The Real-Life Effects of Cyberbullying on Children

illustration of young girl in front of laptop experiencing distress from cyberbullying

Verywell / Emily Roberts

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Any type of bullying can have physical and psychological effects on a child. Anxiety, fear, depression, low self-esteem, behavioral issues, and academic struggles are just of the few challenges kids may experience if they are targets. Cyberbullying, however, may be particularly damaging.

There are several possible reasons for this. For example, unlike traditional bullying—which is often limited to school and known bullies—cyberbullying can occur at any time, day or night, and be perpetrated by anonymous sources. This makes it more relentless and, often, more cruel.

Even the type of victimization may impact the severity of its consequences. For instance, one study found that online pictures and posts were more damaging than harassment received through text messaging or phone calls.

While cyberbullying can happen in a public digital space, like on social media post, it can also take the form of private messages—leaving some kids managing this secret, and its effect on them, alone.

Being aware of all of the effects of cyberbullying cannot only help you support a child you know is affected, but help you become more aware of signs that may be reason for concern—and a conversation.

Emotional Effects of Cyberbullying

Not surprisingly, cyberbullying is a significant stressor in a young person's life. In fact, research shows that 32% of kids who are targets of cyberbullying report experiencing at least one symptom of stress.

In addition to feeling distressed, they also may feel embarrassed, hurt, and even fear for their safety. They may even blame themselves for the cyberbullying.

If you notice a change in your child's mood, don't hesitate to reach out to their healthcare provider for evaluation and support.

Humiliation

Because cyberbullying occurs in cyberspace, online bullying feels permanent. Kids know that once something is out there, it will always be out there. They can feel exposed, embarrassed, and overwhelmed.

When cyberbullying occurs, the nasty posts, messages, or texts can be shared with multitudes of people. The sheer volume of people that know about the bullying can lead to intense feelings of humiliation.

Isolation

Cyberbullying sometimes causes kids to be excluded and ostracized at school. Consequently, they often feel alone and isolated. This experience can be particularly painful because friends are crucial at this age. When kids don’t have friends, this can lead to more bullying. 

When cyberbullying occurs, parents sometimes recommend shutting off the computer or turning off the cell phone. But for many kids, using these devices is considered the most important way they communicate with others. Turning them off often means cutting off their connection with their world, which can make them feel more secluded.

Anger

Many victims of cyberbullying will get angry about what is happening to them. In fact, research indicates that anger is the most common response to cyberbullying (followed by being upset and worried).

Some kids that are victimized may even plot revenge and engage in retaliation. Aside from the trouble they could get into, this approach is dangerous because it can keep them locked in the bully-victim cycle.

While it's always better to forgive a bully than it is to get even, this is often easier said than done. If your child seems intensely angry over cyberbullying, it may help for them to speak with a counselor or therapist who can teach them to channel that anger in productive ways.

Powerlessness

Victims of cyberbullying often find it difficult to feel safe. They may feel vulnerable and powerless. Typically, these feelings surface because the online bullying can invade their home through a computer or cell phone at any time of day. They no longer have a place where they can escape.

To a victim, it can feel like cyberbullying is everywhere.

Additionally, because the bullies can remain anonymous, this realization may escalate feelings of fear. Sometimes kids who are targeted may have no idea who is inflicting the pain, although some cyberbullies choose people they know and have no problem identifying themselves.

Mental Effects of Cyberbullying

When cyberbullying is ongoing, victims may relate to the world around them differently than others. For many, life can feel hopeless and meaningless.

They may lose interest in things they once enjoyed and spend less time interacting with family and friends. And, in some cases, depression and thoughts of suicide can set in.

Depression and Anxiety

Victims of cyberbullying may succumb to anxiety, depression, and other stress-related conditions. The added stress of coping with cyberbullying on a regular basis can steal their feelings of happiness and contentment. It also can increase feelings of worry and isolation.

Cyberbullying also can erode self-confidence and feelings of self-worth, which can contribute to depression and anxiety.

Research has consistently supported the notion that increasing levels of cyberbullying lead to higher levels of depression. In fact, one study found that 93% of those victimized by cyberbullying reported feelings of sadness, powerlessness, and hopelessness.

