Why is it so prevalent?

As the use of social media continues to rise, so does the frequency of cyberbullying. The viciousness of attacks also has increased. Why do people feel like it’s more permissible to confront people on social media? Why has the level intensified? What should be done to lessen the impact?

CyberbullyingAll kids and teens want to connect with friends. The ways to do that have evolved significantly. Digital media and apps now allow them to communicate and express their creativity, connect with peers, and share their feelings. However, bullying can easily occur over any of these platforms. Cyberbullying is the use of technology to repeatedly and intentionally harass, hurt, embarrass, humiliate, or intimidate another person. It occurs on digital devices, like cellphones, computers, and tablets, and can take the form of text messages or online messages on social media, forums, or games. In most cases, shared content can be viewed by strangers as well as acquaintances meaning that it’s capable of spreading to a much larger audience than traditional bullying. Since information online can be shared easily and quickly, it’s difficult to contain or stop negative messages. The person doing the bullying is sometimes referred to as a “hater.” Usually, haters pick on people they perceive as different from themselves, which is the same regardless of how the bullying occurs. Often, other individuals “like” or “share” the negative messages. Technology makes it easier to bully because of the greater physical distance. This means the hater and others don’t see the immediate response from the person being targeting. In some cases, they might not realize the serious harm caused by their actions because they’re distanced from the real-life pain the victim is experiencing. Since it can happen anonymously, cyberbullies typically act more aggressively since they feel there’ll be no consequences. Another problem with cyberbullying is the person being bullied can read and re-read a hurtful text or comment resulting in them feeling the hurt over and over again.

Cyberbullying can happen in many different ways. It can be someone posting comments/rumors, pictures, or videos about someone online that are mean, hurtful, or embarrassing. Occasionally, these posts go so far as threatening to hurt someone or telling them to kill themselves. Sometimes, the posts aren’t directed toward a specific person but are about a specific race, religion, ethnicity, or other personal characteristics. In some instances, the hater pretends to be someone else to solicit or post personal or false information about their victim (also known as “sockpuppeting”). 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. This usually takes place in online games. Obviously, some of this behavior crosses the line into unlawful or criminal. The more digital platforms a child uses, the more opportunities there are for being exposed to cyberbullying. There are constantly new social media platforms, apps, and devices. Children and teens are often the first to use them. Some current popular ones include Askfm, Calculator%, Chatroulette, Discord, Facebook and Facebook Live, Instagram, Kik, Line, LiveMe, MeetMe, Omegle, Reddit, Sarahah, Snapchat, Telegram, TikTok, Tumblr, Twitter, Vine, WeChat, WhatsApp, Whisper, YouTube, and YUBO (formerly YELLOW).

Cyberbullying is becoming more prevalent. The 2017 School Crime Supplement to the National Crime Victimization Survey (National Center for Education Statistics and Bureau of Justice) indicated among students ages 12-18 who reported being bullied at school during the school year, 15% were bullied online or by text. The 2019 Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that cyberbullying is highest among middle school students, followed by high school students, and then primary school students. The percentages of individuals who have experienced cyberbullying have more than doubled (18% to 37%) from 2007-2019. The Cyberbullying Research Center did a national survey of 4,972 middle and high school students between 12 and 17 in April 2019. They discovered that about 37% experienced cyberbullying at some point in their life, with mean or hurtful comments (24.9%) and rumors spread online (22.2%) being the most common issues. In addition, approximately 15% of the students admitted to cyberbullying others at some point, with posting mean comments being the most commonly reported type (9.3%). Adolescent girls are more likely to experience cyberbullying than boys (38.7% vs. 34.5%). Also, the type of cyberbullying tends to differ by gender. Girls are more likely to say someone spread rumors about them, while boys were more likely to say that someone threatened to hurt them.

Unfortunately, cyberbullying can be hard to notice because parents may not overhear or see it taking place. Many children and teens don’t tell an adult when they’re being cyberbullied. In some cases, they tried and were told to “ignore it,” which, while well-intentioned, isn’t helpful. Others think because it’s happening through technology, it’s not bullying. Some are concerned about contacting the other kid’s parents. Besides, kids often don’t want anyone to worry and might view the situation as too personal. One of the main reasons kids don’t say anything about cyberbullying is that they’re worried they’ll lose technology privileges. Some warning signs that a child may be involved in cyberbullying are noticeable increases/decreases in device use, they have an emotional response (laughter, anger, upset) to what is happening on their device, they hide their screen/device when others are near, and they avoid discussions about what they’re doing on their device. Another red flag is if they shut down their social media accounts or new ones appear. If your child starts to avoid social situations, even those they enjoyed in the past, or becomes withdrawn or depressed, it can indicate something is going on. Cyberbullying can increase the likelihood of anxiety and depression. Along with other risk factors, it can elevate the risk for suicide-related behaviors. This is why if you think a child is being cyberbullied, speak to them privately to ask about it. Ask to look at their device and review all of the apps they use because often there will be proof of the bullying. Most people, especially children and teens, fail to consider that most information communicated electronically is permanent and public. It creates a record of a person’s views, activities, and behavior, essentially an online reputation.

