What is cyberbullying?
Cyberbullying is harassment that occurs online, typically through social media, email, or messaging. The harm to the victim is intentional and usually repeated, and can be perpetrated by an individual or a group. Cyberbullying can be more harmful than in-person bullying because it can happen anywhere at any time—it doesn’t rely on in-person interactions. Cyberbullying can also overlap with in-person bullying.
Cyberbullying can happen anywhere people interact and share content online, including on social media (e.g. Facebook or TikTok), messaging platforms (e.g. email, text, group chat, DM, or WhatsApp), and online gaming chat rooms (e.g. Minecraft or Discord). Attacks can come from a remote source and at any time of day or night, which can make the harassment difficult to escape and increase the psychological harm.
Often, the victim is unable to defend themselves—they may be outnumbered (in the case of a group attack) or simply not have the confidence or social clout to push back against their attacker. The possibility for the cyberbully to remain anonymous also makes it harder for the victim to defend themselves.
What does cyberbullying look like?
Most often, cyberbullying will entail the sharing of info about someone online—or making statements about them online—with the explicit intention of being mean, negative, or humiliating. But online threats of real-life (or physical) harm are also considered cyberbullying. While an act of cyberbullying may at first be unintentional, if it’s not eventually corrected or deleted then it’s also considered cyberbullying. Like in-person bullying, cyberbullying is usually repeated over time.
Some examples of cyberbullying are posting altered photos and embarrassing videos, name calling in group chats, spreading hurtful gossip and rumors, mocking a person in the comments section of a social media post, and sending unwanted messages like sexting (sending sexually explicit texts, often including photos and videos). More drastic forms of cyberbullying include doxing (nonconsensual sharing of another’s private info like address or phone number) and SWAT-ing/swatting (making an anonymous phone call with false accusations that brings law enforcement to the victim’s home).
Compared with in-person bullying, the effects of cyberbullying can be more pervasive and more difficult to combat. The possibility for the bully to remain anonymous means cyberbullying is harder for an onlooker like a teacher or parent to detect and help; this means the victim may feel even more alone. Because these events occur online, they have the potential to reach a much larger audience (go viral) and they may remain public indefinitely, causing long term issues for the victim. This greater exposure in turn increases the chance that a single bully can turn into a group. All these possibilities further aggravate the harm inflicted on the victim.
How common is cyberbullying?
Cyberbullying is a major concern for school-aged children, both because of the particular vulnerability of children and because it happens so often. Studies and surveys have attempted to understand how often cyberbullying occurs and who is involved. These studies vary based on how they define cyberbullying, and often rely on children accurately self-reporting, so it’s difficult to capture accurate measurements. A reasonable estimate is that about 20-25% of children have been a victim of cyberbullying, with tweens on the lower end of estimates, and teens on the higher end. These estimates appear to apply fairly evenly by gender.
While cyberbullying among children is rightfully a focus of attention, they aren’t the only population involved. Cyberbullying can happen by and to adults of any age, in any situation (including in college, at work, or on social media). While there are studies on the extent of cyberbullying among school-aged children, less is known about the frequency of such situations among adults.
The effects of cyberbullying
In general, being bullied can have wide ranging effects on the victim, either causing psychological issues or exacerbating existing ones. Cyberbullying can even intensify these issues, with effects including:
- Poor performance in school (especially if the bully is a fellow student, making school an uncomfortable or dangerous place).
- Alienation and loneliness: These feelings can be more acute when the victim is being bullied by a group, or anonymously. The challenge of detecting cyberbullying means the victim may not get support from friends or adults, which may heighten the sense of isolation.
- Stress or anxiety: Cyberbullying attacks can happen at any time and place, so the victim may never feel safe, even in their own home.
- Substance abuse or physical self-harm: Cyberbullying via visual media is a particularly effective weapon for body shaming, which can increase the chance of self harm.
- Behavioral changes: These include depression, and suicidal thoughts and actions.
Cyberbullying is also very different from traditional bullying for the perpetrator, too. Because cyberbullying can happen remotely, the bully may not witness the pain and harm caused by their actions. Without the opportunity for empathy, it’s easier for the bully to perpetuate and even escalate their actions.
Finally, some victims have reported they act out their feelings by becoming bullies themselves, again perpetuating the problem.
How can I protect myself or others?
If you’re the victim of cyberbullying, or you witness someone else being bullied, a few steps you can take include:
- Put down the phone for a while, put some distance between you and the bully, and regroup emotionally to decide what to do next.
- Block bullies from interacting with you on social media, or report abusive posts to the social media app.
- Get help from a parent or another trusted adult such as a teacher or family friend.
- Report the bullying to a trusted adult at school or, if the bullying involves threats of harm, the police.
- Take screenshots for proof (as painful as this may be to keep a record of, screenshots or other actual evidence may help later).
- Don’t wait or try to hide the bullying (hoping it will stop on its own isn’t a good option).
However, this is a limited list. For more specific advice and resources, check out cyberbullying.org, stopbullying.gov, and the Clinic to End Tech Abuse. For workplace cyberbullying, you can also try tallpoppy.com.
As far as how to prevent cyberbullying from happening in the first place, there are a handful of best practices, including:
- Think carefully about what you publicly post online. If a post shared with friends could be viewed by a wider audience, ask yourself if that would be okay. Is the info in your post too personal? Try not to give away details like your age, address, or the school you go to.
- Protect your friends the same as you protect yourself. Don’t post photos or other info about them without their permission.
- Use the privacy settings of the apps you use to your advantage. Be in control of who gets to interact with you and your posts.
- Don’t share, like, or repost hurtful or bullying messages.
Laws and regulations addressing cyberbullying
Within the US, all states have criminal laws against certain forms of bullying, and most states include cyberbullying—or electronic harassment—as a form of bullying. Most states also require schools to have official policies that deal with cyberbullying.
Other countries, including the UK, Japan, and Canada, have laws that vary in both the definition of cyberbullying and the punishments. But legislation is generally inconsistent, with some laws more effective than others.
If you’re a victim of bullying, talk to someone about it. Helplines may be available in your country.
Ready for a better Internet?
Brave’s easy-to-use browser blocks ads by default, making the Web cleaner, faster, and safer for people all over the world.Download Brave