What Is Cyberbullying? An Overview for Students, Parents, and Teachers

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The Internet is a defining factor of modern education. In fact, education has become more accessible and widespread than ever before because of the Internet. From using digital textbooks to getting a degree online, more classroom functions and student experiences are moving into cyberspace — including, unfortunately, bullying.

Despite all the good that the Internet has brought to students, parents, and teachers alike, there are people who use it with malicious intent. And just as bullying has existed since the dawn of time, virtual bullying has existed since the beginning of the Internet. This guide on cyberbullying from Maryville University Online will help you learn everything you need to know about cyberbullying, from relevant facts and statistics to helpful resources, so you can keep your teen safe online.

A person wearing a white shirt typing on a laptop

Cyberbullying Definition

According the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, “cyberbullying” was first used in 1998. They define it as “the electronic posting of mean-spirited messages about a person (such as a student) often done anonymously.” But as time has gone on and the Internet itself has evolved, so has the definition of cyberbullying.

Stopbullying.gov defines cyberbullying as “bullying that takes place over digital devices like cell phones, computers, and tablets”, whereas the Cyberbullying Research Center describes it as the “willful and repeated harm inflicted through the use of computers, cell phones, and other electronic devices.” Essentially, it’s the use of electronic communication to mirror the way a person would be bullied in real life, typically by sending messages of an intimidating or threatening nature.

Differences from Traditional Bullying

There are a few aspects of cyberbullying that differentiate it from traditional bullying, which make it a unique concern for parents and teachers. Some of these differences include:

  • Anonymity: While victims usually know who their bully is, online bullies may be able to hide their identities online. The anonymity of the internet can lead to crueler or harsher abuses from the bully, all while the victim has no means of discovering who his or her harasser is.
  • Relentless: Bullying typically ends once the victim is removed from the negative social situation. However, smartphones, laptops, and other devices have made it possible for people to communicate with each other at all hours and from nearly any location. Cyberbullies may be able to torment their victim twenty-four hours per day, seven days per week, making it difficult for the victim to escape it by going home or even changing schools.
  • Public: With traditional bullying, often only people that interact with those involved will know of the abuse. However, when content is posted or shared online, it’s possible that anyone may see it. This opens up the victim to more potential ridicule or pain from strangers. This is compounded by the anonymity afforded by virtual spaces: while bullying in person may be done covertly or out of view to avoid punishment, cyberbullies need not fear being witnessed in the act if their identities are not known.
  • Permanent: Because online content is impossible to delete entirely, cyberbullying may damage the victim’s, or possibly the bully’s, reputation permanently. Even if the content is removed or deleted from the original site, someone may find it posted elsewhere later. This may negatively impact future employment, college admissions, or relationships for victim and bully alike.
  • Easy to Overlook: Cyberbullying may be harder for teachers, administrators, and parents to discover, because they may not have access to students’ online activities. They may not be able to overhear or see the abuse taking place. Unless someone comes forward, parents and teachers may never know that bullying is taking place.

Cyberbullying is very different from traditional bullying, but it is still bullying. The consequences and dangers remain the same, if not increased in their severity and duration. Even though it occurs online instead of in-person, cyberbullying needs to be taken as seriously as traditional bullying.

Cyberbullying Statistics

Cyberbullying is not something that parents or their teenager have made up. It’s more common than you may think. And for many teenagers, young adults, and social media users, it poses a very real threat.

  • According to the School Crime Supplement from the National Center for Education Statistics and Bureau of Justice Statistics, 28 percent of all students from grades six to twelve have experienced some kind of bullying.
  • Stopbullying.gov notes that about 30 percent of students have bullied others in some way or form during their lifetime.
  • A survey from the World Health Organization reports that, compared to 35 other countries in the Americas and Europe, the U.S. experiences an average amount of bullying. Across various age groups, Estonia and Lithuania rank highest for both bullying and victimization, while the Czech Republic, Slovenia, and Sweden report the lowest rates.
  • The same report from 2016 notes that girls were somewhat more likely to be a victim of cyberbullying than boys: 36.7 percent of adolescent girls had experienced cyberbullying at some point in their lives, compared to 30.5 percent of adolescent boys.
  • A study published in the Journal of Adolescent Health, titled The Overlap Between Cyberbullying and Traditional Bullying, found that fewer than five percent of bullying victims experience cyberbullying alone. Typically, victims will encounter at least one other form of traditional bullying in addition to cyberbullying.