If you find out that your child is being cyberbullied, you need to make sure that they know it’s not their fault and they aren’t to blame. Next, they need to know that they aren’t alone and you’re going to help them. Your first step is to tell your child not to respond to or forward the messages. Gather evidence recording the dates, times, and descriptions of instances when cyberbullying has occurred. An easy way to do this is to take and save/print screenshots, emails, and text messages. Use this to report cyberbullying to online service providers. If there are threats of violence, child pornography, sexually explicit messages/photos, photos/videos of someone in a place where they would expect privacy, stalking, or hate crimes, contact law enforcement. Some states have prosecuted young people who bully for criminal harassment, including encouraging someone to die by suicide. Unfortunately, law enforcement often can’t get involved unless there is clear evidence of a crime, which is why documentation is so important. It’s important to note that all states have laws requiring schools to respond to bullying. Schools can take action either as required by law or with local or school policies that allow them to discipline or take other action. For students with disabilities, there are legal protections and provisions. They have protections under federal law, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), to ensure they receive a free, appropriate public education. Each State Department of Education enforces the law in their state. If a student with a disability is being bullied, the law requires schools to take immediate and appropriate action to not only investigate the issue but to take any necessary steps to stop the bullying and prevent it from recurring.

When a child is being bullied, it’s vital to include them as part of the solutions because it gives some power back to them. They’ll have a sense of ownership over the outcomes and engage more in achieving those outcomes. They must know that negative comments have nothing to do with them. They should acknowledge their feelings but keep being themselves, meaning they keep moving forward and pursuing their interests. PACER’s National Bullying Prevention Center has the Student Action Plan Against Bullying. It’s a free, downloadable handout that includes the child in the solution equation and has a helpful guide for parents and educators. The Cyberbullying Research Center provides contact information for social media, apps, and gaming platforms to report online abuse. 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 they’re in immediate danger, call 911 and do NOT leave them alone. With the right interventions, cyberbullying can be addressed positively to lessen the harm and negative outcomes. When not addressed, cyberbullying can have long-term mental health effects.

When it comes to preventing cyberbullying, a multilayered approach is best. This can include educational media campaigns, school-based programs, legislative action, and screening/interventions by healthcare providers, especially pediatricians and mental health professionals. However, the number one thing to reduce cyberbullying is parental involvement. Technology allows young people to connect, but the cyber world’s unsupervised nature means they need guidance and guidelines to learn the appropriate social responsibility via self-awareness and self-regulation. Parents should role model, reinforce, and reward positive behavior towards others. Also, adults should begin discussing online conduct and behavior as soon as children begin using technology. Parents create trust with children by initiating open, honest discussions. Keep in mind that the conversation isn’t a one-time event. Check in frequently to listen to their concerns and express your perspective. You should educate your children about the harmful effects of cyberbullying and set clear expectations about digital behavior. Be clear about what content they can view or share. Look through some of the child’s favorite online accounts together to talk about what appropriate posts look like. Identify which apps are appropriate and which are not. Establish rules about the amount of time that a child can spend online or on their devices. Remind your child that they never really know who is on the other end of online communication, so don’t do or say anything online that they wouldn’t do or say in person. Remind them not to “friend” people they don’t know. Be aware of what your kids are doing online by monitoring their social media sites, apps, and browsing history. You should have access to their usernames and passwords. It’s key to stay up-to-date on the latest apps, social media platforms, digital slang used, and know which apps/sites have texts, videos, and web calls that disappear or don’t appear on their device’s call or text message logs. It’s also important to know how the privacy controls of each app work because they vary. Be sure to review or re-set your child’s phone location and privacy settings. Parents can use parental controls and monitoring software to help restrict content, block domains or view their children’s online activities, including social media, without looking at their child’s device every day. Most of the free software options provide some features for free but charge for more robust insight. As your child grows and gains access to new technology, evaluate your safety rules to determine if they are effective and age-appropriate. If you need to change the guidelines, then sit down with them and discuss the new rules. Ensure that your child knows that if they experience cyberbullying, they can share it with you and they won’t be restricted on their access to technology.

Many people who witness cyberbullying recognize that what they are seeing is not right and should stop but don’t want to get involved because of the problems they think it might cause them. However, by doing nothing, bystanders are passively encouraging the behavior. Instead, by saying something in the moment or right afterward, it can make a huge difference in improving the situation. This is why it’s important to teach your child to say something if they witness cyberbullying. This can transition them from being a passive bystander to an ally who is also a powerful role model for others. Also, encourage your child to follow up with the targeted person because this sends the message that they care about the person and don’t support the negative behaviors. Since many bullying situations end when a peer intervenes, children play an important role in bullying prevention.

Research has shown that there’s a link between cyberbullying and low self-esteem, family problems, academic difficulties, school violence, have anxiety, depression, less life satisfaction, and various delinquent behaviors, like drug and alcohol abuse. People lash out because they have other life struggles and don’t feel good about themselves. Children who cyberbully often lack awareness of how others feel and have difficulty understanding that what they do online has real-life consequences. The child must know that everyone has feelings and that feelings matter. They should be told that bullying isn’t okay under any circumstance and will not be tolerated—make sure your expectations and the consequences for not meeting them are clear and consistent. Keep in mind that it takes time to change behavior, so be patient as they learn new ways to handle feelings and disagreements. You should provide praise and recognition when they handle online conflict well or find a positive way to deal with their feelings. Teach them empathy, respect, and compassion. It’s also key for them to realize that they need to think before they post. So, if they’re upset, sad, or angry, wait to post or respond. This will allow them some time to cool down, so they don’t do something that they can’t take back. It’s important to note that cyberbullying targets have a greater chance of becoming bullies themselves since being cyberbullied can lead to revenge bullying as a way to cope.

Everyone needs to realize that bullying is never okay and even though it happens, it doesn’t make it right. No one “deserves” it. This is why learning how to communicate what you need at a young age is an essential skill. Self-advocacy is when you communicate on your own behalf by sharing what you need and then taking action. This is helpful in bullying situations, so the individual doesn’t feel powerless. It’s also vital to stand up for those being bullied and to teach children to do this. By taking these steps, hopefully bullying in any form can be reduced.