What is Cyberbullying?

With the recent significant increase in digital communication, new challenges accompany new conveniences. While information is more accessible and more quickly received, the rate at which we can transfer data and connect with others, and the seeming anonymity behind it all, isn’t always beneficial. Not everyone has the best intentions when using our quickly expanding digital resources, and it’s often the youngest among us that not only abuse these tools but also suffer at the receiving end of those abuses.

Cyberbullying is becoming far too common, with a 2020 National Center for Education Statistics study reporting that 15% of students between the ages of 12 and 18 have been victims within a 12-month period. For youth in the LGBTQ community, the statistics are even more troubling. A study from the Cyberbullying Research Center found that among LGBTQ students, 56% had experienced cyberbullying. 

Psychology Today describes cyberbullying asthe deliberate and repeated harm inflicted through the use of cell phones/smartphones, computers/tablets, and other electronic devices (including Wi-Fi gaming devices). It’s an easier way to bully because, unlike traditional bullying, it doesn’t involve face-to-face interaction.”

Cyberbullying is not only on the rise, especially among our youth population, but its effects can be devastating to its victims experiencing harassment, pointed attacks, threats, and other forms of bullying through mediums that never shut off or offer any respite.

Teen girl experiencing cyberbullying and regular bullying

Cyberbullying vs. Bullying: How do they differ?

Traditional bullying often carries the risk of retaliation for the bully, but cyberbullying involves lowered risk, is more accessible, and has a broadened audience. Traditional bullying requires more than one person at an exact location, and it presents an immediate physical risk for the victim and the bully. Cyberbullying can happen without much danger to the bully, anywhere and anytime. Because it is safer for the bully, it is more common than traditional bullying. A study from the University of British Columbia found that cyberbullying happens at over twice the rate of traditional bullying. Many cyberbullies believe their behavior is less harmful or carries a lower risk of consequences because it is “only words.” 

Additionally, traditional bullying typically involves premeditation, while cyberbullying often happens in the moment. Once it starts, a large crowd is rarely reluctant to jump in. Due to the lack of planning and an omission of an end goal, cyberbullying interactions can result in kids fitting into multiple roles like:

  • Transitioning between bully and victim
  • Bystander
  • Witness
  • Instigator

This fluidity among one child involved in cyberbullying can make it difficult to pinpoint where the bullying began, who the real bully is, the prime victim, and how to address the situation overall to end the cycle. A grant study funded by the Department of Justice found, “Another area in which participants noted unique aspects of cyberbullying were how the online environment provides tools so that a target of bullying can “turn the tables” to become a perpetrator. “

Child psychologists and other behavioral experts have found that traditional bullies often share characteristics of:

  • Aggression
  • Impulsiveness
  • A lack of empathy
  • A positive view of violence
  • A need for power or control
  • Disrespect for authority and rules
  • Victim blaming, gaslighting, or narcissism

However, these same characteristics are not always present in cyberbullies due to the lack of power differentials apparent in traditional bullying that might happen on a school bus, in the hallways of a high school, or on the playground at a grade school. In traditional bullying, size, age, or race might play a more significant role. 

In cyberbullying, power is available to anyone that can manipulate images or access another child’s social media account. While bias and discrimination can still occur online and cyberbullying victims are sometimes targeted before the social media bullying begins, screen desensitization substantially contributes to and perpetuates cyberbullying at an accelerated rate. Not seeing the pain on another’s face can strip empathy from the equation. Individuals who would usually cease to attack after witnessing tears or other indications of distress, harm, or trauma, can now proceed without having to endure the consequences of feeling regretful about their actions. Desensitization causes an inability to identify the impact of their actions or acknowledge when a situation has advanced to a toxic or harmful level. 

In June Chisholm Ph.D.’s paper for Pace University, she writes of screen desensitization, “Ideas, fantasies, beliefs, all part of the inner world, are more readily and immediately projected into the public symbolic space. The technological phenomenon of the “screen,” and the mechanics of its functioning, create a logic that impacts other spheres of psychological/social functioning of the user, especially for youth.”