Examples of Cyberbullying

As technology has developed over the last twenty years, cyberbullying has become an increasingly larger issue. The immense popularity of smartphones, various instant messaging apps, and the rise of social media have opened up an ever-growing number of ways for cyberbullies to hurt their targets.

Harassment

Much like offline harassment, online harassment involves sending abusive or offensive messages to an individual or group. Harassment takes great effort on the part of the bully to hurt the victim. Further, it is intentional, repeated, and constant. The victim will often have no reprieve from the bully. Especially over a period of time, these messages can have a negative impact on the victim’s self-esteem or confidence.

Cyberstalking

Cyberstalking is a form of harassment. These messages are often no longer just offensive or rude, but more threatening in nature. Messages may escalate to threaten the victim’s physical safety. Cyberstalking can quickly lead to in-person harassment or stalking.

Exclusion

Exclusion comprises of deliberately ostracizing the victim. This may involve leaving them out from social media groups, chat rooms, messages, events, or activities. It may mean purposefully having conversations on social media platforms or apps that the victim does not have access to, or that they see, but are unable to join. The group may then go on to say cruel or rude things about the excluded person behind their back.

Outing

Outing is when the bully publicly shares private messages, pictures, or other information about the victim on the internet. This is done without the victim’s knowledge or consent, and is meant to embarrass, shame, or humiliate them. The information may be trivial or more private and serious, but either way, it is a form of outing.

Masquerading

Masquerading occurs when the bully, or possibly even bullies, assumes another identity to anonymously harass the victim. They may either impersonate someone else, use a real person’s account or phone number, or create an entirely fake identity. Often, the bully will know the victim well if they feel the need to hide their identity. The bully may harass or cyberstalk with victim. This is typically done in an attempt to amuse themselves or humiliate the victim.

Fraping

Fraping is the act of logging into someone’s social media profile and posting inappropriate content under their name. While many people consider this to be a funny joke, fraping can hurt someone’s reputation, get them in trouble with family, or otherwise embarrass or harm them.

These various forms of cyberbullying often overlap, and the bully may choose to employ or combine multiple tactics to hurt their target. For example, they may share private information about someone after gaining access to their own account.

In addition, all these different kinds of cyberbullying may take place on different devices, social media websites, forums, text messages, or mobile apps. Someone may not even realize they are bullying someone, or even that they are being bullied.

Cyberbullying Laws

Bullying has become such a pervasive issue in recent years that there are initiatives and laws at multiple levels of government to prevent it.

Federal Laws

There are no federal laws that specifically address bullying. Cyberstalking is a notable exception to this rule. Though there are no federal laws regarding cyberstalking specifically, it is a criminal action under other anti-stalking and harassment laws.

Bullying may overlap with discrimination, harassment, or hate crimes if it is based on race, national origin, color, sex, age, disability, or religion. If that overlap occurs, federally-funded schools at all levels must address and resolve the harassment.

The U.S. Department of Justice’s Community Relation Service offers resources to help communities resolve conflicts, prevent violence, and respond to hate crimes and discrimination. It is a free, confidential service that offers everything from counseling to technical assistance. If harassment persists, victims should consider filing a formal complaint with both the U.S. Department of Education and the U.S. Department of Justice.

State Laws

All fifty states have anti-bullying laws in place. Most states, though not all, also have laws meant to prevent cyberbullying. Some states also have policies in place to help guide schools and their districts respond to bullying.

Familiarize yourself with the laws and policies in your state. You can find more information at the Cyberbullying Research Center or stopbullying.gov.

