Young people have been dealing with bullying for a long time, but a relatively new way to browbeat others has made it possible for bullies to harass students from the comfort of their homes. Cyberbullying is systematic abuse that takes place on electronic devices, such as smartphones and computers. Most teens spend time online every day, which exposes them to the possibility of such harassment quite often. Cyberbullying is tied to lowered self-esteem, depressive thoughts, and anxiety.
Most cyberbullying takes place on social networking sites. According to a 2017 survey by Ditch the Label, an anti-bullying charity, 42 percent of young people claimed to have been bullied through Instagram, followed closely by Facebook (37 percent) and Snapchat (31 percent). However, cyberbullying may also take place in chat rooms, forums, and virtual games, and on sites like YouTube—any place on the Internet that is commonly frequented by young people. Cyberbullies often prey on victims through instant messaging and texting as well. Teens have used cell phones to record conversations, snap embarrassing photos, and take humiliating videos that they then post online. Some examples of cyberbullying are sending hurtful text messages, spreading lies or rumors electronically, and creating web sites that humiliate or embarrass others. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) calls this activity electronic aggression.
Unlike traditional bullies, cyberbullies can often harass peers anonymously. Another devastating aspect of electronic aggression is that the abuse is usually recorded and then disseminated to a mass audience. In the electronic age, the abuse does not fade over time. Some of the cruelest cyberbullying can go viral, meaning it can be passed all over the world. This leaves many victims feeling truly isolated and targeted, as if everyone is in on the joke.
Prevalence of Cyberbullying
Young people spend more and more time socializing via electronic devices. A 2018 Pew Research Center study found that 45 percent of American teens say they are online “almost constantly,” nearly double the amount from the 2014–15 survey. About 95 percent of American teenagers have (or have access to) a smartphone, up from 73 percent in 2014–15, according to Pew. This same study reported that 45 percent of teens said social media has neither a positive or negative effect on people their age. Roughly three-in-ten teens say social media has had a mostly positive impact. Twenty-four percent describe social media as having a mostly negative impact. Of the respondents who said mostly negative, 27 percent said that social media has led to more bullying and spreading or rumors. Since young people spend so much time on the Internet, much of the mistreatment today happens there.
According to the Cyberbullying Research Center over 33 percent of students between 12 and 17 were victims of cyberbullying during their lifetime. Females were more likely to be victims of electronic bullying than males, with 40.6 percent of females reporting victimization compared to 28.8 percent of males. This kind of activity peaks in late middle school and early high school.
Most young people who report being the victim of a cyberbully also report experiencing traditional bullying. These victims tend to be singled out for some difference—for example, students who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender are especially vulnerable to cyberbullies.
Effects of Cyberbullying
The effects of cyberbullying are similar to the effects of traditional bullying. Targets of electronic aggression often suffer from depression, become violent or hurt themselves, and perform poorly in school. They fear social situations, which often results in the victim not wanting to attend school or feeling too scared or uncomfortable to learn. They also tend to have low self-esteem. As with all victims of bullying, people who have been cyberbullied act out through reckless behavior. This can have a profound effect on their future. Perhaps the most devastating result of cyberbullying is suicide. A 2014 American Medical Association study found that cyberbullying was more strongly related to suicidal thoughts than traditional bullying.
Education and communication are the keys to stopping cyberbullying. Children should be encouraged to report bullying of any kind. Young people should be made aware of what constitutes abuse and the consequences of bullying. Some young people do not realize the seriousness of cyberbullying until the abuse has gotten out of control. Depending on the severity of the attacks, parents may elicit the help of teachers, site administrators, or law enforcement officers.
As with traditional bullying, parental supervision can be an important tool in preventing cyberbullying. One study found that 37 percent of students reported their parents had given them no rules on Internet use. This same study found that 26 percent of students believed their parents would be concerned about what they did online. Some parents take measures to monitor their child’s Internet activities. According to a 2011 Pew Research study, 80 percent of parents of Internet users have friended their children on social media sites. Fifty-four percent use some kind of parental controls to monitor their children’s online activities. Parents play an important role in teens’ understanding of online safety. Those surveyed reported that their parents are the biggest influence on their understanding of appropriate and inappropriate online behavior.
Young people who are new to online socializing need the closest supervision. They are more likely to share too much information online or trust too readily. According to Consumer Reports statistics from 2011, five million children under the age of ten had Facebook accounts and most received no supervision from parents. Young people can learn to protect themselves by using the privacy settings on social networking sites and refraining from sharing delicate information. Many sites and service providers allow users to block people as well, and may allow victims to file complaints about activities.
A US government site about bullying suggests victims confide in a trusted adult and not respond to cyberbullying. Victims should keep evidence, such as recording the dates the activity occurred and saving and printing screen shots, e-mails and text messages. Criminal behavior may include threats of violence; child pornography or sexting; violation of privacy including secretly taking a photo of someone—for example, in a changing room or bathroom; stalking or harassment; obscene messages or harassing phone calls; sexual exploitation; and extortion. In some ways, cyberbullying is easier to prove than traditional bullying because the evidence does not go away. On April 2, 2009, the US Congress introduced H.R. 1966, the Megan Meier Cyberbullying Prevention Act—named for Megan Meier, a teen who committed suicide after being harassed online by a friend’s mother. Although the act did not become law, it prompted discussion in Congress about the issue. Some states have worked to enact cyberbullying laws, but efforts to enact specific cyberbullying legislation is difficult in the face of free speech rights.
Another weapon is empathy. The anonymity of cyberspace can make it easy to be cruel to others without seeing or considering the impact of these actions. Parents and educators have had success with anti-bullying programs that help children understand the effects of bullying on others. A 2014 US Department of Health and Human Services study found that bullying stops within ten seconds 57 percent of the time when someone intervenes. Seventy-nine percent of teens reported having intervened in cyberbullying at some point according to a 2011 Pew Research study.
Schools are also working to prevent cyberbullying. Since much of the abuse tends to happen on school grounds and on school computers, schools often can punish cyberbullies. Schools are spreading awareness about cyberbullying and explaining the consequences for this behavior. Stopping cyberbullying involves sending a clear message to students: Cyberbullying is unacceptable and it will not be tolerated. Students often turn to teachers when they are victims of bullying. A 2010 study reported that the most helpful things an educator can do is listen to the student, continually check in with the student to see if the bullying persists, and offer their advice. Other anti-cyberbullying efforts aim to build awareness of tactics and resources teens can use to prevent victimization and discourage participation. Annual holidays, charities, and public service announcements are several strategies people have used to try and persuade against electronic bullying.
Educators and parents must remain vigilant to successfully stop cyberbullying. They should look for signs of cyberbullying, such as depression and irritability, in children. They should also teach children not to circulate embarrassing online content, including photographs and videos. Finally, both parents and educators should caution children against posting anything they would not want shared with all of their classmates.