Cyberbullying: Dealing with Online Bullies
Technology means a cyberbully can harass and intimidate you anywhere and at any time until nowhere feels safe. But there are ways to protect yourself or your child from online bullies.
What is cyberbullying?
Cyberbullying occurs when someone uses the internet, emails, messaging, social media, or other digital technology to harass, threaten, or humiliate another person. Unlike traditional bullying, cyberbullying isn’t limited to schoolyards, street corners, or workplaces, but can occur anywhere via smartphones, tablets, and computers, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Cyberbullies don’t require face-to-face contact and their bullying isn’t limited to just a handful of witnesses at a time. It also doesn’t require physical power or strength in numbers.
Cyberbullies can torment you relentlessly and the bullying can follow you anywhere so that no place, not even home, ever feels safe. And with a few clicks the humiliation can be witnessed by hundreds or even thousands of people online.
For those who suffer cyberbullying, the effects can be devastating. Being bullied online can leave you feeling hurt, humiliated, angry, depressed, or even suicidal. But no type of bullying should ever be tolerated.
If you or a loved one is currently the victim of cyberbullying, it’s important to remember that you’re not alone. More than 50 percent of teenagers have suffered from cyberbullying or online harassment and as many as 43 percent of adults working remotely have been bullied online. But whatever your circumstances, there are ways to fightback against cyberbullies, overcome the pain and anguish, and reclaim your sense of identity and self-worth.
Cyberbullies come in all shapes and sizes. Almost anyone with an internet connection or smartphone can cyberbully someone else, often without having to reveal their true identity. As with face-to-face bullying, all genders cyberbully, but tend to do so in different ways.
Boys tend to bully by “sexting” (sending messages of a sexual nature), posting revenge porn, or with messages that threaten physical harm. Girls, on the other hand, more commonly cyberbully by spreading lies and rumors, exposing your secrets, or by excluding you from social media groups, emails, buddy lists and the like. Because cyberbullying is so easy to perpetrate, a child or teen can easily change roles, going from cyberbullying victim at one point to cyberbully the next, and then back again.
The methods kids and teens use to cyberbully can be as varied and imaginative as the technology they have access to. This could range from sending threatening or taunting messages via email, text, social media, or IM to breaking into your email account or stealing your online identity to hurt and humiliate you. Some cyberbullies may even create a website or social media page to target you.
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The effects of cyberbullying
Any type of bullying, in-person or online, can leave you feeling deeply distressed, scared, angry, or ashamed. It can take a heavy toll on your self-esteem and trigger mental health problems such as depression, anxiety, and PTSD. You may feel like you’re alone and powerless to make the bullying stop—or even that you’re somehow responsible for being bullied.
In many cases, though, cyberbullying can be even more painful than face-to-face bullying because:
Cyberbullying can happen anywhere, at any time. You may experience it even in places where you’d normally feel safe, such as your home, and at times when you’d least expect it, like during the weekend in the company of your family. It can seem like there’s no escape from the taunting and humiliation.
A lot of cyberbullying can be done anonymously, so you may not be sure who is targeting you. This can make you feel even more threatened and can embolden bullies, as they believe online anonymity means they’re less likely to get caught. Since cyberbullies can’t see your reaction, they will often go much further in their harassment or ridicule than they would if they were face-to-face with you.
Cyberbullying can be witnessed by potentially thousands of people. Emails, messages, and tweets can be forwarded to many, many people while social media posts or website comments can often be seen by anyone. The more far-reaching the bullying, the more humiliating it can become.
Cyberbullying can often be permanent. Malicious lies or embarrassing images can often remain visible online indefinitely, having long-term consequences on your life, reputation, and well-being.
Cyberbullying and suicide
How to deal with cyberbullying tip 1: Respond to the cyberbully in the right way
If you are targeted by cyberbullies, it’s important not to respond to any messages or posts written about you, no matter how hurtful or untrue. Responding will only make the situation worse and provoking a reaction from you is exactly what the cyberbully wants, so don’t give them the satisfaction.
It’s also very important that you don’t seek revenge on a cyberbully by becoming a cyberbully yourself. Again, it will only make the problem worse and could result in serious legal consequences for you. If you wouldn’t say it in person, don’t say it online.
Instead, respond to cyberbullying by:
Saving the evidence of the cyberbullying. Keep abusive text messages or a screenshot of a webpage, for example, and then report them to a trusted adult, such as a family member, teacher, or school counselor. If you don’t report incidents, the cyberbully will often become more aggressive.
Getting help. Talk to a parent, teacher, counselor, or other trusted adult. Seeing a counselor does not mean there is something wrong with you.
Reporting threats of harm and inappropriate sexual messages to the police. In many cases, the cyberbully’s actions can be prosecuted by law.