There may also be local laws in place at the regional, county, or city level. If nothing else, most school districts or school codes of conduct contain anti-bullying language or rules. Be sure to research the various policies and laws at the local level in your area.

How to Identify Cyberbullying

As discussed above, one of the most concerning aspects of cyberbullying is how difficult it can be to recognize. Still, teachers should always be on the lookout for signs that a student is either being a bully or being bullied.

Signs and Symptoms of Cyberbullying

Some of the warning signs of cyberbullying may overlap with those of traditional bullying. However, here are a few things you should look in particular:

  • Anxiety or Anger: Pay attention to your teenager’s mood both during and after they use a mobile phone or computer. Do they consistently seem anxious, nervous, or otherwise upset when spending time online? Do they get angry or have outbursts when they are online?
  • Secretive: Has your teen become secretive or defensive about their online activities? If they unexpectedly shut off devices when others approach, refuse to discuss what they do online, or get upset or agitated when you try to discuss this with them, they may be attempting to hide the fact that they are being bullied.
  • Avoiding Technology: Take note of the frequency of the amount of time your teen spends online, especially if they have always enjoyed it. If they have suddenly stopped using their devices as frequently (or possibly altogether), they may be attempting to avoid a bully.
  • Becoming Withdrawn: Even if your teenager has always been quiet or introverted, observe their social behavior. Do they want to spend more and more time away from their friends and peers? Have they suddenly started commenting on their lack of friends or how there’s drama at school? Have they been pushing away people they’re close to and wanting to spend more time alone?
  • Increase in Messages: Has your teen started to receive a lot more messages or emails than they usually do? Are they from numbers or people you don’t recognize? Is your teenager evasive when you ask them who is contacting them?
  • Depression: Has your teen’s mood changed? Do they often seem sad or depressed? Has there been a drastic change to their eating or sleeping patterns? Are they claiming to be sick more often to avoid going to school or social events? Have they lost interest in other activities or hobbies?

One of these symptoms alone may not be immediate cause for concern, but if you begin to notice your teen continually exhibiting many of these behaviors, it may be time to address your concerns with them.

Why Children Don’t Discuss It

Many teenagers hide the fact that they are being bullied, online or in-person, from their parents, teachers, and other adults in their life.

Do not take it personally if your teen does not tell you about being bullied. It is an intense, confusing experience that everyone responds to differently, and there are many reasons they may choose not to talk about it with anyone.

They may not know what cyberbullying is, feel embarrassed or ashamed, or worry that their online privileges will be taken away. They may fear that the bully will retaliate or the abuse will intensify if they speak up, or they may simply want to figure out how to handle this situation on their own.

Signs Your Teen Might Be a Cyberbully

Also be on the look out for warning signs that your teen might be bullying their peers. It may be unexpected or shocking, but cyberbullying is becoming more and more common. Not only the “bad kids” are bullies, and it doesn’t mean you’ve failed as a parent.

It’s incredibly important to look for warning signs that your teenager may be a bully. Not only are they deliberately trying to hurt others, but it may also be their own way of seeking attention or help. Some of the signs to look for include:

  • Many Accounts: Does your teen have a large number of social media accounts on various websites? Are they under names other than your teen’s? Do you recognize the name listed on the account? They may be attempting to anonymously harass someone or infiltrate others’ accounts.
  • Secretive: Is your teenager secretive about what they do online? Do they turn off or hide their screen when others approach them while they’re online? Are they evasive or hostile when you ask them questions about their online activities? Do they get irritated or annoyed if you interrupt them while they’re using a phone or computer?
  • Long Hours Online: Pay attention to the amount of time your teen spends online. Is it excessive, especially compared to how much they’ve spent on the internet in the past? Are they obsessive about spending time on their devices or checking their messages? Do they prefer to spend time online at times of the day when they are less likely to be supervised, like before you get home from work or in the middle of the night?
  • Lack of Remorse: Does your teenager seem to not care if their words or actions hurt others? Do they make snarky or rude comments, especially when using their phone or computer? Is this callousness new or previously out-of-character for your teen?
  • New Friend Group: Has your teen recently made new friends who seem to be mean or aggressive? Do these friends have a history of bullying others themselves? Has your teenager become preoccupied with impressing them or becoming more popular with them? Peer pressure from new friends who seem aggressive can motivate many teen to start cyberbullying others.
  • Becoming Withdrawn: Has your teen abandoned activities and hobbies in favor of spending more time online? Do they no longer want to spend time with close friends or family members, preferring to spend time alone with their devices? Do they appear to be depressed?

