- Explore the latest psychological science about the impact of cyberbullying and what to do if you or your child is a victim.
Cyberbullying can happen anywhere with an internet connection. While traditional, in-person bullying is still more common, data from the Cyberbullying Research Center suggest about 1 in every 4 teens has experienced cyberbullying, and about 1 in 6 has been a perpetrator. About 1 in 5 tweens, or kids ages 9 to 12, has been involved in cyberbullying (PDF, 5.57MB).
As technology advances, so do opportunities to connect with people—but unfettered access to others isn’t always a good thing, especially for youth. Research has long linked more screen time with lower psychological well-being, including higher rates of anxiety and depression. The risk of harm is higher when kids and teens are victimized by cyberbullying.
Here’s what you need to know about cyberbullying, and psychology’s role in stopping it.
What is cyberbullying?
Cyberbullying occurs when someone uses technology to demean, inflict harm, or cause pain to another person. It is “willful and repeated harm inflicted through the use of computers, cell phones, and other electronic devices.” Perpetrators bully victims in any online setting, including social media, video or computer games, discussion boards, or text messaging on mobile devices.
Virtual bullying can affect anyone, regardless of age. However, the term “cyberbullying” usually refers to online bullying among children and teenagers. It may involve name calling, threats, sharing private or embarrassing photos, or excluding others.
One bully can harass another person online or several bullies can gang up on an individual. While a stranger can incite cyberbullying, it more frequently occurs among kids or teens who know each other from school or other social settings. Research suggests bullying often happens both at school and online.
Online harassment between adults can involve different terms, depending on the relationship and context. For example, dating violence, sexual harassment, workplace harassment, and scamming—more common among adults—can all happen on the internet.
How can cyberbullying impact the mental health of myself or my child?
Any form of bullying can negatively affect the victim’s well-being, both at the time the bullying occurs and in the future. Psychological research suggests being victimized by a cyberbully increases stress and may result in anxiety and depression symptoms. Some studies find anxiety and depression increase the likelihood adolescents will become victims to cyberbullying.
Cyberbullying can also cause educational harm, affecting a student’s attendance or academic performance, especially when bullying occurs both online and in school or when a student has to face their online bully in the classroom. Kids and teens may rely on negative coping mechanisms, such as substance use, to deal with the stress of cyberbullying. In extreme cases, kids and teens may struggle with self-harm or suicidal ideation.
How can parents talk to their children about cyberbullying?
Parents play a crucial role in preventing cyberbullying and associated harms. Be aware of what your kids are doing online, whether you check your child’s device, talk to them about their online behaviors, or install a monitoring program. Set rules about who your child can friend or interact with on social media platforms. For example, tell your child if they wouldn’t invite someone to your house, then they shouldn’t give them access to their social media accounts. Parents should also familiarize themselves with signs of cyberbullying, such as increased device use, anger or anxiety after using a device, or hiding devices when others are nearby.
Communicating regularly about cyberbullying is an important component in preventing it from affecting your child’s well-being. Psychologists recommend talking to kids about how to be safe online before they have personal access to the internet. Familiarize your child with the concept of cyberbullying as soon as they can understand it. Develop a game plan to problem solve if it occurs. Cultivating open dialogue about cyberbullying can ensure kids can identify the experience and tell an adult, before it escalates into a more harmful situation.
It’s also important to teach kids what to do if someone else is being victimized. For example, encourage your child to tell a teacher or parent if someone they know is experiencing cyberbullying.
Keep in mind kids may be hesitant to open up about cyberbullying because they’re afraid they’ll lose access to their devices. Encourage your child to be open with you by reminding them they won’t get in trouble for talking to you about cyberbullying. Clearly explain your goal is to allow them to communicate with their friends safely online.
How can I report cyberbullying?
How you handle cyberbullying depends on a few factors, such as the type of bullying and your child’s age. You may choose to intervene by helping a younger child problem solve whereas teens may prefer to handle the bullying on their own with a caregiver’s support.
In general, it’s a good practice to take screenshots of the cyberbullying incidents as a record, but not to respond to bullies’ messages. Consider blocking cyberbullies to prevent future harassment.
Parents should contact the app or website directly about removing bullying-related posts, especially if they reveal private or embarrassing information. Some social media sites suspend perpetrators’ accounts.
If the bullying also occurs at school or on a school-owned device, or if the bullying is affecting a child’s school performance, it may be appropriate to speak with your child’s teacher or school personnel.
What are the legal ramifications of cyberbullying?
In some cases, parents should report cyberbullying to law enforcement. If cyberbullying includes threats to someone’s physical safety, consider contacting your local police department.
What’s illegal can vary from state to state. Any illegal behaviors, such as blackmailing someone to send money, hate crimes, stalking, or posting sexual photos of a minor, can have legal repercussions. If you’re not sure about what’s legal and what’s not, check your state’s laws and law enforcement.
Are big tech companies responsible for promoting positive digital spaces?
In an ideal world, tech companies would prioritize creating safer online environments for young people. Some companies are working toward it already, including partnering with psychologists to better understand how their products affect kids, and how to keep them safe. But going the extra mile isn’t always profitable for technology companies. For now, it’s up to individuals, families, and communities to protect kids’ and teens’ best interest online.
What does the research show about psychology’s role in reducing this issue?
Many studies show preventative measures can drastically reduce cyberbullying perpetration and victimization. Parents and caregivers, schools, and technology companies play a role in educating kids about media literacy and mental health. Psychologists—thanks to their expertise in child and teen development, communication, relationships, and mental health—can also make important contributions in preventing cyberbullying.
Because cybervictimization coincides with anxiety and depression, research suggests mental health clinicians and educators should consider interventions that both address adolescents’ online experiences and support their mental, social, and emotional well-being. Psychologists can also help parents speak to their kids about cyberbullying, along with supporting families affected by it.
- Abramson, A. (2022, September 7). Cyberbullying: What is it and how can you stop it? https://www.apa.org/topics/bullying/cyberbullying-online-social-media