What Is Cyberbullying?
Cyberbullying is bullying that takes place over digital devices like cell phones, computers, and tablets. Cyberbullying can occur through SMS, Text, and apps, or online in social media, forums, or gaming where people can view, participate in, or share content. Cyberbullying includes sending, posting, or sharing negative, harmful, false, or mean content about someone else. It can include sharing personal or private information about someone else causing embarrassment or humiliation. Some cyberbullying crosses the line into unlawful or criminal behavior.
The most common places where cyberbullying occur are:
- Social Media, such as Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, and Twitter.
- SMS (Short Message Service) also known as Text Message sent through devices.
- Instant Message (via devices, email provider services, apps, and social media messaging features).
With the prevalence of social media and digital forums, comments, photos, posts, and content shared by individuals can often be viewed by strangers, as well as acquaintances. The content an individual shares online — both their personal content as well as any negative, mean, or hurtful content — creates a kind of permanent public record of their views, activities, and behavior. This public record can be thought of as an online reputation, which may be accessible to schools, employers, colleges, clubs, and others who may be researching an individual now or in the future. Cyberbullying can harm the online reputations of everyone involved – not just the person being bullied, but those doing the bullying or participating in it. Cyberbullying has unique concerns in that it can be:
- Persistent : Digital devices offer the ability to immediately and continuously communicate 24 hours a day, so it can be difficult for children experiencing cyberbullying to find relief.
- Permanent : Most information communicated electronically is permanent and public, if not reported and removed. A negative online reputation, including for those who bully, can impact college admissions, employment, and other areas of life.
- Hard to Notice : Because teachers and parents may not overhear or see cyberbullying taking place, it is harder to recognize.
Laws and Sanctions
While all states have criminal laws that apply to bullying, not all have special statutes that apply to cyberbullying or bullying that takes place outside of school. Schools may take action either as required by law, or with local or school policies that allow them to discipline or take other action. Some states also have provisions to address bullying if it affects school performance. You can learn about the laws and policies in each state, including if they cover cyberbullying. (77)
It is important to understand how children are cyberbullied so it can be easily recognized and action can be taken. Some of the most common cyberbullying tactics include:
- Posting comments or rumors about someone online that are mean, hurtful, or embarrassing.
- Threatening to hurt someone or telling them to kill themselves.
- Posting a mean or hurtful picture or video.
- Pretending to be someone else online in order to solicit or post personal or false information about someone else.
- Posting mean or hateful names, comments, or content about any race, religion, ethnicity, or other personal characteristics online.
- Creating a mean or hurtful webpage about someone.
- Doxing, an abbreviated form of the word documents, is a form of online harassment used to exact revenge and to threaten and destroy the privacy of individuals by making their personal information public, including addresses, social security, credit card and phone numbers, links to social media accounts, and other private data. (78)
Viral Tactics: Examples
Because cyberbullying can happen in different ways, examples based on real-life experiences can provide a deeper understanding of the tactics typically used. Along with other risk factors, bullying can increase the risk for suicide-related behaviors. Furthermore, cyberbullying can be relentless, increasing the likelihood of anxiety and depression. Some states have chosen to prosecute young people who bully for criminal harassment, including encouraging someone to die by suicide. Some forms of cyberbullying are forms of harassment that cross the line into criminal activity, and some tactics occur in dating relationships and can turn into interpersonal violence.
The stories below are examples of different cyberbullying tactics that could happen. In reality, with the right interventions, cyberbullying can be addressed positively to lessen harm and the negative outcomes that could result. When not addressed, cyberbullying can have long-term mental health effects. Cyberbullying and bullying can negatively impact the lives of all who are involved.
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Nude Photo Sharing
A teenage girl sent a nude photo of herself to her boyfriend while they were dating. After they broke up, he shared the photo with other children, who then called her hurtful, derogatory names via text and social media.
Lies and False Accusations
A group of students got into trouble at school for being drunk, and accused a girl who knew nothing about it of reporting them to school officials. They began texting her day and night, and posted hateful, derogatory messages on social media. Other students saw their messages and joined in harassing the girl. She was bullied constantly via text, and in person at school. She eventually shut down her social media accounts and changed her phone number. Still, the bullying at school continued.
