Understanding Cyberbullying

Most teens and young adults today spend a significant chunk of daily life online. We learn, play games, shop, express ourselves, and keep in touch with our friends and family through our screens. While the internet helps us connect more to others in a lot of good ways, an unfortunate byproduct of being so connected digitally is the growing trend of cyberbullying—a pattern of intentionally aggressive behavior that aims to harm or humiliate others online.

Cyberbullying may not seem like a big deal because it’s not in the “real” world. But it can have real and lasting effects on our mental health and our sense of safety. Because of this, it’s important to understand how to spot bullying behavior online and understand what you can do to stop cyberbullying.

What Is Cyberbullying?

Cyberbullying is a form of bullying that takes place on the internet as opposed to in person. A cyberbully can use a phone, computer, or other digital device to share content that’s meant to shame or embarrass another person through social media sites, text messages, emails, online forums, gaming platforms, and other digital spaces. Examples of cyberbullying include:

  • Posting rumors about someone on social media
  • Calling someone names or threatening to hurt someone physically over digital platforms
  • Pretending to be someone else online and acting as that person on online forums or social media sites
  • Asking for personal details about someone or keeping tabs on them digitally; for example, constantly asking someone where they are, what they’re doing, and who they are with
  • Creating mean webpages or social media profiles about peers
  • Sending unwanted explicit messages or images to someone

If you are experiencing cyberbullying, it is important to take action by blocking, flagging, reporting, or confiding in someone you trust who can help stop the behavior. Repeated bullying has a number of negative mental health impacts, so doing something to stop it is really important for your well-being. Read more about how to cope with cyberbullying.

If you are using any of these bullying tactics against another person, it’s important to understand what is causing you to act out in these ways. Working with a mental health professional like a school counselor or a professional in the community can help you get to the root issues that cause you to bully others.

Who is At Risk of Being Cyberbullied?

If you’ve experienced cyberbullying, you’re not alone: nearly 60 percent of teens have been bullied online. However, research shows that there are some groups that tend to be targeted more than others for cyberbullying:

  • Girls are more likely than boys to be victims of cyberbullying. Fifteen percent of teen girls have been the target of at least four kinds of online bullying and harassment, compared to 6 percent of boys. Girls are also more likely to receive specific kinds of online harassment, including being the subject of false rumors or receiving unwanted explicit messages.
  • About half of LGBTQ+ students experience online harassment, a much higher rate than their peers who do not identify as LGBTQ+.
  • Teens who are perceived as less popular, who appear different, or who have lower self-esteem are more likely to experience cyberbullying.
  • Influencers and people with large followings on social media tend to be targets for online harassment and bullying, particularly on social media sites where the pressure to appear “perfect” can sometimes feel overwhelming.
  • People who post publicly about their political opinions or social issues that may be considered controversial are more likely to be targeted.

What is the Difference Between Bullying and Cyberbullying?

Whether it happens in person or online, the intent of bullying is to hurt someone. In person, bullying can look like calling someone names, threatening to hurt them, excluding them from events or activities, or even physically attacking them. Online, all of these same tactics can be used, except for physical violence.

For some, online bullying is easier than in person bullying because it doesn’t involve face-to-face interaction. But cyberbullying can also be easier to spot, because there is evidence of it. While it’s sometimes not possible to spot acts of physical bullying like intimidation or exclusion, cyberbullying leaves behind a digital footprint of posts, texts, photos, and other content that proves the bullying happened. It’s also sometimes easier to step away from cyberbullying by taking a break from your phone or social media.

While cyberbullying may be easier to notice, in some cases, than bullying in person, it’s not always addressed with the same urgency because the victim is not in direct physical contact with the bully. But cyberbullying should be taken seriously, as it has many of the same negative impacts on a victim’s mental health as physical bullying, including:

  • Increased risk of anxiety and depression
  • Poor adjustment at school
  • Feeling unhappy or unsafe
  • Feeling lonely and isolated, and withdrawing from friends and family
  • Increased risk of suicidal thoughts

How to Recognize Cyberbullying

Texting, posting on social media, and exchanging digital messages is a very common way for friends and loved ones to stay connected. But sometimes the relationships you have via text or on social media can cause you stress. If you’re starting to feel uncomfortable with some of your interactions with people online, look out for these behaviors in yourself, as they may be signs that you are being cyberbullied:

  • Do you feel upset about the messages you are receiving through your phone or computer?
  • Have you noticeably increased, or decreased, your technology use because interacting with people online is causing you stress or anxiety?
  • Do you hide your screen from others because you are embarrassed or ashamed about the messages you are receiving or the people with whom you are interacting?
  • Are you avoiding social situations in real life because of something upsetting happening to you online?
  • Are you withdrawing from friends and family, or losing interest in your activities outside social media?

If you are worried that a friend or loved one may be the target of cyberbullying, here are some common signs to watch out for:

  • Your friend’s mood or behavior has changed, especially around the way they use (or have stopped using) devices or online platforms.
  • You notice that others are posting mean or threatening messages, photos, or rumors about your friend on public sites like social media or online forums.
  • Your friend is avoiding social gatherings or is withdrawing from your friendship because of what’s happening online.

If you notice signs of cyberbullying towards yourself or towards one of your friends, it’s important to tell a trusted adult about what’s happening. You can learn more ways to address online bullying by reading our article How to Cope with Cyberbullying.

How to Stop Cyberbullying: Be a Cyber-Upstander

When bullying happens on an online public forum, there are more witnesses. While you’d think that would mean more people would stand up against cyberbullying, often the opposite happens. It’s called the bystander effect: when a single person is less likely to intervene when lots of other bystanders are present, because they assume someone else will intervene instead.

Instead of being a bystander, you can be an upstander: someone who notices when something is not right and does something about it. Here are some ways you can be a cyber-upstander for others:

  • Encourage the victim to seek help from someone they trust.
  • Tell someone in authority, such as a teacher, parent, coach, or other trusted adult about what you’re observing online or via social media.
  • Report what you are observing to the security team of the site where the bullying is happening.

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If you or someone you know needs to talk to someone right now, text HOME to 741-741 or call 1-800-273-TALK (8255) for a free confidential conversation with a trained counselor 24/7. 

If you are experiencing a mental health crisis, text or call 988.

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.

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