Being relentless. Cyberbullying is rarely limited to one or two incidents. It’s far more likely to be a sustained attack on you over a period of time. So, like the cyberbully, you may have to be relentless and keep reporting each and every bullying incident until it stops. There is no reason for you to ever put up with cyberbullying.
Preventing communication from the cyberbully. Block their email address and cell phone number, unfriend or unfollow them, and delete them from your social media contacts. Report their activities to their internet service provider (ISP) or to any social media or other web sites they use to target you. The cyberbully’s actions may constitute a violation of the website’s terms of service or, depending on the laws in your area, may even warrant criminal charges.
Tip 2: Reevaluate your internet and social media habits
Spending time online, particularly on social media, can help you feel connected to friends and family around the world and find new communities, interests, and outlets for self-expression. However, spending too much time on social media can also have some negative effects.
Whether you’re on Twitter, Facebook, TikTok, SnapChat, Instagram, or another platform, heavy social media use can actually make you feel more lonely and isolated, rather than less. It can also impact your self-esteem, exacerbate common mental health problems, lead to feelings of dissatisfaction, sadness, and frustration, and of course, leave you more open to instances of cyberbullying.
Many of us have a fear of missing out (FOMO) if we’re not instantly liking, sharing, or responding to social media posts. But the truth is there are very few things that require your immediate response. Constantly checking and rechecking your phone can often be a way to mask other underlying problems, such as boredom, feelings of anxiety or depression, or the need to feel less awkward and alone in social situations.
By changing your focus to offline friends and activities, though, and making a conscious effort to spend less time on social media, you can improve your mood and mental health as well as change how cyberbullying impacts your life.
Taking a break from social media, putting away your phone, and unplugging from technology can also open you up to meeting new people—especially those who don’t spread hurtful rumors, lies, and abuse online.
Tip 3: Find support from those who don’t cyberbully
Having trusted people you can turn to for support and reassurance can help you cope with even the most spiteful and damaging experiences of cyberbullying. Reach out to connect with family and real friends or explore ways of making new friends. There are plenty of people who love and appreciate you for who you are.
Share your feelings about cyberbullying. Even if the person you talk to can’t provide answers, the simple act of opening up about how you feel to someone who cares about you can make a real difference to your mood and self-esteem. Try talking to a parent, counselor, coach, religious leader, or trusted friend.
Spend time doing things you enjoy. When you spend time pursuing hobbies and interests that bring you joy, cyberbullying can have less significance in your life. Join a sports team, rekindle an old hobby, or hang out with friends who don’t participate in bullying.
Find others who share your same values and interests. Many people are cyberbullied for not fitting in with the mainstream. Whether it’s your race, sexual orientation, beliefs, or gender that makes you a target, it’s important to remember that you’re not alone. There are lots of other people who’ve been through what you’re dealing with now, share your values, and will appreciate your individualism. Look for Meetup groups with people who share your interests, join a book group, volunteer for a cause that’s important to you, or enroll in a team, youth group, or religious organization where you’ll find like-minded people.
Tip 4: View cyberbullying from a different perspective
You can help to ease the pain of cyberbullying by viewing the problem from a different perspective. The cyberbully is a jealous, frustrated person, often trying to escape their own problems. Their goal is to have control over your feelings so that they feel tough and powerful and you feel as unhappy as they do. Don’t give them the satisfaction.
Don’t blame yourself. No matter what a cyberbully does or says about you, it’s important to remember that it’s not your fault. Never feel guilty or be ashamed of who you are or what you feel. The cyberbully is the person with the problem, not you.
Don’t beat yourself up. Don’t make a cyberbullying incident worse by reading the message over and over and punishing yourself further. Life moves so fast online that in a few days or weeks other people will likely have forgotten the incident. Instead, delete any hurtful or abusive messages and focus on the positive, instead. There are many wonderful things about you, so be proud of who you are.
Manage your stress. Experiencing cyberbullying can leave you feeling jittery, nervous, and overwhelmed. But there are healthy ways to manage stress and build your resilience to the damaging effects of cyberbullying. Exercise, meditation, muscle relaxation, breathing exercises, and positive self-talk are all greats ways to relax, burn off frustration, and build mental fortitude against future negative experiences.
Focus on positive aspects of your life. It’s easy to become absorbed by the negativity of cyberbullying and get trapped in a downward spiral. But you can break free of the pessimism and boost your mood and self-esteem by switching your focus to things you like and feel grateful for in your life. These don’t have to be huge things; taking a few moments each day to appreciate a kind message from a friend, the love of a family member, or joy of walking in nature can make a real difference to how you feel. Try writing down three things you’re grateful for at the end of each day.
Tips for parents to stop or prevent cyberbullying
Many kids can be reluctant to tell their parents about cyberbullying out of a fear that doing so may result in losing their cell phone or computer privileges. While parents should always monitor a child’s use of technology, it’s important not to threaten to withdraw access or otherwise punish a child who’s been the victim of cyberbullying.