Bullied for Being Economically Challenged
Students posted mean, negative comments on another classmates’ social media account, commenting on his clothes and sneakers, which were not the more expensive name brands most of them were wearing. They ridiculed him, calling him “poor” and continued the bullying in school. The boy missed many days of school trying to avoid the harassment and embarrassment.
False Identity Profile
A girl’s classmate created a fake social media account in a boy’s name, and began an online relationship with her. Though she had not met him in person, the girl divulged personal information about herself and her family to this “boy”. The classmate who created the fake account then shared the personal information with other children, who used it to bully, shame, and harass the girl.
Encouraging Self-Harm or Suicide
A young boy with a physical disability and scars on his face was harassed on social media and via text by other students. They called him derogatory names, told him he’d be better off dead. They wrote, “why don’t you die?” on his school locker and encouraged him to take his own life.
Bullied for Being Gay
A teenage boy who was openly gay began receiving death threats via phone, text, and social media for being gay. Students created an anti-gay social media group and harassed him, posting hateful messages about him.
A teenage girl was harassed by other girls in her class for dating a very popular boy. The girls sent her hateful messages via text and social media, and wrote derogatory messages on her school locker.
Doxing Over Online Gaming
A teenage boy posted comments on a public gaming forum, expressing his dislike of certain game features and tactics. Another user disagreed with him in the forum, then searched for the boy’s information online and posted his address, email address, and social media links in another comment. The boy then received multiple emails and messages from strangers threatening to come to his home and assault him, and to block him from games. (78)
Be Aware of What Kids are Doing Online
A child may be involved in cyberbullying in several ways. A child can be bullied, bully others, or witness bullying. Parents, teachers, and other adults may not be aware of all the digital media and apps that a child is using. The more digital platforms that a child uses, the more opportunities there are for being exposed to potential cyberbullying.
Warning Signs a Child is Being Cyberbullied or is Cyberbullying Others
Many of the warning signs that cyberbullying is occurring happen around a child’s use of their device. Some of the warning signs that a child may be involved in cyberbullying are:
- Noticeable increases or decreases in device use, including texting.
- A child exhibits emotional responses (laughter, anger, upset) to what is happening on their device.
- A child hides their screen or device when others are near, and avoids discussion about what they are doing on their device.
- Social media accounts are shut down or new ones appear.
- A child starts to avoid social situations, even those that were enjoyed in the past.
- A child becomes withdrawn or depressed, or loses interest in people and activities.
What to Do When Cyberbullying Happens
If you notice warning signs that a child may be involved in cyberbullying, take steps to investigate that child’s digital behavior. Cyberbullying is a form of bullying, and adults should take the same approach to address it: support the child being bullied, address the bullying behavior of a participant, and show children that cyberbullying is taken seriously. Because cyberbullying happens online, responding to it requires different approaches. If you think that a child is involved in cyberbullying, there are several things you can do:
- Notice : Recognize if there has been a change in mood or behavior and explore what the cause might be. Try to determine if these changes happen around a child’s use of their digital devices.
- Talk : Ask questions to learn what is happening, how it started, and who is involved.
- Document : Keep a record of what is happening and where. Take screenshots of harmful posts or content if possible. Most laws and policies note that bullying is a repeated behavior, so records help to document it.
- Report : Most social media platforms and schools have clear policies and reporting processes. If a classmate is cyberbullying, report it the school. You can also contact app or social media platforms to report offensive content and have it removed. If a child has received physical threats, or if a potential crime or illegal behavior is occurring, report it to the police.
- Support : Peers, mentors, and trusted adults can sometimes intervene publicly to positively influence a situation where negative or hurtful content posts about a child. Public Intervention can include posting positive comments about the person targeted with bullying to try to shift the conversation in a positive direction. It can also help to reach out to the child who is bullying and the target of the bullying to express your concern. If possible, try to determine if more professional support is needed for those involved, such as speaking with a guidance counselor or mental health professional. (79)
Kids on Social Media and Gaming
Social Media Apps and Sites Commonly Used by Children and Teens
Digital media and apps allow children to communicate and express their creativity, connect with peers, and share their feelings. However, they can be an avenue through which cyberbullying occurs. There are many types of apps and sites available for free that give users the ability to search for people and share or post information about them anonymously.
