.), Hannah Smith (14, UK). Three unrelated adolescents with different backgrounds who suffered peer harassment. Traditional teenage rite of passage? Maybe, but any traditional harassment suffered by readers during a similar developmental period in their lives will have two major differences. Firstly, the harassment most likely took place on or near school or college premises during pre-defined hours, carried out by people that were known, acting as part of a larger peer-group. Secondly, it did not result in victimization to the point of suicide.

This list of victims represents the tip of a much larger iceberg, linked by a single phenomenon: cyber-bullying. All three girls received abusive messages via online communication applications; Amanda Todd through Facebook, Megan Meier through MySpace, Hannah Smith via, pushing the tormented adolescents beyond the point of no return.

But if we look deeper, can we identify further linkages? Linkages, which perhaps may be used to identify potential victims before they tragically become a statistic?

During recent months I have been investigating these linkages in a research project entitled “Technological Profiling of Cyber-bullying.” The project proposes that using technological profiling; it is possible to identify adolescent youngsters at-risk of cyber-bullying through analysis of their online behaviors by adaption of Felson and Cohen’s Routine Activities Theory (1979).

Profiling has been used by investigators from many fields as a tool to assist in identification of their target. Von Hentig (1948) proposed that there was little use in understanding the criminal if there was no effort made to understand the victim. 

Despite the technological changes of the past 20 years and associated increase in criminal attack vectors to incorporate the cyber-criminal, there is no agreed computer criminal profile. Well understood sub-cultures exist, such as the Black Hats, the White Hats and Grey Hats, Script Kiddies, Warezdooz (Furnell, 2001), all displaying similar attributes but without an overarching framework. These sub-cultures relate to established offender groups. There are other groups emerging which do not fit into these or any other existing category. These are the purveyors of emotional pain, the Cyber-bullies. These find their way into both traditional and digital publication with alarming regularity and have even spawned their own sub-culture, the Internet Troll.

Wilson, Lincon, and Kocsis (1997) proffer three paradigms of offender profiling: diagnostic evaluation, crime scene analysis, and investigative psychology.

  • Diagnostic evaluation describes adaptation of psychotherapeutic theory to crime. The approach relies on clinical judgments made by individual practitioners.
  • Crime scene analysis was developed by the Behavioral Science Unit of the FBI and is mainly applicable to investigation of serial murders.
  • Investigative psychology was developed by Professor David Canter, a British academic psychologist. Investigative psychology is a collection of theories related to environmental psychology and hypotheses.

Criminological Profiling has gained acceptance since adoption by the FBI during the 1970s. Douglas (1992) explains that “The crime scene is presumed to reflect the murderer’s behavior and personality in much the same way as furnishings reveal the homeowner’s character.” However there are several additional factors to consider when crime moves beyond physical boundaries into the virtual environment such as Internet anonymity, geographic and legal barriers.

These additional challenges may explain why cyber-criminal profiling has been termed “a promising but immature science” by Bednarz (2004). Over and above the knowledge required to profile crime in the physical world, i.e. psychology, criminology, and law; it is also necessary to understand the digital aspects of a crime scene when creating cyber-criminal profiles. 

Nykodym et al (2005) emphasize that “the idea that an individual committing crime in cyberspace can fit a certain outline (a profile) may seem farfetched, but evidence suggests that certain distinguishing characteristics do regularly exist in cyber criminals.”

Tennakoon (2012) suggests using deductive profiling to create a cyber-criminal profile. Despite this, there has been no specific profiling methodology accepted by the scientific community, reflecting the relatively short time that computers have been employed for criminal activity.

The author’s research proposes that by adapting Felson and Cohen’s Routine Activities Theory, it is possible to create a profile of potential cyber-victims by understanding the way in which adolescents use the internet.

According to Cohen & Felson, three fundamental requirements must be present in order for crime to occur:

  • Victims must be exposed to sufficient numbers of motivated offenders
  • There must be suitable targets
  • There must be a lack of capable guardianship

Cohen and Felson stated a motivated offender is someone who possesses the inclination to commit crime and the ability to perform the associated act. Target suitability is defined as possessing attributes such as “value, physical visibility, access, and the inertia of a target against illegal treatment by offenders.” A capable guardian is defined as someone “capable of preventing violations.” 

In order for victims to be exposed to offenders, a common environment is required. In this case, the author suggests that the common environment is provided by the Internet. According to Rainie (2006) due to the dramatic up-take of technology since the millennium, there are sufficient numbers of Internet users. Can it be said that motivated offenders may be provided from this user population? Felson (1987) suggests that absence of behavioral control encourages participation in criminal activity and motivated offenders will place themselves into environments where there is an abundance of suitable targets.

Wolack et al study (2008) suggests that patronage of chat room-style applications increases the possibility that users will become targets of online victimization. Proliferation of social networking sites has facilitated peer communication, however these have also been the subject of adverse media reporting where young people have been bullied and harassed, some with fatal consequences. Web sites such as MySpace or Facebook are often used by offenders as victim directories. 

