A public health issue for teens: Expert tips on how to spot and combat cyberbullying
Bullying behaviors have been around as long as humans have gathered in social groups. But the tools bullies have access to have changed a lot in the past few decades.
“Unfortunately, cyberbullying is an extension of — and a turbocharger for — something that has been around for centuries,” says Dr. Michael Franz, a practicing child and adolescent psychiatrist and Regence’s senior medical director of behavioral health. “Where we used to think of it as the stereotypical things that happened on the playground, with kids being ostracized and physically assaulted, now it’s extended beyond physical and verbal interactions into the digital space.”
With social media and messaging apps keeping teens constantly connected, cyberbullying allows bullies to play out age-old patterns of dominance, isolation and shame, 24/7.
And when school is in session, incidents of cyberbullying tend to rise along with in-person bullying. What’s especially concerning, youth mental health experts like Franz say, is that online bullying can be harder for adults to spot — and for teens to escape.
“It’s 24 hours a day,” says Judy Gabert, a program specialist with the Idaho Lives Project, a youth suicide prevention program within the Idaho State Department of Education. “It can be midnight if they're looking at their phone or their computer. And it can come in different ways — in their email or their chat or their social media, so it’s more persistent than in-person bullying.”
These negative messages also are easier to share online. When they go viral, it extends the circle of shame. And research shows that there’s an empathy gap for kids who bully online, Gabert says. “The bully may feel less sad about the actions they took. There's a distance between them and the kid who they bullied because they don't have to look at their face or their body language after the incident.”
What is cyberbullying?
Globally, cyberbullying is viewed as a serious public health issue for young people. But here in the U.S., it can be tricky to quantify how many teens it affects.
Federal researchers say more than 15% of high school students nationwide experience some form of cyberbullying. But studies done by the Cyberbullying Research Center put the U.S. numbers higher still. Its research over the past dozen years found that nearly 30% of high schoolers had been victims of cyberbullying, while about 16% admitted to cyberbullying others.
A 2018 Pew Research Center survey put the number of those victimized at nearly twice as high: 59%.
What does this mean in practical terms? In their book “Bullying Beyond the Schoolyard: Preventing and Responding to Cyberbullying,” Sameer Hinduja and Justin Patchin, the Cyberbullying Research Center’s founders, define the practice as “willful and repeated harm inflicted through the use of computers, cell phones and other electronic devices.”
In other words, this is not a single case of someone saying or doing something online that hurts another person’s feelings. It’s long-lasting and intentional.
The researchers dig deeper into the issue in a recent fact sheet on identifying and preventing cyberbullying. It’s important to understand that these online behaviors have a significant real-world impact on teens, they say. “Many targets report feeling depressed, sad, angry and frustrated.”
In their survey, six out of every 10 teens who said they were cyberbullied also said it deeply affected their ability to feel safe and learn at school. And one in 10 said they had skipped school because of cyberbullying.
Research also links experience with cyberbullying to issues such as low self-esteem, anxiety, difficulties at home and school, violence and thoughts of suicide, they say.
Targets of cyberbullying can start to believe the harmful messages from the bully, says Emily Moser, director of YouthLine programs for Lines for Life, a suicide prevention nonprofit.
Cyberbullying can contribute to the escalation of mental health concerns, she says, because targets are isolated. “They're in this place by themselves — it’s about not having any counterbalance to the ugliness.”
How to spot cyberbullying
In some cases, it may be clear that something’s going on with your teen. They may stop doing the things they used to enjoy, behave differently, or avoid their school and home responsibilities. But often it’s hard to trace these changes to cyberbullying, partly because it can take so many forms.
6 characteristics of cyberbullying
As the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services notes on StopBullying.gov, cyberbullying is:
- Persistent — Digital devices can keep us connected 24/7, making it hard for teens being bullied to avoid it.
- Hard to notice — Parents and teachers may not overhear or see it happen, making cyberbullying difficult to recognize.
- Permanent — If it’s not reported and removed, most info shared electronically stays online. A negative online reputation, including for those who bully others, can have an impact on job or college prospects as well as other areas of a young person’s life.