Again, one of these warning signs may not be a definite indicator that your teenager is cyberbullying others. Pay careful attention to your teen’s behavior, as some of these signs may actually overlap with those that indicate they are a victim of bullying.

Why Teenagers Cyberbully Others

The reasons why one teen chooses to bully another are complex and varied. They may want to feel powerful, feel the need to act out for attention, or feel like they must control others. While each person’s motives are different, similar factors may come into play when teenagers choose to cyberbully:

  • Boredom: Some teens may simply be bored and or craving attention. It’s a way to add excitement or drama to their lives with very little effort. Cyberbullying often will become a new form of online entertainment.
  • Peer Pressure: Some bullies may be trying to impress their peers, become more popular, or maintain their social status. Being part of a group can give people a false sense of security that their actions are acceptable or normal.
  • Revenge: Teens may choose to cyberbully someone because they feel wronged by that person or that their victim deserves it. The bully may feel that their behavior is justified due to the pain the victim previously inflicted upon them.
  • Anonymity: Cyberbullies can embrace the chance to be anonymous by doing all of their harassment online under an identity other than their own. They may feel like they won’t get caught and don’t have to face their victim directly.
  • Ignorance: Some cyberbullies may simply not realize that what they’re doing is, in fact, bullying. They may think it’s just a joke and not take the situation seriously.

The Potential Effects of Cyberbullying

Traditional bullying is known to have adverse effects on victims. Academic performance can suffer, anxiety and depression can develop — and these issues can continue into adulthood. And much like traditional bullying, cyberbullying can have severe, negative consequences for the victim.

Victims may experience the following effects after being cyberbullied:

  • Decreased Self-Esteem: Bullying of all kinds is often detrimental to the victim’s self-esteem. Victims may believe that all of their peers dislike them and develop issues with trust and confidence.
  • Emotional Distress: Cyberbullying can lead to a shift in mood or emotion in the victim. The constant stress of the attacks can make victims prone to outbursts of frustration, sadness, or anger as they try to cope with the bullying.
  • Physical Symptoms: Victims may begin to develop frequent headaches, stomach aches, and have trouble sleeping. Though they are not attacked physically by the bully, the ongoing stress of the harassment may still take a physical toll as the victim grows increasingly stressed and anxious.
  • Depression: Cyberbullying can cause victims to develop depression. The constant stress and lowered self-esteem can cause them to feel hopeless, unloved, and sadness.
  • Suicidal Thoughts: About 20 percent of cyberbullying victims seriously consider suicide. Bullying does not directly cause victims to commit suicide, but it does put them at a higher risk of doing so.

As with traditional bullying, these issues may persist even after the victim is no longer suffering from cyberbullying, and may continue well into adulthood.

How to Prevent Cyberbullying

As cyberbullying becomes more common and widespread among teenagers and young adults, it becomes increasingly important for parents and teachers to prevent it from happening, to intervene when it does, and to respond appropriately to victims and bullies alike.

Guidelines for Appropriate Internet Use

Even before they are old enough to use the internet, initiate conversations about internet safety. Be sure to keep this an open dialogue with your teen. You will likely need to have new discussions as their online activities change and new safety concerns arise.