Cyberbullying can sometimes begin in jest, with a bully believing their actions are funny or simply joking around with the victim or bystanders. However, these “jokes” can be harmful to the target, primarily when broadcast on a mass scale. Soon everyone is weighing in and turning a seemingly innocent laugh at someone else’s expense into a way to further torment and traumatize the subject. 

Despite many efforts to expose and correct bullying within schools, cyberbullying is often challenging to recognize due to veiled insults and even coded language. It can remain hidden from parents and teachers on different popular teen apps. For instance, Snapchat disposes of messages and images shortly after viewing or within a specified amount of time unless saved to a device or screenshotted.

The psychological impacts of online bullying can be far more traumatic than traditional bullying because the evidence of the harm never truly goes away. Cyberbullying leaves a “digital footprint,” which can have continuing consequences for both the victim and the bully. Many cyberbullies miss out on future opportunities or are ousted from current achievements due to their online behavior. The target is never free from the accompanying embarrassment, shame, and emotional trauma. Cyberbullying can result in persistent or resurfacing harm and long-term damage.

Parents of Australian teen, Tilly Rosewarne open up about how cyberbullying on Snapchat ruined their daughter’s life. 

Types of Cyberbullying

Today’s teens have grown up always connected to the Internet. It’s a part of almost every aspect of their lives, and as something pervasive and influential to the teen population, social media use has resulted in many new forms of bullying. Some types of cyberbullying affecting teenagers include:

Harassment: This is a sustained and intentional form of bullying that can involve messages sent to your child or a group of children. It can have serious implications on a child’s well-being due to its constant and malicious nature.

Outing: Outing is the act of embarrassing or deliberately shaming a child or group with information that’s considered private or sensitive. Especially destructive is anything of a sexual nature, including images, videos, or divulging a sexual or gender preference.

Fraping: Fraping is the act of another person accessing a child’s social media account and posting content that would be deemed inappropriate.

Dissing: This is the act of sending or posting cruel or defamatory information online with the intent of destroying another child’s reputation or friendships. This form of cyberbullying can include pictures, videos (potentially manipulated), or outright lies.

Fake Profiles: Cyberbullying offers the bully many ways to hide their identity, and fake profiles are especially effective at doing so. By using a manufactured profile or stealing the persona of someone else, the bully can be anyone and operate with impunity.

Cyberstalking: A very dangerous form of cyberbullying, cyberstalking involves the bully making real threats to the victim’s wellbeing and depriving them of any sense of safety.

Exclusion: At school, a child that’s excluded from a group is being bullied and harmed. It’s no different online. Exclusion from group chats, teams in online games, and online movie-watching parties are just a few forms of digital exclusion.

Trolling: Using insults or bad language to provoke someone is trolling. It can happen in every forum and is also very prevalent in online gaming. Regardless of whether it’s happening on Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook, or other social networking or online service, trolling takes place regularly and can be damaging to a child’s well-being.

Catfishing: Catfishing takes place when either someone has stolen a child’s online identity or they’re posing as someone else. Both actions can foster negative emotions. Catfishing also leads children to sometimes divulge sensitive information that’s then used in outing or fraping.

Flaming: This is the act of posting insults online. It’s different from trolling in that flaming takes advantage of the anonymity offered by the Internet to conceal the offender’s identity so that the victim is unaware of who’s targeting them.

These forms of cyberbullying occur across all different platforms and involve everything from simple words to manipulated media. They can be terrifying, embarrassing, and reputationally harmful to their intended victims.

Effects of Cyberbullying on Teens

The effects of cyberbullying on teens can be very serious. Online bullying can be emotionally overwhelming, and children often hide what’s happening from adults, causing concern for many parents wanting to shield their teens from the dangers of social media. 

There are many troubling ways in which cyberbullying can impact teens. Parents should be aware of these impacts, monitor their teen’s social media accounts, limit their social media usage (especially when concerns arise), and observe their children for any changes in behavior that might indicate cyberbullying is happening. 

Effects of cyberbullying on your teen can include:

Suicidal ideation: A Yale study reported that victims of bullying are two to nine times more likely to have suicidal thoughts than other teens. While causation remains to be properly understood, there’s no doubt that cyberbullying plays a role in mental health.