Spot the warning signs of cyberbullying
Unlike traditional bullying where the bruises are often easily noticeable, it can be harder for parents to spot the signs of cyberbullying. You child may be a victim if they:
- Seem upset, angry, or otherwise distressed as a result of time spent online or using their phone.
- Appear anxious when receiving a text, message, or social media notification.
- Become secretive about their online and social media activities.
- Refuse to go to school or to specific classes, or avoid group activities.
- Withdraw from friends, group activities, or online and in-person events they used to enjoy.
- Suffer an unusual and sudden drop in performance at school.
- Exhibit changes in behavior, sleeping, and eating patterns, or a decline in mood (such as signs of depression or anxiety).
Prevent cyberbullying before it starts
One of the best ways to stop cyberbullying is to prevent the problem before it starts. To stay safe with technology, teach your kids to:
- Refuse to pass along cyberbullying messages.
- Tell their friends to stop cyberbullying.
- Block communication with cyberbullies; delete messages without reading them.
- Never post or share their personal information—or their friends’ personal information—online.
- Never share their internet passwords with anyone, except you.
- Talk to you about their life online.
- Not put anything online that they wouldn’t want their friends or classmates to see, even in email.
- Not send messages when they’re angry or upset.
- Always be as polite online as they are in person.
Monitor your child’s technology use
Regardless of how much your child resents it, you can only protect them by monitoring what they do online.
Use parental control apps on your child’s smartphone or tablet and set up filters on your child’s computer to block inappropriate web content and help you monitor their online activities.
Limit data access to your child’s smartphone. Some wireless providers allow you to turn off text messaging services during certain hours.
Insist on knowing your child’s passwords and learn the common acronyms kids use online, in social media, and in messaging apps.
Know who your child communicates with online. Go over your child’s address book and social media contacts with them. Ask who each person is and how your child knows them.
Encourage your child to tell you or another trusted adult if they receive threatening messages or are otherwise targeted by cyberbullies, while reassuring them that doing so will not result in their loss of phone or computer privileges.
If your child is a cyberbully
It’s never easy for a parent to learn that their child is cyberbullying others, but it’s important to take action and curb your child’s negative behavior before it can have serious repercussions.
If your child has responded to being cyberbullied by employing their own cyberbullying tactics, you can help them to find better ways of dealing with the problem. If your child has trouble managing strong emotions such as anger, hurt, or frustration, talk to a therapist about helping your child learn to cope with these feelings in a healthy way.
Cyberbullying is often a learned behavior
Some cyberbullies learn aggressive behavior from their experiences at home, so it’s important to set a good example with your own online, social media, and messaging habits. As a parent, you may be setting a bad example for your kids by:
- Sending or forwarding abusive emails, social media posts, or text messages that target coworkers, neighbors, or acquaintances.
- Communicating with people online in ways that you wouldn’t do face-to-face.
- Displaying bullying behavior—in-person or online—such as verbally or physically abusing others or intimidating people.
Tips for parents dealing with a child who cyberbullies
Learn about your child’s friends and social life. Sometimes a child or teen’s friends can encourage their bullying behavior online. By regularly talking to your child about their life and who they’re socializing with, the easier it will be to uncover any problems they may be having fitting in or building relationships with others.
Educate your child about cyberbullying. When bullying is done virtually, the bully often doesn’t see the consequences of their actions. Often, a child may not understand how hurtful and damaging their behavior online can be to others. As a parent, though, you can help to foster your child’s empathy by encouraging them to look at their behavior from the victim’s perspective. It’s also worth reminding your child that cyberbullying can have serious legal consequences.
Encourage your child to manage stress. Your child’s cyberbullying may be an attempt at relieving the stress they’re experiencing at home or at school. But there are much healthier ways to let off steam and relieve tension. Try taking up a new sport or physical activity with your child or teaching them how to practice relaxation techniques.
Set limits with technology. Let your child know that you’ll be monitoring their online behavior. If necessary, remove access to technology until behavior improves.
Establish consistent rules of behavior. While your child may resent any attempts you make to discipline them, the truth is that the rules and boundaries you set shows your child that they’re worthy of your time and attention.
Authors: Lawrence Robinson and Jeanne Segal, Ph.D.
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Bullying and cyberbulling helplines:
U.S.: 1-800-273-8255 – Crisis Call Center
UK: 0845 22 55 787 – National Bullying Helpline
Canada: 1-877-352-4497 – BullyingCanada
Australia:1800 551 800 – Kids Helpline
New Zealand: 0800 54 37 54 – Kidsline
India: 1098 – Childline India
Cyberbullying Research Center offers a list of social media apps, websites, gaming networks, and related companies where you can report instances of cyberbullying.
Last updated: September 28, 2022