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Research Shows Rise in Cyberbullying During COVID-19 Pandemic

upset young girl on bed with cell phone

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Key Takeaways

  • Initial research shows cyberbullying has increased 70% during stay-at-home orders.
  • Pandemic stressors can cause kids to lash out or potentially create conflict with others.
  • Encourage open dialogue about your child’s current presence on social media and their experiences with cyberbullying.

For many children and teens, social distancing during the COVID-19 global pandemic means that the only contact they will have with their peers will be done virtually. As a result, they are using social media and apps like TikTok, FaceTime, and Zoom a lot more frequently than in the past. And although there is much good that can come from these online interactions—like giving kids important connections to the outside world—they are not without risks.

In fact, some of the greatest online risks to kids are cyberbullying, shaming, and exploitation. In fact, initial research indicates that cyberbullying is on the rise during the stay-at-home orders.

According to L1ght, an organization that monitors online harassment and hate speech, there has been a 70% increase in cyberbullying in just a matter of months. They also found a 40% increase in toxicity on online gaming platforms, a 900% increase in hate speech on Twitter directed toward China and the Chinese, and a 200% increase in traffic to hate sites.

Plus, popular website applications like Zoom have already come under fire when hackers infiltrated online business meetings with rude, hateful, and inappropriate comments. Consequently, if Zoom makes it easy for people to intrude on private conversations and cyberbully others, there is certainly the growing possibility that kids are going to be using these resources and others in much the same way.

In fact, the New York City Department of Education has received so many reports documenting the safety and privacy issues of Zoom that they no longer permit the use of it.

Why It's Happening

With social distancing firmly in place and the vast majority of schools teaching remotely, it stands to reason that kids are going to be online now more than ever. After all, their education is pretty much dependent on the Internet.

Teachers are using programs like Google Classroom, Moodle, Zoom, Canvas, Web-Ex, and Blackboard. Some are even using Roblox, Twitch, Minecraft, and YouTube. Consequently, students are stuck at home and being forced to use online platforms for learning.

More Leisure Time Spent Online

Aside from the increased screen time for learning, many kids just enjoy being online during their free time. Even when there isn't a global pandemic, students tend to spend more time in front of the screen when school isn't in session.

In fact, a 2019 study from the Cyberbullying Research Center found that when schools are out, students spend upwards of an hour more a day online watching YouTube or Netflix. Of course, these numbers are self-reported and could likely be higher, but they indicate that technology is often a go-to source when kids are idle or bored.

Increased Stress

Aside from the increase in technology use, there are other factors at play that are causing an increase in cyberbullying. For instance, when there is a major crisis like the one that COVID-19 brings, this puts everyone on edge, and kids are no exception.

As a result, hostility toward others tends to increase along with self-preserving and self-defensive behaviors. And while we certainly see these behaviors among adults, it's even more likely to manifest among teens in their online interactions with their peers.

Furthermore, this global pandemic is highly stressful and confusing. When kids are feeling this way, it can lead to acting out or lashing out at others, misunderstandings among friends, and risk-taking behaviors in response.

Isolation and Potentially Fragmented Friendships

What's more, some friend groups are fragmented right now, especially for kids whose situation at home is less than ideal. For instance, some kids and teens may have limited access to the Internet, a computer, or are severely limited in what they are permitted to do.

This reality results in these kids feeling further isolated. Then, when they are online they may make mean or cruel comments toward their peers in frustration, especially if they feel like they are missing out or have been kept out of the loop.

Decreased Digital Supervision

To make matters worse, parents are trying to balance working from home, helping with schoolwork, and learning how to manage the new normal. So, they don't always pay attention to what their kids are doing online.

As a result, kids have a lot more freedom than they had in the past when it comes to online gaming and social media use. This lack of boundaries and supervision also can allow for more cyberbullying.

Boredom

Finally, kids sometimes engage in cyberbullying because they are bored, lonely, or want attention. And, because this pandemic exacerbates those issues this is also leading to an increase in mean behavior online. As a result, some kids are cyberbullying others to not only relieve stress but also because they are bored. Cyberbullying feeds their need for attention—even if it's negative attention.

To complicate matters, when kids are cyberbullied their support networks are limited. They can no longer stop by the guidance counselor's office or talk to their teacher or coach about what's happening. And, they often don't talk to their parents about it either because they are concerned their technology use will be restricted. Right now, their technology is their only connection to the outside world.

What Parents Can Do

Because of COVID-19, many parents are at home with their children now more than ever. As a result, they have the opportunity to be especially mindful of what their kids are doing online and how they are interacting with others on social media.