Low self-esteem: If a teen has been cyberbullied, self-consciousness and low self-esteem are common outcomes. Bullying aimed at their physical appearance has especially detrimental impacts. This loss of self-esteem can lead to avoidance of social interaction altogether.

Depression: Stress and anxiety from cyberbullying can lead to depression or depressive feelings. In combination with lowered self-esteem and social avoidance, depression can be particularly debilitating. Further compounding the problem is the fact that cyberbullying can be constant, offering its victims no respite.

A drop in grades: It’s not uncommon for a significant decline in grades to be a result of cyberbullying. Loss of interest in activities due to depression is the biggest contributor. The cyberbullied teen might find it hard to read, focus, or put effort into homework due to social media, mental distractions, and worry.

Illness: Stress can foster illness and is a common cause of headaches, chest pain, insomnia, and other physical health complications. Acne and eating disorders can also result from stress. Rapid weight gain or loss is possible. Additionally, all of these complications can further erode a teen’s self-esteem and mental health.

Other behavioral impacts: Other behavioral impacts include substance abuse, family tensions, and interpersonal problems.

The word "cyberbullying" on a piece of paper with fingerprints

Cyberbullying Laws

All states address bullying differently with established laws. Additionally, many have developed model policies for schools and education districts. Some states require bullying education programs. Bullying, in general, is not considered a criminal offense.

The U.S. Department of Education developed a framework in December 2010 of common components found in state laws and regulations at the time. These common components include definitions of bullying, requirements for school district policies, and defining characteristics leading to bullying behavior. This Common Components of State Anti-Bullying Laws and Regulations is a way to compare how each state addresses the issue of bullying.

A few states, like Texas, Arizona, Colorado, North Carolina, and Arkansas only have laws addressing cyberbullying. The majority of U.S. states have both laws and policies.

For example, while Alaska acknowledges some forms of bullying occurring on school campuses, it doesn’t define or have laws or regulations that cover off-campus cyberbullying. There are no specific protected classes listed under the state’s laws or regulations. School districts aren’t required to train teachers in recognizing and responding to bullying incidents.

Oregon is a stark contrast to Alaska in that bullying is heavily codified, with cyberbullying specifically defined as the use of any communication device to bully, intimidate, or harass. Oregon doesn’t have laws covering off-campus conduct. However, it does address protected groups specifically. Schools are strongly encouraged to form task forces aimed at prevention and proper response to bullying. In fact, Oregon law establishes a statewide school safety and prevention system.

While Texas is a state that only has laws (and not policies) to address bullying, it has quite a few of them. Notable in Texas is that off-campus bullying is specifically recognized. Schools and school districts are required to train teachers and staff about bullying and cyberbullying and address it in practice.

States can vary quite a bit in their approaches to handling cyberbullying, but it’s a positive sign that it’s being addressed as an important issue in all states, and awareness continues to build across the nation.

Reporting Cyberbullying: How do I report cyberbullying as a teen victim or parent?

Reporting cyberbullying is sometimes necessary, especially if the attacks are persistent, invasive, or threatening. Screenshots and other evidence need to be retained to be used as proof. It’s important to not engage with the cyberbully. Blocking the cyberbully is generally effective at ending direct contact. If the cyberbully finds ways to continue direct communication, you might need to recruit help from online service providers, school administrators, or law enforcement to put an end to the harassment. How these individuals handle the situation will depend on specific terms and conditions or rights and responsibilities of the service provider as well as your state’s laws concerning cyberbullying. 

If you need immediate assistance, there are resources available to you, including:

You can also find your child a mental health counselor in your area, or contact your child’s school counselor. 

Never allow cyberbullying to persist or dismiss your child’s feelings. It’s important to remain sensitive to your child’s responses and needs by understanding the severity of cyberbullying and its effects on developing adolescents and taking swift and appropriate actions to remedy the situation.

Recognizing a Cyberbully: How do I know if my teen is a cyberbully?

If you suspect cyberbullying may be occurring, you can try to speak with your child. Remember to remain calm, even if your child’s actions are shocking. Most children are unaware of the gravity of cyberbullying, and some may not even know their actions are entirely wrong. If they’re not willing to share right away, keep the line of communication open for a time when they might feel more comfortable, but also know you might have to recruit help if your child is hesitant to confide in you about this touchy subject. 

