Recognizing Signs of Cyberbullying

By Cassie Shortsleeve

Cyberbullying sounds like something you should be able to spot if it’s happening to you, but experts agree it’s not always easy to recognize even though more than half of U.S. teens have been bullied or harassed online

All types of bullying usually center around some type of negative interaction that leaves you feeling helpless or like you don’t know how to make the behavior stop. That can be easier to spot in real life, since the bully may be older, physically bigger, or in a higher position at work. On the internet, however, everyone can be anonymous and get away with things they may not get away with offline.

The ability to be anonymous simply makes it easier for people to cyberbully. When you’re not face to face with someone, it’s easier to make nasty comments, say hurtful things, or bully without clear and immediate consequences. But cyberbullying has a bunch of negative consequences, including higher rates of anxiety, depression, loneliness, and thoughts of suicide.

Given how shareable digital content is, it’s also easy for posts to spread quickly, creating a potentially wider impact. The consequences of cyberbullying, then, can be just as—if not more—damaging than in-real-life bullying. One comment can stick with you, take on a life of its own if shared, and ultimately leave you feeling down and out or worse about yourself. 

Everyone is susceptible to cyberbullying, but some populations, including girls, young women, and LGBTQIA+ and teens of color, are at increased risk. 

Here’s what cyberbullying may look like while it’s happening—and what to do if you think you’re on the receiving end of it.

Signs You’re Being Cyberbullied

Cyberbullying can appear in many different ways:

  • Posting rumors or mean messages about you on social media.
  • Messaging you to call you names, make derogatory comments, or threaten to hurt you.
  • Making fake accounts in your name and pretending to be you on online forums or social media sites.
  • Asking you for personal details or keeping tabs on you digitally, such as if someone constantly asks who you are with, what you’re doing, or where you are.
  • Creating mean memes or shareable content about you without your permission.
  • Sending or leaving unwanted explicit messages, images, or comments.
  • Going behind your back in your social circle online.

Not sure if the behavior you’re experiencing online is cyberbullying? Think about how it makes you feel. If you answer yes to any of the following questions, you may be experiencing  cyberbullying.

  • Do I feel upset about the messages I get on my phone or computer?
  • Have I noticeably increased or decreased my tech use because interacting with people online stresses me out?
  • Am I hiding my screen from friends or family members because I’m embarrassed about or ashamed of the messages I’m getting or the people I’m interacting with?
  • Do I avoid social situations in person because of something upsetting happening to me online?
  • Am I withdrawing from friends and family or losing interest in activities I love?
  • Do I feel excluded, like there’s a text or DM thread I’m intentionally not a part of?
  • Do I feel like my online world is made up of unnecessary drama and feel helpless about it?

What to Do If You’re Being Cyberbullied

If you find yourself the target of bullying or you see cyberbullying happening around you, here are some recommended steps to take.

  • If you feel comfortable doing so, try messaging the person directly to let them know their behavior is making you feel uncomfortable and ask them to stop.
  • If their behavior escalates, disengage immediately. Don’t respond to direct messages from the cyberbully, and don’t try to engage with them in public spaces online.
  • Take screenshots of threatening or embarrassing messages and show them to someone you trust. If you’re in school, you can show a parent or caregiver, school counselor, or coach. If you’re older, you can show a friend or HR professional at work.
  • Block the person on all platforms where they may be able to continue cyberbullying you.
  • Put distance between you and your devices. In addition to blocking the person, you can disconnect from social media sites or keep your phone in another room to help you get some space from the incident.
  • Report the incident to the platform on which the bullying took place. If the bullying behavior took place on a public site or online forum, administrators may be able to deactivate or restrict an account to prevent future incidents.
  • Help stop the cycle by not posting or resharing content that could be harmful to others.

Feeling attacked online can be incredibly hard to deal with, and it’s OK if you need help doing so. 

Learn how to get the help you need

If you feel like you need help right now, or if you or someone you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts: 

  • Text HOME to 741-741 for a free, confidential conversation with a trained counselor any time of day.
  • Text or call 988 or use the chat function at 988lifeline.org.
  • If this is a medical emergency or there is immediate danger of harm, call 911 and explain that you need support for a mental health crisis.

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If you or someone you know needs to talk to someone right now, text, call, or chat 988 for a free confidential conversation with a trained counselor 24/7. 

You can also contact the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741-741.

If this is a medical emergency or if there is immediate danger of harm, call 911 and explain that you need support for a mental health crisis.