What Is Cyberbullying?

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What Is Cyberbullying?

When a young person uses the Internet or technology to harass, threaten, embarrass, or target another person, this person is called a cyberbully. Typically, cyberbullying involves tweens and teens; but it's not uncommon for adults to experience cyberbullying and public shaming as well. 

Compared to traditional bullying, the effects of cyberbullying are often more significant. Not only do the hurtful messages reach an unlimited audience, but the words and images are often preserved online.

Even if someone deletes a mean post, chances are it's still available in some form such as in a screenshot or a shared text message. Worse yet, those who are targeted by cyberbullies often don't know who is bullying them, so they often have no way to bring it to an end.

Types of Cyberbullying

Kids are online now more than ever. Every day they use their smartphones, tablets, and computers not only to research material for school but to socialize with friends and family members. In fact, texting and using social media is one of the top ways kids communicate with others.

But just like any other social activity, the opportunity for bullying exists. While there are a number of ways kids bully others online, the majority of online harassment falls into one of five categories. These include harassment, impersonation, photograph use, website creation, and video shaming. Here is what you need to know about the most common types of cyberbullying.

Harassment

Harassing someone is a common method of online bullying. This type of cyberbullying occurs when someone uses technology to torment another person. One way kids harass others is by engaging in warning wars. This occurs when they use a site's report button as a way to get another person in trouble or kicked offline—even when they are doing nothing wrong.

Kids also participate in text wars or text attacks. This type of harassment occurs when kids gang up on the target and send hundreds of texts. These attacks not only cause emotional distress but create a large cell phone bill if you don't have unlimited texting. Kids may even post rude, mean, or insulting comments in the chat option of online gaming sites or on social networking sites such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

Sometimes, cyberbullies' approach online will be subtle and involve subtweeting and vaguebooking, which involves posting mean words about someone without naming them directly. Other times, they will be very overt in their harassment, using text messaging, instant messaging, and email to harass, threaten, or embarrass the target.

Impersonation

Another common form of cyberbullying is impersonation, where one person impersonates another person online. Although there are a number of ways for kids to accomplish this, one of the most common is to hack the account or steal the password and make changes to the target's profile.

Once they have access, they might post sexual, racist, or other inappropriate things to ruin the target's social standing and reputation. Or, they might chat with other people while pretending to be the victim. They will say mean things with the purpose of offending and angering the target's friends or acquaintances.

If they cannot access the person's account, another tactic commonly used is to develop a screen name or social media account that is similar to the target’s screen name and then post rude or hurtful remarks while pretending to be the target. Actual photos of the victim may be used to make the account look authentic.

Catfishing is another form of impersonation commonly seen in cyberbullying incidents. In these situations, kids pretend to be someone else in order to lure an unsuspecting person into a fake relationship.

Inappropriate Photographs

People who cyberbully others will sometimes use photographs to bully or shame other people. These photos may include embarrassing or inappropriate images that were either shared privately with them or were taken without the target knowing like in a locker room, a bathroom, or dressing room.

They then use these photos as weapons and post them on social media or on photo-sharing sites for anyone on the internet to view and download. Other times, they might send mass emails or text messages that include nude or degrading photos of the target.

This behavior is often called “sexting,” and once the photos are sent, there is no way to control it. The photos can be distributed to hundreds of people within just a few hours. Other times, kids will use embarrassing photos as a way of controlling or blackmailing the victim.

Sometimes people who cyberbully others may even escalate their cyberbullying by engaging in slut shaming, which involves shaming someone, usually a girl, for the way they dress, act, or the number of people they have dated.

Website Creation

Sometimes, kids who cyberbully others will create a website, blog, or poll to harass another person. For instance, they might conduct an internet poll about a target or several targets. Questions in the poll may include extremely hurtful questions like asking people to rank their peers by their looks or their weight.

Other times, cyberbullies will create a website or a blog about the target that is embarrassing, insulting, or humiliating. They might even post the target's personal information and pictures putting them in danger of being contacted by predators or they will spread rumors, tell lies, or gossip about the victim online through websites or blogs.

Video Shaming

Videos are frequently used for online bullying and are used to shame and embarrass the targets. For instance, the person cyberbullying others might upload a video of something humiliating that happened to the target and post it to YouTube or they might share it via mass e-mail or text message.

In other situations, kids who cyberbully others might create an incident that causes the target to become upset or emotional and then record the incident. This type of activity is often referred to as cyberbaiting.

Other times, they will record and later share a bullying incident. These situations may include one or more kids slapping, hitting, kicking, or punching the target. Even embarrassing moments that occur at school or in the community can be recorded and shared to embarrass and bully the target.

Impact of Cyberbullying

When cyberbullying occurs, kids experience a variety of physical, psychological, and emotional consequences. They may complain of everything from fear and anxiety to depression and low self-esteem. They also may struggle academically and report feelings of significant distress. In fact, more than 30% of kids who are targeted by cyberbullies report experiencing symptoms of stress.

