Bullying has represented a pervasive problem spanning across many generations. Today, however, the bullying isn’t necessarily happening in the locker room or on the sports field. It’s happening through technology, transmitted through cell phones and computers.
It’s no secret that cyberbullying is a complex issue ravaging many schools and students across the country. Similarly, with children spending more and more time online, this epidemic will continue to persist.
As a parent, it’s essential to stay informed of the risks, symptoms, and negative effects of social media and cyberbullying. Let’s get into what you need to know.
What Is Cyberbullying?
By definition, cyberbullying refers to using electronic communication to harass or insult another person. Depending on the platform, bully, and the intention of harm, it can take on many different forms.
Exclusion refers to intentionally leaving your child out of online groups, conversations, forums, or communities. The intention is to make your child feel rejected or unwanted.
Doxing refers to revealing your child’s personal information—like their phone number, address, or school—without consent. Sometimes, the bully already knows the person, so they use that information to put them in danger. Other times, anonymous bullies can connect various details to glean information about their identity.
Cyberstalking includes pervasive, intense harassment that may consist of physical threats to your child’s safety or well-being. Adults may cyberstalk children with the intent of meeting and sexually assaulting them. For this reason, cyberstalking can be one of the most dangerous forms of cyberbullying.
Trolling refers to direct insults or off-topic, controversial statements designed to stir a reaction from your child. Trolls aim to attack people and provoke them to react in the same way.
Bullies may post, send, or share false gossip to harm your child’s reputation or impact their relationship with another person.
Bullies may construct a fake online identity to harm your child by creating fake social media profiles, emails, or usernames. Sometimes, they will “catfish” to lure their victim into forming a fake relationship with them.
Dissing refers to sending or posting cruel information about your child online. Bullies may share items like videos, photos, messages, or comments with the intention of putting your child down.
Framing happens when a bully uses social media platforms to share inappropriate content under your child’s name. The intention is to damage someone’s reputation. For example, the bully might change their picture to an explicit one or post racist or crude content.
Bullies may hack into someone’s online accounts and pretend to be the victim. They will then share or send embarrassing or inappropriate material to other people.
Some bullies engage in a combination of one or more of these cyberbullying tactics. They may act alone or with other people. The bullying may occur in a singular incident, but it can also be chronic and ongoing.
An Overview of Cyberbullying Statistics
Among youth, research shows that cyberbullying is a prevalent issue in modern society.
- Approximately half of young people report receiving nasty, threatening, or otherwise intimidating messages online.
- Nearly 70% of children struggling with mental health issues reported experiencing cyberbullying within the last year.
- 1 in 3 people in 30 countries reported being a victim of cyberbullying.
- 1 in 5 people indicate skipping school due to cyberbullying.
- Girls are more likely to be cyberbullied than boys (40.6% compared to 28.8%).
- 54% of teenagers report witnessing cyberbullying.
- 71% of survey participants reported that social media platforms do not protect people from cyberbullying.
- 90% of teens using social media report witnessing and ignoring online cruelty.
How Do I Know If My Child Is Struggling with Cyberbullying?
Unfortunately, most children won’t tell their parents if they are being bullied. The lack of transparency occurs for several reasons. First, they may not necessarily identify the bullying as actual bullying, and they may believe they are overreacting to the situation.
Moreover, children might be ashamed and worried about your reaction. They may worry that if they talk about it, the bullying will only worsen. They might also be afraid that their disclosure will impact their freedom. For instance, they might feel nervous that you will hover over their online activity or rescind their technology privileges altogether.
Since your child might not talk about what’s going on directly, it’s essential that you are aware of the signs and symptoms. They include:
- A sudden disinterest in using technology without any real explanation
- Refusing to use technology (especially a computer) where you can see the screen
- Presenting as nervous or fidgety when receiving a text or message
- Avoiding friends and family in real life
- Unexplained anxiety, anger, or sadness, especially after going online
- Feigning illness or exaggerating medical symptoms to avoid going to school
- Making indirect comments like “I have no friends”; “Everyone is so full of drama”; or “I can’t trust anybody”
- Turning off the monitor or changing screens whenever you are near them
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What Are the Main Effects of Cyberbullying?
Any bullying can result in both short-term and long-term problems. Being in a consistent state of stress or fear can impact someone’s mood, level of safety, confidence, and energy levels.
Depression impacts about 20% of adolescents by the time they become adults. Cyberbullying does not inherently cause depression, but it can exacerbate mental health symptoms. Depression can include:
- Persistent sadness that lasts for several weeks or longer
- Feelings of numbness or apathy about oneself or the world
- Withdrawal from loved ones
- Lack of interest in school, hobbies, or other extracurricular activities
- Mood swings that include irritability and anger
- Unexplained headaches or stomach problems
- Difficulties with concentration
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
Research indicates a direct link between bullying and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). PTSD is an anxiety disorder characterized by elevated levels of stress, fear, and hypervigilance in response to trauma. When someone struggles with PTSD, they may find it difficult to connect with other people or feel safe in the world.