Parents may not be aware of the apps that their children use regularly or may not be aware of the risks involved in using them. There are many ways that cyberbullying can be hidden in apps and sites, such as texts, videos, and web calls that disappear or do not appear on the device’s call or text message logs.
Many apps also make it easy for users to access, view or participate in adult or harmful content. Privacy and location settings may make them more vulnerable to stalking, cyberbullying, exposure to adult content, or other dangers.
Popular Social Media Venues and Apps
- Askfm : A social networking site that allows users to ask other people questions, often anonymously.
- Chatroulette : There are over 20 different chat roulette sites that allow users to instantly connect via webcam and video chat. Sites typically pair the users randomly and instantly.
- Facebook and Facebook Live : The most commonly used social media site that is accessible on many different media platforms.
- Instagram : A photo and video sharing and networking site that connects users through other social networking sites (e.g., Facebook).
- Kik: Messaging app that allows users of all ages to contact others anonymously.
- Line : A messaging app that allows users to make free phone calls, leave voice messages, and text. Users can delete texts or chats from recipient’s phone using a timer.
- Musical.ly : Users can post their own videos and view videos posted by others.
- Reddit : A site that stores social news, rates and evaluates web content, and discussion threads.
- Sarahah : An anonymous messaging app that allows users to send anonymous messages to people they may know.
- Snapchat : A photo messaging app that allows for sharing pictures and short videos that are intended to be erased shortly after delivery.
- Telegram : Messaging app that allows users to share photos, videos, and files; make calls, and delete texts or chats from recipient’s phone using a timer.
- Tumblr : A social networking site that allows posting of short blogs and media.
- Twitter : A microblogging site that allows users to send, read, and reply to “tweets” or short messages.
- Vine : An app that allows the posting of short 6-second looping videos.
- WeChat : An app that allows user to chat with friends, and to search for people nearby and around the globe.
- WhatsApp : A private messaging app that allows users to text, send photos, videos, and location information to their contacts.
- YouTube : A video sharing platform that allows users to post and share videos.
Social media has many benefits that must be balanced with the risks it presents. Risks to be aware of include:
- Screening for harmful content on websites and apps varies widely.
- Content posted can be incorrect, harmful, or hurtful (e.g., why are you so dumb?).
- Can be used to share harmful or adult content.
- Privacy controls over who can view or access posted material vary across apps, and many users are not aware of how to use them effectively.
- Apps that allow for real-time user videos “live streaming” can been used to show bullying, violence, suicide, and harmful acts as they are happening.
- Some apps that include location information can be used to get personal information, such as someone’s age, current location, or where someone lives.
- Apps that support telephone calls do not show up on a call log, so parents may not know who their children are talking to. (80)
Cyberbullying and Online Gaming
Playing videogames is a popular activity, with 72 percent of teens gaming online. Many video games — whether they are console, web, or computer-based — allow users to play with friends they know in person and others they have met only online. While gaming can have positive benefits like making new friends, socializing, and learning how to strategize and problem solve, it is also another place where cyberbullying occurs.
Anonymity of players and the use of avatars allow users to create alter-egos or fictional versions of themselves, which is part of the fun of gaming. But it also allows users to harass, bully, and sometimes gang up on other players, sending or posting negative or hurtful messages and using the game as a tool of harassment. If someone is not performing well, other children may curse or make negative remarks that turn into bullying, or they might exclude the person from playing together.
Because players are anonymous, they cannot necessarily be held accountable for their behavior, and their harassment can cause some players to leave games. Some anonymous users use the game as a means to harass strangers or to get their personal information, like user names and passwords.
There are things adults can do to prevent cyberbullying of children who are gaming:
- Play the game or observe when the gaming happens to understand how it works and what a child is exposed to in the game.
- Check in periodically with children about whom is online, playing the game with them.
- Teach children about safe online behavior, including not clicking on links from strangers, not sharing personal information, not participating in bullying behavior of other players, and what to do if they observe or experience bullying.
- Establish rules about how much time a child can spend playing video games. (80)