Guardianship in terms of the internet is moot. There is no organization with responsibility for cyber-authority although some social network sites provide moderators to ensure that content remains both appropriate and legal. In terms of the user, guardianship has devolved to blocking and filtering software such as those studied by Fleming et al (2006), although the mechanisms themselves appear not to reduce exposure to unwanted online behavior. In physical terms, Lwin’s study (2008) of active monitoring by responsible adults has been seen to offer a level of deterrent to personal information disclosure in young adolescence, which diminishes over time. 

Shariff and Hoff (2007) contest that left unsupervised in cyber-space, adolescents will mimic William Golding’s protagonists in Lord of the Flies by harassing, terrorizing, and ultimately killing one another. The setting is key. On Golding’s island there are no physical boundaries, no compartmentalization, and no established hierarchy of order. In institutional settings these elements exist and represent expectations of appropriate behavior from those in positions of authority. Boundaries are clearly delineated. Authority figures react to physical transgression, employing disciplinary and emotional support mechanisms, through counseling of offender and victim as necessary.

The research certainly upholds Rainie’s view of internet usage among adolescents. Today’s adolescents live their lives online in full public glare and are prepared to post details of sensitive information. Many are unaware of the inherent dangers of such actions. This information attracts offenders, making it easier for them to identify potential victims. Posting personal details online may also attract those with hidden inclinations who would not normally cross the invisible line into the world of the offender.

From the research a composite victim profile was built.  

In terms of exposure to motivated offenders, the cyber-victim would typically perform research, play games, go shopping, send texts, and use Social Networking online. They would have a Facebook subscription, which they visited every day, spending up to two hours a week online.

In terms of becoming a suitable target for motivated offenders, the cyber-victim would likely post their real name, age, and a picture of themselves on Social Networking sites.

In terms of presence of suitable guardianship as protection from motivated offenders, the cyber-victim would visit Social Networking sites when on their own or when a parent or guardian was with them, using a mobile phone, computer, or a laptop to go online, where they will have no usage restrictions, however it is likely that their usage will be monitored in these situations. 

There has been a paradigm shift in their toolset from the traditional computing platform toward mobile devices. Today’s digital generations are more likely to use “Internet on the go” through wireless connectivity rather than the traditional landline. These connections may be made individually or wherever groups of adolescents gather.

Future technological innovation will only increase the move away from traditional computer connectivity causing implications for effective monitoring as a deterrent. The fear is correlation between decreased deterrent due to lack of monitoring and increased attack levels facilitated through technological ubiquity.

From: Technological Profiling of Cyber-bullying by Julian Barnes, Stephen Biggs, Andrew Bellamy (University of Wales, Newport).


  • Cohen, L. E., and Felson, M. 1979. Social change and crime rate trends: A routine activity approach. American Sociological Review 44:588–608
  • Hentig, Hans von. 1948. The Criminal and His Victim: Studies in the Sociology of Crime. New Haven, CT:Yale University Press.
  • Furnell, S.  2001.  Cybercrime: Vandalising the Information Society.  Boston, MA: Addison-Wesley
  • Wilson, P, Lincon, R & Kocsis, R.  1997.  Validity, utility and ethics of profiling for serial violent and sexual offences.  Psychiatry, Psychology and Law.4 pp.1-11.
  • Douglas, J, Burgess, A, Burgess A & Ressler, R.  1992.  Crime Classification Manual: A Standard System for Investigating and Classifying Violent Crimes. New York: Simon and Schuster
  • Bednarz, A.  (2004) Profiling cybercriminals: A promising but immature science.  [WWW]
  • Nykodym, N., Taylor, R.  and Vilela, J.  2005.  Criminal profiling and insider cyber crime, Computer Law & Security Report. 21(5), pp. 408-414.
  • Tennakoon, H. 2012. The need for a comprehensive methodology for profiling cyber-criminals. [www] (23/02/13)
  • Rainie, L. 2006. Teens and technology. [WWW] (25/02/13)
  • Felson, M. (1986). Linking Criminal Choices, Routine Activities, Informal Control, and Criminal Outcomes. New York. NY: Springer-Verlag.
  • Wolak, J, Finkelhor, D, Mitchell, K & Ybarra, M. 2008. Online "Predators" and their Victims: Myths, Realities and Implications for Prevention and Treatment. American Psychologist. 63(2), pp. 111-128.
  • Fleming, M., Greentree, S., Cocotti-Muller, Elias, D.  K.  & Morrison, S.  2006.  Safety in cyberspace: Adolescents’ safety and exposure online.  Youth and Society, 38, pp.  135-154.
  • Lwin, M., Stanaland, A.  & Miyazaki, A.  2008.  Protecting children’s privacy online:
  • How parental mediation strategies affect website safeguard effectiveness.  Journal of Retailing, 84, pp.  205-217.
  • Shariff, S. & Hoff, D. 2007. Cyberbullying: Clarifying legal boundaries for school supervision in cyberspace. International Journal of Cyber Criminology 1 (1), pp. 76 – 118.