Additionally, PTSD includes symptoms which may include:
- Recurrent nightmares or flashbacks
- Avoidance of certain activities or peer groups
- The loss of interest in usual activities
- Emotional detachment
- Intrusive, unwanted thoughts about oneself or others
- Irritability and agitation
- Self-destructive behavior
Self-harm is a devastating epidemic among teenagers. In Idaho alone, over 30% of young girls report purposefully hurting themselves over the past twelve months. Self-harm isn’t typically meant as a suicide attempt; instead, it’s a way teenagers attempt to cope with emotional pain or release anger or sadness.
Self-harm is deliberate, and it can include:
- Cutting the skin with a sharp object, such as a razor, scissors, or a knife
- Scratching at the skin
- Burning the skin with cigarettes or lit matches
- Piercing the skin with sharp objects
- Inserting objects under the skin
- Carving words or symbols onto the skin
- Hitting, punching, or banging one’s head against a surface
Self-harm can bring immediate relief or calm after the ritual. However, many teenagers then feel immense guilt or shame. These feelings may subsequently trigger the urge to engage in the behavior again, and the vicious cycle continues. Although most teenagers don’t intend to seriously injure themselves, there is an inherent risk of such harm.
Overall, Idaho has one of the lowest rates of teenage substance use in the country. That said, drugs and alcohol are still a problem. 16.9% of adolescents reported drinking alcohol in the past month and 6% of adolescents reported using marijuana. 0.33% of adolescents used methamphetamine in the past year—a figure higher than every state except Hawaii.
Children use drugs and alcohol for various reasons. In some cases, they are experimenting with what their friends are doing. Other times, the motives are far more destructive: they want to numb their pain or self-medicate their mental health symptoms.
The symptoms of substance use in teenagers can include:
- Weight loss
- Bloodshot eyes
- Deterioration of hygiene
- Avoiding eye contact
- Smell of smoke lingering on the breath or clothes
- Secretive behavior and lying
- Excess fatigue
- New peer group (and possibly no longer associating with old friends)
- Problems with school, sports, or other extracurricular activities
- Paranoid thoughts
- Presence of drug-related paraphernalia (pipes, foil, small mirrors, razor blades, straws, spoons, cigarette papers)
Cyberbullying can have a profound effect on someone’s confidence. With so much bullying directed toward one’s physical appearance, it’s no surprise that this issue corresponds with eating disorders.
In fact, research shows that as many as 65% of people struggling with eating disorders indicate that bullying contributed to their condition. This bullying can occur at a young age, and children with higher body weights are over 60% more likely to be teased than their thinner friends.
Eating disorders are not always apparent. Parents should consider the following warning signs:
- Abnormal weight changes
- Suddenly trying a new diet or meal plan
- Avoiding family meals
- Food disappearing
- Significant emotional or lifestyle changes (agitation, increased anxiety, withdrawal from certain friends, changes in grades)
- Increased focus on appearance
- Sudden increase in physical activity
- Wearing baggy clothing
- Wanting to use the bathroom immediately after eating
- New interest in cooking
- Eating large quantities of food in a single setting
Kylie's Success Story:
The Do’s and Don’ts for Helping Your Child
If you have discovered that your child is being cyberbullied, it’s normal to feel sad, shocked, scared, and angry. It’s also normal to feel helpless and unsure of what to do next. You want to help, but you don’t want to worsen things for your child.
Do Be Gentle and Loving When Asking Questions
If your child has shared details about cyberbullying with you, try your best to honor their vulnerability. They are in a fragile state, and your response needs to convey empathy without being overbearing.
Do Validate Their Emotions
Try to refrain from telling your child how they should feel. Don’t make comments like it’s not that bad, or they’re just jealous of you. These comments, even if they come from a place of good intentions, can often feel dismissive.
Validate your child’s emotions with expressions like:
- “Thank you for sharing that with me.”
- “I know you are doing the best you can.”
- “I am always here for you, and you can tell me anything.”
- “We are going to get through this together.”
- “I am not surprised that you feel hurt right now.”
Don’t Blame a Particular Person or Thing
You shouldn’t have been going on that website!
I didn’t like you being friends with her in the first place!
Bullying is a complex issue that doesn’t manifest from a single decision. Blaming your child won’t help them—if anything, it will solidify even deeper shame. It can also cause your child to resent you. Remember that you’re on their team.
Don’t Punish Them (Even If They Broke Rules)
Even if your child was spending time on a website that you prohibited, this isn’t the time for punishment. This is a time for support, compassion, and finding a viable solution. Boundaries are essential when it comes to their online life, but with that in mind, you don’t want to focus on the wrong thing right now.