Some important topics to discuss before your teen goes online include:

  • Privacy: Teach your young adult about the importance of maintaining privacy online. Make sure they know to never share personal information, such as physical addresses and phone numbers, with strangers online. Ensure they know to never share any of the passwords to their accounts, even with their close friends.
  • Strangers: Let them know that the same rules apply to strangers online as they do in-person. Make sure they know they should be careful about, or avoid altogether, talking to strangers online. Tell them that you don’t always know what someone’s intentions are, and some people may try to befriend you in order to hurt you.
  • Permanence: Remind your teen that once something is put online, it cannot ever be truly deleted — even if the post is removed. Let them know that they cannot anticipate or control who may eventually see that content, so they must think very carefully before sharing things online.

Set clear guidelines about how you expect your young adult to behave on the internet. Let them know that you expect them to behave as ethically online as you would expect in-person. Consider having your teen sign a Youth Pledge and signing a Parent Pledge yourself.

Remind them that there may be consequences if they violate the pledge and ask them to help hold you accountable as well. Encourage them to ask you questions if anything is unclear when they are online.

Educating Your Teen on Cyberbullying

In addition to general Internet safety practices, educate your teen about cyberbullying. Make sure they know what cyberbullying actually is and that it is not a joke. Just because their friends are doing it for fun does not mean that it is acceptable or that your they have to participate.

Emphasize that the Golden Rule — that your teen should treat others the way they want to be treated — still applies when they are online. Teach them what it means to be a good digital citizen.

Keep the lines of communication open. Let them know they can always come talk to you if they experience or encounter any cyberbullying online. Reassure your teen that they won’t face repercussions or a loss of computer privileges if they are being bullied.

How to Deal With a Cyberbully

Provide your teenager with the tools to deal with anyone who is rude to them online, including a cyberbully. Remember that informing an adult about cyberbullying can be difficult for teens, so they need to be prepared enough to handle the situation on their own.

Highlight the importance of common sense when dealing with a cyberbully:

  • Don’t Engage: Encourage your teenager to avoid engaging with any cyberbullies. It can be difficult to ignore purposefully inflammatory comments, but remind your teen that responding to their messages will only intensify the bully’s efforts. and they are doing this to get a reaction. There is a greater chance that the bullying will stop altogether if your teen ignores them.
  • Block Them: Tell your teen they should block the phone number and social media accounts of anyone who bullies them. This is especially important if your teenager has trouble ignoring them, or the bullies are very persistent. Bullies may make other accounts or recruit friends to continue tormenting your teenager, but encourage them to block those accounts too.
  • Change Contact Info: If ignoring and blocking the cyberbullies does not help or intensifies their efforts, tell your teen that you can always change their contact information. Be sure they know that you are happy to help them update their phone number and email address.
  • Make a Record: Ask that your teen document any and all messages, comments, or other abuses from bullies online. Teach them how to take a screenshot and ask them not to delete any messages. Having proof of the bullying will be helpful if you need to contact any authorities.

Though it may be easier said than done, you can also encourage your teen to get offline more often. Stepping away from their devices and focusing on another activity may help distract your teenager from the cyberbullying.

Monitoring Social Media Activity

Find the right balance between supervising your teenager’s online activities and respecting their privacy.  Talk with your teen about the degree to which you will keep an eye on them. They may not be thrilled at the prospect, but explain that this is important to maintaining their safety online.

Be sure to always be open with your teen if you choose to monitor their social media accounts or text messages. Avoid looking at personal content or messages without your teen’s consent; it can be a huge breach of privacy.

Cyberbullying Resources

Whether you have your suspicions or your teenager comes to you on their own, be sure to respond with love and support if you learn your teenager is experiencing cyberbullying. Always be willing to listen to what they have to say and reassure them that you are there to help them resolve this issue.

Helpful Cyberbullying Resources

For more information on cyberbullying, consult the following resources:

Stopbullying.gov

The Cyberbullying Research Center

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline

The Olweus Bullying Prevention Program

Delete Cyberbullying

Embrace Civility in the Digital Age

Cyberbully Help

The Bully Project