Establish Guidelines

You can curb cyberbullying by limiting screentime where teens are gaming or using social media. Obviously with options for entertainment limited, accomplishing this task is not that easy, but by being creative it can be done.

For instance, allocate time when you can complete family projects, play games, do arts and crafts, experiment with science, or come up with other social distancing activities you can do in your neighborhood or yard.

Talk About Stress and Emotions

It's also important to have honest and direct conversations with your kids about what they are feeling and experiencing. This time is one of extreme stress, frustration, and anxiety. Talk about what that feels like and brainstorm ways it can be addressed—like exercising, meditating, and mindfulness.

Remind Them Same Rules Apply

Even though we are living through a pandemic and your kids are spending more hours online than in the past, it's important to remind them that the same rules apply as in the past when it comes to staying safe online.

For instance, let your kids know not to give out their personal information and tell them to avoid talking to or playing with strangers online. Also, give them a refresher in what content should be shared or viewed online and talk to them about the harmful effects of cyberbullying, hate speech or comments, sexting, and sharing inappropriate photos.

Urge Them to Connect

Being home all the time and not seeing friends, is especially difficult for children and teens. They need those connections with others to grow, learn, and develop. And while many social activities are limited, they can still connect with their friends and family members virtually. Consequently, encourage them to use FaceTime or Skype to talk to their friends.

They also can play online games, have virtual sleepovers, hold a book club, play a virtual game of horse, do bullet journals together, or even bake together while communicating online. Encourage them to get creative and reach out to others to set something up.

Encourage Openness

Keep in mind that teens are not usually forthcoming about cyberbullying because they're afraid of losing their technology or being removed from their social media accounts. For many kids, they would rather endure the cyberbullying than to risk losing all contact with their peers.

So, be sure to let them know that it's safe for them to be open with you. Remind them that they don't have to worry about losing their technology for something someone else does, but that they will lose their technology for treating others poorly online. Remember though, they have been torn away from everything they know. Try not to tear this away from them too unless you have to.

What Educators Can Do

It's important to recognize that students are going to struggle with feeling isolated and lonely because they are not able to go to school and connect with their friends in person. As a result, try to keep in touch with your students and remind them that you are there for them.

Connect With Vulnerable Students

You should especially try to connect with those students who you know might need encouragement and accountability. If you feel uncomfortable about reaching out, make sure you carbon copy or blind carbon copy your principal so that your communications are transparent.

Set Expectations

In your online learning platforms, it very important to spell out what you expect as well as establish some guidelines for online communications and interactions just like you would for your regular classroom.

Be clear that you expect students to respectful and courteous when interacting with you and others in the class. Also, be sure to model and reinforce positive online interactions.

Make sure they know that there will be disciplinary actions for anyone who is cruel toward other people. And be sure to correct any misconceptions or misstatements related to the virus. For instance, COVID-19 has caused a surge in xenophobic and racist cyberbullying, especially toward Asian students. Do everything you can to correct this false thinking and ensure that everyone is treated with respect.

Establish Consequences

Determine how you will implement rule violations and what the discipline will be. For instance, infractions could impact their grade, require additional work, or result in administrative actions once school resumes. Spell these consequences out clearly in your rules and guidelines and then be sure to enforce any violations of your online classroom code of conduct.

While it's important to be patient with your students, be careful not to let inappropriate comments or behaviors slip through the cracks otherwise your students will not take your guidelines seriously.

Monitor Online Interactions

Make sure you keep close tabs on what is happening in your online learning environments including discussion groups and online meetings related to your class.

Ask students to keep you informed if people are bullying others or making inappropriate remarks. Request screenshots or recordings when possible to help determine what is happening. This way, you can address abusive conduct right away.

What This Means For You

Whether you are a parent or an educator, it's important that you recognize that the risks associated with cyberbullying have increased exponentially since the pandemic began. For this reason, you need to be aware that kids may be struggling silently with these issues.

Ask meaningful questions about their experiences online and be on the lookout for signs of trouble. If you suspect they are being cyberbullied, do what you can to address the issue including reporting the incidents, making sure they are safe online, and providing a means for them to heal.

Learn More

Preventing Bullying (CDC)

What Is Cyberbullying (Stopbullying.gov)

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Article Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. L1ght. Rising levels of hate speech & online toxicity during this time of crisis.

  2. Zhan J, Ren J, Fan J, Luo J. Distinctive effects of fear and sadness induction on anger and aggressive behaviorFront Psychol. 2015;6:725. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2015.00725