Other aspects of cyberbullying make it extremely difficult for teens, experts say. These include:
- Anonymity — The aggressor may be able to hide their identity behind anonymous accounts and screen names, so the target can’t be sure who’s behind the negative attacks.
- Shareability — Cyberbullying actions can go viral more easily. The ability to share harmful images or words with the tap of a button means there’s a much larger pool of people who can find out about, amplify, and possibly join in, the bullying behavior.
- Callousness — Cruelty is easier to carry out online because the aggressor can’t see their target’s reaction.
It’s also unlikely for a teen to come out and say, “ ‘I’m being cyberbullied,’ ” Moser notes. “They talk about it in different ways. They may know the term ‘cyberbully,’ but they don't know that when they're being isolated or called out online or in social media that it’s cyberbullying.”
Part of the difficulty is the sheer number of tactics and digital platforms cyberbullies can use, adds Franz. Among others, it can mean spreading rumors, revealing personal information, encouraging self-harm, sharing nude photos or harassing someone for being different.
Forewarned is forearmed, he says. That’s because even when parents have the best intentions to limit teens’ exposure, young people are going to witness negative online behavior.
Franz advises taking a direct approach with high schoolers. “I would just say ‘you're going to probably see sexual content, you're going to see violent threats, you're going to see belittling, you're going to see intimidation. You might even see doxing, where people actually try to find out someone's personal information and then share that for purposes of retribution.’ ”
Once you’ve established that you know these things happen, it’s also easier for teens to share when they or someone they care about is targeted. Hinduja and Patchin’s research shows that “positive parenting” — a practice that includes warmth, autonomy, support and structure — has an even greater impact on cyberbullying than on in-person bullying.
“Calm, healthy and nonjudgmental dialogue with a child about the pros and cons of social media, gaming and other online activities sets a tone that invites continued open communication about anything negative that might occur, ” Hinduja says. Being open and upfront “can keep them from going underground and hiding their experiences out of fear and shame.”
Ways you can help your child cope with cyberbullying
Setting drastic limits on your child’s screen time is likely to backfire, Moser says. “All of our YouthLine volunteers will tell us, ‘You don't understand, my phone is an appendage for me. I'm never going to put it down.’ It’s unfortunate, but that has been normalized. It makes it a lot harder.”
Here are some ways she and others suggest for parents to handle cyberbullying instead:
- Let the teen take lead on what they want to do about it. As parents, the first impulse might be to swoop in and solve the problem. But it’s important not to overreact or be judgmental, Gabert says. When teens are bullied, they already feel powerless. Let them know that at some point in our lives most of us have some experienced bullying, and we got through it with support from others. “We can give them ways to talk about it such as, ‘how did that make you feel? Or ‘what would you like to have happen here?’, so that we give the power back to them.”
- Take advantage of privacy tools. Most digital platforms have ways to block messages from a user and report bad behavior. Patchin and Hinduja recommend keeping screenshots and logs of text messages to support any request to have a bully removed from a site.
Once again, they say to let your teen take the lead: “youth should go online with their parents or caregivers, show them what platforms they use, and share why they love them. They should tell them how they are keeping themselves safe online and allow those adults to suggest other strategies as well.”
- Share concerns with school leaders. Both in-person and cyberbullying tend to happen most often during unstructured time — passing periods, or before and after school starts. Schools that reduce those times and create an inclusive environment have a better shot at limiting harmful behavior, Gabert says.
“Kids who feel as if they belong do not bully. Kids who feel as if, ‘Hey, this is my place. I can do good things here. I have a purpose here. I'm part of a group here. I'm accepted here.’ They don't bully generally.”
- Understand the law. All states now have laws about cyberbullying. You can find the ones that apply in your community on StopBullying.gov. “Most of the laws have procedures that say if a young person is being cyberbullied and it is preventing them from learning opportunities, the school is required to get involved,” Moser says. “A lot of parents don't know that.”
Not every incident of online harassment rises to the level of a crime. Even so, knowing that there may be legal options can help teens feel empowered. Sharing this information also may deter would-be bullies from engaging in cyberbullying.