Low Self-Esteem

Cyberbullying often zeros in on what already makes victims feel most vulnerable. For example, maybe a child who feels insecure about a birthmark ends up being bullied about just that.

Even when that's not the case, though, online bullying can have an impact on self-esteem. Targets of bullying may begin to feel intense dissatisfaction with who they are. As a result, they can begin to doubt their worth and value.

Researchers speculate that because young people have an intense psychological need to be part of and accepted by a peer group, cyberbullying may cause psychological maladjustment, reduced well-being, and ultimately low self-esteem.

Academic Issues

Kids being victimized by cyberbullying may lose interest in school. As a result, they often have much higher rates of absenteeism than non-bullied kids. They may skip school to avoid facing the kids cyberbullying them or because they are embarrassed and humiliated by the messages that were shared online.

Their grades may also suffer because they find it difficult to concentrate or study. And in some cases, kids may either drop out of school or lose interest in continuing their education after high school.

Suicidal Thoughts and Self-Harm

Sometimes targets of cyberbullying respond to their intense feelings by harming themselves in some way. For instance, some might engage in self-harm such as cutting or burning themselves. In fact, research has consistently linked bullying and self-harm.

Cyberbullying also increases the risk of suicide. Kids that are constantly tormented by peers through text messages, instant messaging, social media, or apps often begin to feel hopeless and that the only way to relieve the pain is ending their life.

As a result, they may fantasize about dying in order to escape.

If your child is having suicidal thoughts, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 for support and assistance from a trained counselor. If you or a loved one are in immediate danger, call 911.

Behavioral Effects of Cyberbullying

Kids who are cyberbullied may display the same behavioral changes as those who are bullied in more traditional ways. For example, they exhibit a loss of interest in activities and engage in secretive behavior.

In extreme cases, or when cyberbullying is prolonged, kids sometimes even exhibit more significant behavioral changes. These can include:

  • Using drugs or alcohol: Kids who are harassed online are more likely to engage in substance abuse. In fact, one study found that targets of cyberbullying were 2.5 times more likely to use marijuana or engage in binge drinking than their peers.
  • Skipping school: Sometimes when kids are cyberbullied, the thought of going to school is just more than they can handle. Consequently, it's not uncommon for them to skip school or even behave in such a way that results in suspension. In one survey, those who were cyberbullied reported two or more suspensions or detentions in the prior year.
  • Carrying a weapon: Even more concerning is the fact that kids who are cyberbullied are more likely to bring a weapon to school. In fact, one survey found that targets of cyberbullying were eight times more likely to have brought a weapon to school in the last 30 days than their peers.

Physical Effects of Cyberbullying

Being targeted by cyberbullies can be crushing, especially if a lot of kids are participating in it.

The feelings of overwhelm and stress can manifest physically, which issues such as:

  • Gastrointestinal issues: The stress of bullying also can cause or worsen conditions like upset stomach, abdominal pain, and stomach ulcers. Kids may also struggle with frequent nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea.
  • Disordered eating: Kids who are cyberbullied may experience changes in eating habits like skipping meals or binge eating. Because their lives feel out of control, they look to their eating patterns as something they can control. These efforts may morph into a full-blown eating disorder, especially if the bullying has caused a distorted body image.
  • Sleep disturbances: Experiencing cyberbullying can impact a person's sleep patterns. They may suffer from sleep issues like insomnia, sleeping more than usual, or nightmares.

If you notice that your child is experiencing changes in their eating and sleeping habits, or if they are experiencing increased physical issues, it's important to speak with your child's doctor. These could be signs of bigger issue that needs evaluation.

A Word From Verywell

If your child is being cyberbullied, it's important to help them take steps to end the torment. This may mean reporting cyberbullying to social media companies, school officials, and even the police. Make sure you do what you can to put an end to the torment, including becoming familiar with the laws surrounding cyberbullying.

In the meantime, do not dismiss your child's feelings. Do what you can to make them feel empowered. Communicate with them daily and keep close tabs on changes in mood and behavior. Seek the help of a healthcare professional if you notice any changes at all.

Every person victimized by cyberbullying can benefit from having a counselor or therapist who teaches them how to cope with and respond to cyberbullying in healthy ways. Developing effective coping strategies can help your child weather this storm while building resilience and perseverance.

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