"[Cyberbullying] can result in changes to your child’s personality, causing them to become more withdrawn and reserved," says Lena Suarez-Angelino, LCSW, a bilingual licensed clinical social worker who specializes in cyberbullying, self-esteem, body image, fat-shaming, and confidence. "Your child’s self-esteem [also] may decrease. Cyberbullying may be a way of confirming your child's most negative fears of themselves. A lack of worthiness or increase in anxiety can also be a result of cyberbullying."

Victims of cyberbullying also find it difficult to feel safe and may feel alone and isolated, especially if they are being ostracized by their peers. Cyberbullying can lead to increasing levels of anxiety and depression. One study found that as many as 93% of kids victimized by cyberbullies reported feelings of sadness, hopelessness, and powerlessness.

If your child is being targeted by cyberbullying, talk to their pediatrician or a mental health professional about what your child is experiencing. Expecting your child to cope with cyberbullying on their own is not realistic.

How to Respond to Cyberbullying

If your child has been victimized by cyberbullying, it is vital that you (and your child) know how to respond to cyberbullying incidents. While every situation is different, it is important to know what to do to address the issue as well as get your child on a path to overcoming the bullying. Here are five ways to respond to cyberbullying.

Report But Don't Respond

One of the biggest mistakes kids make is to respond to cyberbullying with a post that fights back or tries to explain. Although it is hard to refrain from responding to something untrue, this type of interaction is exactly what the person cyberbullying is hoping for.

Cyberbullying is more likely to fade away if there is no response from the target. Remember, responding only allows the situation to escalate, so it is safer for your child to ignore the posts and block the person.

Meanwhile, you should help report the cyberbully to the appropriate people. This might mean reporting them to the social media provider, the school, or even the police if the cyberbullying involves threats or violates cyberbullying laws.

"The bottom line is: Kids cannot be expected to handle such traumatic things on their own, especially when it comes to their safety and wellbeing," says Erica Laub, MSW, LICSW, a licensed clinical social worker who specializes in trauma, attachment, self-esteem, anxiety, and depression. "There is a time and place to implement skills and allow kids to practice self-efficacy, but safety needs to be addressed first."

Document the Incidents

Even though cyberbullying often involves painful words, photos, and messages, it is important to save the evidence in case you need to take legal action. Save everything that happens by taking screenshots or making copies.

Although your child’s first reaction may be to delete everything, remind them that without evidence, you have no proof of the cyberbullying. After the evidence is gathered and you have talked to the appropriate authorities, you should be able to delete comments.

If the posts involve sexual bullying or contain nudity, delete these messages and posts right away, though. Keeping or printing pictures of an underage child constitutes possession of child pornography and could result in legal action against you and your child.

Report the incidents immediately and allow the police to keep the proof. Do not maintain copies of any sexual posts.

Involve the Police and the School

As hard as it may be to tell others about what is happening, reporting bullying to the appropriate authorities is essential. Even if the cyberbullying happened off of school grounds, you need to let them know. Some states give schools the authority to intervene, especially since cyberbullying and other types of bullying will infiltrate the school building at some point.

"Parents also should check and reference their child's school policy on bullying," says Laub. "If you or your child has asked school officials to step in and there is no response, it is a good idea to make your school know you are aware of their policy and raise a concern they are not adhering to it. Next, check your state laws on bullying and cyberbullying. Depending on your state, cyberbullying might be grounds for criminal charges and investigation."

Additionally, threats of death, threats of physical violence, indications of stalking, and even suggestions that your child should commit suicide should be reported immediately to the police. You should also report any harassment that continues over an extended period of time, especially if it involves harassment based on race, religion, or disability. The police will address these incidents.

Be Aware of the Effects

There are a number of consequences targets of cyberbullying experience including everything from feeling overwhelmed and vulnerable to feeling depressed and even suicidal. Watch for changes in your child's behavior and communicate with them on a daily basis. And, don't hesitate to get them the help they need in order to heal.

"It is important for parents to be a source of calm when things feel chaotic," says Laub. "For a kid experiencing cyberbullying, it may feel like their world is crashing down and their entire social life is at risk."

One thing you can do to help is distract your child from social media. Do something fun together or encourage your child to take up a new hobby. The key is to redirect their attention away from what others are saying and doing until the cyberbullying subsides.

Refrain From Taking Away Technology

It's a normal reaction to want to eliminate what is hurting your child, but you should refrain from taking away their computer or shutting down their social media accounts. For young people, this often means cutting off communication with their entire world.

Their phones and their computers are one of the most important ways they communicate with others. If that option for connection is removed, they can feel secluded and cut off from their world. This can exacerbate feelings of loneliness and isolation.