- Recognize that those who are bullied may bully others. As you learn more about what’s going on with your teen online, you may find that they’ve done or said things that could be harmful, too. “If your child is participating in that behavior, then it's probably more appropriate to put some significant limits on it,” Franz says.
Once again, though, it’s important not to judge. Ask your child what they were feeling when they behaved that way, or what was behind the words they used, Moser suggests. Help them consider the impact on others. “From there, you can talk about bullying across the board. You can say, ‘when this behavior shows up, I'm going to help you work through it. Now, how do we make it right?’ ”
Teens tend to live in the moment, Gabert adds. It can help to remind them that cyberbullying can have long-term consequences. “As a bully if I put things online, it may be out there when I want a job or there’s a college I want to go to. What happens to that opportunity if I am seen as a bully online? From that standpoint alone, kids need to be really aware that what I say online is there forever. Even if I think I have a private account, it can come back to me and affect my life.”
- Encourage active bystanders. People who see cyberbullying happen may not want to intervene for fear they’ll also become a target themselves. Yet even one positive message can help break the cycle of isolation and poor self-esteem.
“There's a real opportunity for kids to take on an interventionist role,” Franz says. “They can really impact it by reaching out to the person who's behaving badly and saying ‘hey, I saw that, and I don't like it. Please stop it.’ They don't need to be rude or reactionary, but they can try to influence it. Then they can also reach out to the victim and do the same by saying, ‘hey, I'm here for you. I'm sorry. That happened and it shouldn't have.’”
Teens often see messages from peers as more credible than from adults, he adds. “As we get more kids taking a leadership role, it’s true peer pressure, in a positive way.”
- Offer ways for teens to step away from devices. Simple acts of self-care can go a long way to prevent the low feelings that come with cyberbullying, Moser says. Ask your teen, “how can you take care of yourself today? What can you do for yourself that would be meaningful, and might help you step away from all of these challenges, even for just 30 minutes?”
She recommends activities like journaling or taking a walk outside, or just putting the phone down to get a glass of water or take a shower.
Doing something for others also can give teens a huge boost, Franz says. “Engaging in some altruism can be incredibly healthy for the person who's doing it, let alone for the person who's on the receiving end.”
Acts of kindness like holding a door, picking up trash or saying something nice about others can change how teens see the world, Gabert adds. “It shows they have power over how they feel. They can embody the characteristics that they would like someone to treat them with.”
- Normalize asking for help. Teens can build resiliency and feel better about themselves by talking to a mental health professional. Finding that listening ear can start with your regular health care provider, Franz says. “You don’t have to go to see a psychologist or psychiatrist to get started. If a pediatrician or family doctor or nurse practitioner is a trusted part of your family's circle, that's a great place to start, or with a school counselor.”
Your health plan also can help you find a trusted counselor, he adds. For Regence members, Franz recommends signing in to their member account to explore behavioral health resources and contact customer service for help. They’re available to connect families with resources and providers geared toward youth mental health.
Tools for parents to address cyberbullying
One of the best things you can do for a child who’s being bullied is emphasize hope, Moser says. “Offer them some sense is that life is not always going to be like this, and that there's a lot outside of these people who are bullying you.”
The following resources can help you dig deeper and support your child:
- Cyberbullying, StopBullying.gov
- What is Cyberbullying? YouTube Playlist, StopBullying.gov
- Resources for Parents, Cyberbullying Research Center
- Parent Favorites, Cyberbullying Research Center blog
- Cyberbullying Information, PACER’s National Bullying Prevention Center
- Types of Cyberbullying, Social Media Victims Law Center
- The Psychology of Cyberbullying, VeryWell Mind
- Interactive Map of Cyberbullying Laws, Cyberbullying Research Center
- Technology and Youth: Protecting your Child from Electronic Aggression, CDC
- The Family Dinner Project
- Sources of Strength
As a caring adult, you can demonstrate ways for teens to hang onto the positives in their lives when things get rough. “They have power and control over so many things,” Gabert says. “We need to encourage them to find that. They just need to know that they have that power to be okay with themselves.”
Jillian Cohan Martin is a journalist and content strategist based in Portland, Oregon.