Do Save Evidence
Take photos and screenshots of the cyberbullying activity. People may quickly delete the incriminating information once confronted. That’s why you shouldn’t wait to gather the necessary information.
In some cases, you may need this evidence to pursue legal action. If you plan to talk to your child’s school, they may also want to see proof of what’s going on.
Do Learn About Their School’s Bullying Policy
Most schools claim to have a zero-tolerance policy about bullying. That said, these claims don’t necessarily mean they are being enforced. You should talk to the school directly about how they address bullying.
Don’t Eliminate Technology
Often, your child’s greatest fear is you revoking their online privileges. Remember that cyberbullying is never their fault. It’s never okay to blame the victim for what happened to them.
Eliminating technology doesn’t eliminate the problem. If anything, it can make your child feel more isolated, depressed, and wary of talking to you. Instead, focus on creating healthy boundaries and structure for online activity.
Do Collaborate with Your Child on a Response Plan
Parents and children alike can become highly reactive when bullying occurs. However, it’s much more effective to plan your response before acting out. A response plan can include:
- Blocking the bullies online
- Ignoring any cyberbullying efforts
- Refusing to retaliate to the cyberbully
- Never sharing log-in information or passwords (even to close friends)
- Teaching your child what is permissible to post online
Do Educate Yourself on Cyberbullying Laws
Every state has laws about bullying and cyberbullying. In Idaho, all school districts must adopt policies related to harassment, intimidation, and bullying. These policies must detail what each school intends to do to prevent and respond to bullying.
Don’t React to the Cyberbully Yourself
Sometimes parents want to jump online and give the cyberbully a taste of their own medicine. This isn’t just ineffective; it can be downright harmful and even illegal. Harassing a minor is never acceptable.
Instead, it may be beneficial to talk to the teachers or school principal if the bully is someone your child knows. If it’s a stranger, encourage your child to avoid and stop any contact.
Do Reach Out for Professional Support
As mentioned, cyberbullying can dramatically impact your child’s emotional well-being. If your child already struggles with a mental health condition, the bullying can exacerbate their existing symptoms.
Individual therapy can be a valuable solution for children and adolescents. Therapy offers a safe and non-judgmental space for your child to process their thoughts and feelings. Therapists help by:
- Providing support for your child’s unique circumstances
- Teaching healthy coping skills to manage distress
- Offering guidance in social skills
- Reframing negative thoughts and channeling them into more positive ones
With your child’s consent, their therapist can provide you with general updates about your child’s prognosis. They honor your child’s confidentiality, but they are mandated to disclose details about abuse, suicidality, or other crisis issues.
Group therapy provides children with the opportunity to build connections with like-minded peers. Groups are focused on promoting safety, compassion, and mutual respect. Your child will have a supportive space to discuss their feelings. Group therapy may also focus on topics related to:
- Coping skills
- Education about mental illness
- Social skills
- Family dynamics
Family therapy can help improve the relationships between family members. Parents can learn how to talk to and support their children, and they can also practice setting healthy boundaries within the household.
This therapy focuses on:
- Strengthening healthy communication
- Instilling empathy among family members
- Working through issues related to family conflicts
- Learning how to respect one another despite any differences
Cyberbullying is a devastating issue in modern society. As a parent, you can help by educating yourself on this issue, talking with and listening to your child, and reaching out for support.
At Idaho Youth Ranch, we specialize in supporting young people to overcome trauma and cope with mental illness. We offer a variety of therapy options for our clients. Contact us today to learn more about how we can help you or your child.
Get Help for Your Child or Teen
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- Enough Is Enough: Cyberbullying. (2019). Enough.Org. https://enough.org/stats_cyberbullying
- Kelly, K. (2019, August 5). How to Tell If Your Child Is Being Bullied Online. Understood.Org; Understood. https://www.understood.org/en/friends-feelings/child-social-situations/online-activities-social-media/how-to-tell-if-your-child-is-being-bullied-online
- Dryden-Edwards, R. (2020, September 4). Teen Depression: 10 Warning Signs for Teen Suicide. MedicineNet; MedicineNet. https://www.medicinenet.com/teen_depression/article.htm
- Idsoe, T., Dyregrov, A., & Idsoe, E. C. (2012). Bullying and PTSD Symptoms. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 40(6), 901–911. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10802-012-9620-0
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- Self-injury/cutting - Symptoms and causes. (2018). Mayo Clinic; https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/self-injury/symptoms-causes/syc-20350950 Youth Drug Use Across America. (2019). USDrugTestCenters.Com. https://www.usdrugtestcenters.com/research-articles/13/youth-drug-use-across-america.html
- Bullying and Eating Disorders. (2018, February 18). Bullying and Eating Disorders. National Eating Disorders Association. https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/bullying
- Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs (ASPA. (2019, September 24). Idaho Anti-Bullying Laws & Policies. StopBullying.Gov; StopBullying.gov. https://www.stopbullying.gov/resources/laws/idaho