"Realistically, your child will need some access to technology and it is best to learn skills to combat bullying rather than keeping them on lockdown," says Laub. "Additionally, it is not fair to a child to completely lose access to all friends, especially those who are a good influence on them and help them cope. When kids grow up and become adults, it is important they have the skills to navigate conflict, stand up for themselves, and communicate with their support system."

Instead, help your child navigate the situation by changing online behaviors, setting up boundaries, and limiting time online. You also can make sure the appropriate people are blocked and that they have someone to talk to about what they are experiencing.

"Consider finding a support group or joining an organization that is geared towards anti-bullying or coping with the effects of cyberbullying," Suarez-Angelino says. "This will help introduce your child to others that have had similar experiences and can come from a place of empathy through lived experience. At times, children feel that adults 'don’t understand' their experiences."

Remember, it's not the technology that is hurting your child, but the person on the other end of the technology. Assure your child that they will not lose their phone if they report cyberbullying. Then, keep your promises.

Tips for Coping

  • Reclaim control. Cyberbullying can make teens feel like their lives are out of control. For this reason, you want to teach them how to take back their power.
  • Learn from the experience. Whether your child needs a boost to their self-esteem or they need to learn to think positively, help your child identify what they can learn from this experience.
  • Focus on the future. It's very easy for bullied kids to stay stuck in their pain. Instead, help them focus on the future and set goals rather than dwelling on the pain they're experiencing.
  • Get outside help. If cyberbullying is starting to interfere with your child's day-to-day life or if they are struggling with depression or anxiety, talk to a healthcare provider or mental health professional.

How to Prevent Cyberbullying

When it comes to preventing cyberbullying, it is important that you not only help your child implement some safety measures but that you also have an ongoing dialogue about how to use social media safely.

It is also important to talk about the risks of cyberbullying and what to do if they are bullied online. Here are some ways that you can help prevent cyberbullying in your child's life.

Protect Accounts and Devices

Almost every social media platform contains privacy tools and settings. Help your child make use of these tools in a way that keeps their account private, prevents people from sharing their photos, and requires their approval before people can post to their pages or accounts.

Passwords are one of the most effective ways to protect your child's social media accounts as well as their computer, laptop, tablet, and smartphone. Be sure your child knows that they should never share their password with their friends. Even their best friend should not know their passwords because there is no guarantee that they will be friends forever.

You also should encourage your child to log out of social media apps and email when on public computers. Simply closing the tab where they were viewing their Instagram or Facebook account is not enough. It's too easy for a person to go to that page after they walk away and be inside your child's personal account. Cyberbullies can then change passwords or impersonate your child online.

Maintain Some Privacy

Remind your child that they should never share personal information online. This includes things like their address, the school they attend, and even their last name. The more information that they make available, the easier it is for cyberbullies to target them.

Likewise, many kids like to share their location with their friends. While this is usually fine, it also can provide detailed information about your child's whereabouts to kids who have less than genuine intentions toward them. Knowing your child's location makes it easier for abusive boyfriends or girlfriends to stalk your child or for cyberbullies to exploit this information.

Practice Thinking Before Posting

Often an impulsive post or comment can be an open door for cyberbullying. Make sure your child knows that they should always take time to really think about what they're posting before putting it online. Even if they post something and then delete it, there is still the risk that someone will see it, take a screenshot of it, and exploit it. It is better to always be slow to post.

One way to have more control over posts is to teach your child how to schedule posts. Rather than quickly putting together a post and putting it online immediately, have them develop a post and schedule a time for it to be posted. This way, if they have second thoughts, they can edit or delete the post before it is live.

Set Limits

Encourage your child to limit their posts and their time on social media. Kids who post a lot of selfies or self-reflective posts often attract the attention of cyberbullies. Plus, when there are a lot of photos or posts, it gives cyberbullies a lot of material to work with.

Encourage your child to limit how much they are posting to social media. Also, teach them how to set personal boundaries or limits on how often or for how long they use social media. They can set timers that remind them that it is time to do something else.

Perform a Social Media Audit

Every few months, sit down with your child and go through their social media accounts. Talk about what should be deleted because of the potential ways in which the posts could be misconstrued.

Performing a social media audit is also a great way to ensure that their social media account presents images and posts that colleges and future employers would find acceptable as well. You can also work with them to learn how to leverage social media to build a platform or communicate about something they are passionate about.

A Word From Verywell

Although cyberbullying involves using social media, smartphones, text messages, and online apps as tools and weapons, these tools are not the problem. Cyberbullying occurs because of the choices kids make. Restricting your child's digital access will not prevent them from being cyberbullied. In fact, kids can still create a fake profile and impersonate your child online.

Instead of controlling online access, focus your efforts on educating your child about the risks of cyberbullying. Talk to them about how to make smart choices online and how to report cyberbullying if it occurs. Keeping an open dialogue with your kids about cyberbullying is the most effective way to deal with the issue. 

6 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.
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By Sherri Gordon
Sherri Gordon is a published author and a bullying prevention expert.