Some children participate in hurtful behavior over texting, social media websites, email, and other digital platforms. Here, an internet safety expert reveals the facts about cyberbullying and shares ways to stop the harassment.

text messages going back and forth
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Digital technology has evolved exponentially over the years—and while these advances have brought unparalleled knowledge to the modern world, they've also lead to an increase in cyberbullying. "The definition of cyberbullying can vary from source to source, but the most basic definition is using technology to hurt or harm another person," says Bailey Huston, coordinator at PACER's National Bullying Prevention Center. Cyberbullying may happen anywhere online and involve social networking profiles, video and image sharing websites, blogs, e-mails, instant messaging, video games, or texting.

While cyberbullying isn't necessarily more damaging than in-person bullying, it has a few unique characteristics, according to Huston:

  • The cyberbully is usually someone the target knows, but it also can be a stranger. The cyberbully can act anonymously. 
  • Cyberbullying has a potentially larger audience—"as posts can be seen, shared and potentially go viral," explains Huston
  • Cyberbullying doesn't stop when the school bell rings. It's not confined to the lunchroom or hallway, since digital technology is omnipresent. "Targets of cyberbullying may often feel like they can't escape what's happening to them," says Huston.

Types of Cyberbullying

According to New York State's Division of Criminal Justice Services, a few common types of cyberbullying include:

Denigration: Spreading harmful, untrue, or damaging rumors and statements online that will damage an individual's reputation.

Exclusion: Excluding a person on purpose from an online group. This is considered an indirect form of cyberbullying.

Flaming: Fighting that involves sending angry, cruel, rude, and vulgar messages to one individual or several individuals in a private or public online setting.

Happy Slapping: Attacking an individual physically as a "prank" or "joke" while others film the attack or take pictures to be distributed/posted online.

Harassment: Sending an ongoing series of hurtful, insulting online messages targeted to an individual.

Impersonation: Pretending and posing as someone else, then sending or posting material online with the intent to damage an individual's reputation.

Outing: Sending or posting material (such as message and images) online about a person that contains sensitive, private, or embarrassing information.

Text Wars/Attacks: Hounding a targeted individual with a high amount of mean text messages and emails.

Trickery: Engaging in deception to acquire embarrassing material that is then made public online.

Why Do Kids Cyberbully?

"When it comes to bullying, there isn't a 'one-size-fits-all' reason why kids and teens might participate," says Huston. "One common thread we often see is that children who bully—whether in person or online—often seek to demonstrate power and want to feel in control." For example, students might like the confidence and power that comes with cyberbullying, or they might be trying to fit in with their peers

One factor that makes cyberbullying especially appealing is physical distance from the victim.  Regular bullying involves face-to-face confrontation and verbal/physical violence. On the other hand, cyberbullying is done electronically, where the perpetrators can act behind closed doors. "It's often easier to be cruel using technology because of the great physical distance and not seeing an immediate response by the target of the cyberbullying behavior," says Huston. "Because of that, students who cyberbully might not recognize the serious harm of their actions."

How Common is Cyberbullying? 

As children get older, they're introduced to cell phones and social networking sites—and this correlates with an increase in cyberbullying. Here are some statistics: 

  • Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in 2018 reveals that about 15% of high school students reported cyberbullying within the last year
  • According to The Cyberbullying Research Center, 36.5% of people surveyed in March 2019 experienced cyberbullying in at some point in their life. This is double the amount of people who experienced it in 2007 (18.8%) when digital technologies were just beginning to gain traction
  • Huston references a 2015 study that says cyber-bullied individuals are likely to be bullied in real life. 
  • While both boys and girls are involved in cyberbullying, girls are more likely to cyberbully others and be the targets of cyberbullies.

The Consequences of Cyberbullying

Cyberbullying has a host of negative consequences for the victim. It may lead to emotional distress, depression, school violence, and school avoidance. And many youth who are involved in bullying—either engaged in aggression or victimized by it—often have emotional and social difficulties already. A child's decision to commit suicide is rare and is the result of many factors; however, sometimes cyberbullying may be a trigger.

elementary school students with smartphones
Credit: dolgachov/Getty Images

Is My Child Being Cyberbullied?

Children and teenagers might not open up about their cyberbullying experience, but you should look out for changes in behavior. "Maybe your child is not wanting to go to school or their normal clubs and activities, they may become upset after spending time on the computer or their phone, or they are withdrawing from interactions with family or friends in real life," says Huston. However, it's important to note that every child reacts differently, and some may not demonstrate any unusual behavior. That's why Huston says parents should have open, honest conversations cyberbullying with their child. (Also let your child know that you won't restrict his Internet access if he reports cyberbullying, which Huston says may be a reason for his silence). 

How to Help a Cyberbullying Victim

If your child is being targeted, the most important thing to do is express your support. "Let them know they don't deserve what is happening and that together, you will work to stop the bullying," Huston says. (Always encourage your child to talk to you, but also respect and honor his decision to resolve situations independently, if he wishes.)

Huston says the next step is to document the situation. "Take screenshots of any posts containing bullying and save texts, emails, messages, or photos," she says. "Once you have documentation, reach out to your child's school to ask about their bullying prevention policy. Determine the point of contact and provide documentation of the bullying to your child's school." Parents can also work with technology providers to see if they're able to report and/or block harassing content. Most sites that allow for interactive communications have a terms of use agreement that prohibits anyone from engaging in harmful communications.

Here are other tips for helping your child handle a cyberbully:

  • Advise your child not to respond quickly if someone is being hurtful. An angry and aggressive response, made in haste, can escalate the problem. 
  • Tell the bully "stop" in a calm and strong manner. Saying "stop" does not mean retaliating. 
  • Before alerting the school, consider contacting the parent(s) of the cyberbully and firmly stating that the hurtful actions must be stopped. Provide electronic evidence, and try not to provoke a defensive reaction.
  • Call an attorney or the police if your child is in danger. An attorney can help you take necessary legal action and the police can help you address threats of physical violence and/or sexual exploitation.

What If My Child is the Cyberbully?

It can be surprising and hurtful to learn your child is a cyberbully—but it's not too late to turn things around. "Start by talking with your child about why they are bullying. This open conversation should allow them to explore how they may be feeling and what factors might be leading to their behavior," says Huston. Emphasize that cyberbullying is cruel, and being hurtful to others can damage friendships and reputations. Also reiterate that everyone should be treated with respect, especially others who are perceived as being "different" in any way. 

Parents should also realize that it takes time to change destructive behavior. "Be patient with your child as they learn new ways to handle feelings and conflict," Huston says. "Provide praise and recognition when your child handles conflict well or finds a positive way to deal with their feelings."

Cyberbullying Prevention

As soon as your child starts using the Internet, Huston says to speak with him about cyberbullying. Children with parents who are actively and positively involved in their lives engage in less risk-taking behavior when using electronic technologies, and they're better prepared to respond to negative situations. Let your child know he can speak with you about anything he experiences online. Also help him develop effective conflict resolution skills. Advise him never to share anything in electronic form (personal messages, photos, videos, etc.) that can be easily distributed by others to cause harm or embarrassment. 

If your child sees evidence of cyberbullying among his peers, encourage him to step up. For example, he can provide emotional support for the bullied, build the courage to speak out against hurtful actions, and report the problem to an adult who can intervene.