Signs of cyberbullying include:

  • Increases or decreases in device use
  • Exhibiting a seemingly unprovoked emotional response such as laughter or anger to what’s happening on a device, and not sharing with you or others what’s going on
  • New or closed social media accounts, especially with different identities
  • Hides their device or screen when others are near
  • Avoids discussions related to their device usage
  • Becomes angry or anxious when restricted from their devices

Parents are encouraged to look out for signs of a falling out with friends, aggressive behavior, being increasingly withdrawn, hanging out with the “wrong” crowd, being overly conceited about their technological skills, and using devices at all hours of the night. These can also be indications that your child is using their devices inappropriately and may be engaging in cyberbullying.

Tips to Prevent Cyberbullying

If a parent is concerned that their child is involved in cyberbullying, they must first acknowledge the issue and remain calm. It’s important to remember that your son or daughter isn’t the problem, their behavior is.

Start first with an open line of communication. Kids need to know that they can speak with their parents about issues with peers and receive help, advice, and support. Appropriate ways of addressing interpersonal problems should be the focus of these conversations.

Once communication lines are open, the bullying must end immediately and the parent needs to get to the root of the problem. Investigating the nature and extent of the bullying is essential to understanding what happened. Educating your child on how the target feels and how they might feel to be on the receiving end is crucial. Cultivate empathy but also establish parental controls that remain in place until trust is restored.

Parents should also talk to their teens about being a bystander to cyberbullying. There are things a parent can encourage them to do and to avoid doing, including:

  • Do not participate
  • Do not respond negatively or retaliate
  • Respond to the author of the hurtful message privately and constructively 
  • Follow up with others that have been targeted

Recognizing Cyberbullying: How do I know if someone is bullying my teen online?

It’s important to recognize the warning signs signaling that your teenager may be the target of cyberbullying so that you can intervene to protect them from further harm. Signs to watch out for include:

  • Becomes upset or sad often while using a device
  • Withdraws from social interaction
  • Is reluctant to participate in activities they once enjoyed
  • Has a decline in grades
  • Refuses to attend school
  • Shows signs of depression or sadness

If your child seems hopeless, helpless, or is exhibiting signs of suicidal ideations, it’s critical that they receive immediate assistance before they attempt or complete suicide. Not all teens who are depressed will resort to self-harm, but cyberbullying significantly increases the risk of self-injury or suicide in teens, so it’s best to be safe by learning how to identify suicide risks.  

Tips to Protect Your Child From Cyberbullying

Teaching teens how to protect themselves from cyberbullying gives them the tools necessary to mitigate the negative impacts on their mental health when using social media. Social media can be beneficial when used appropriately, but it can also be detrimental when youth is not equipped to recognize and avoid or report cyberbullying. It’s important to have ongoing conversations with your teens about their online use and seek help when problems arise. 

Teens can use these tips to protect themselves online:

  • Tell a trusted adult if you’re being cyberbullied.
  • If you know someone who’s being a cyberbully tell them to stop. If they don’t, report it.
  • Contact host or site providers if inappropriate material is being posted on their site.
  • Save all evidence if you’re being bullied online. Don’t delete anything without keeping a copy for yourself.
  • Don’t respond to rude messages.
  • If someone angers you, wait, don’t fire off a rude comeback. It’ll only make things worse.
  • Don’t share personal information online.
  • Protect your username and password. Don’t share it with friends.
  • Don’t open anything from someone you don’t know.
  • Keep privacy settings on your computer. Secure your information.
  • Choose your friends wisely.
  • Only accept close friends on your social networking sites.
  • Don’t post anything online that you wouldn’t mind your parents seeing.
  • Most importantly, treat others as you want to be treated. Think before you click. Look at what you’re posting or uploading and ask, “Would I want someone saying or posting that about me online?” If the answer is no, then don’t do it.

If you have questions or concerns about cyberbullying or your teen’s social media usage, or your teen suffered psychological or physical harm due to cyberbullying, contact Social Media Victims Law Center today for a free consultation.

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