Cyberbullying

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Bullying has been around forever, but when you add e-mail, blogs, instant messaging, and other electronic methods, it gives the bully new and powerful tools with entirely new dimensions.

Cyberbullying, online harassment, e-bullying, mobile bullying, digital bullying, Internet bullying, and cyberstalking are all terms for ways in which those who wish to hurt others, use online tools to do so. Such attacks can represent a personal vendetta between two adults, the harassment of a spurned date, the stalking behavior of a complete stranger, or a teen (or a group) ganging up on another teen.

Cyberbullies can deliver an onslaught of accusations and threats at any time of the day or night. The schoolyard bully that kids once faced at recess for 20 minutes a day seems tame compared with the online bully who can harass a victim 24 hours a day.

cyberbullying1

Bullies can take and alter photos in damaging ways or add derogatory comments. They can then post them on social networking sites or send them in e-mail to the victim’s friends and family. Sometimes, pretending to be the victim, they create fake blogs to stir up trouble with the victim’s friends or post embarrassing videos, or, in an extreme form of cyberbullying, to entice a predator.

It’s important to understand that cyber-humiliation can be permanent. The information posted by a bully online can last literally forever and no amount of apology will ever put the genie back in the bottle. Schools, employers, friends, and others who search on a name ten, twenty, thirty years from now may come across the information.

How to avoid online bullying

Reducing vulnerability to bullying is not only about moderating online behavior, but it also includes preparing in the event online bullying occurs.

Be careful about sharing personal information (address, phone number, etc.), feelings, or photos. Keep it as private as you can.

Protecting your information is a good starting point for thwarting the random cyberbully. If bullies don’t know how to find you, it’s harder for them to escalate to a physical attack. If they don’t have your photo, they can’t manipulate it to embarrass you.

Report and Block anyone whose behavior is inappropriate or threatening in any way.

Block specific individuals or contact from people you or your kids don’t know. (Bullies can create new identities in a heartbeat.) Every web service should have clear instructions to help you block contact from bullies their site – and there should be a clear report abuse button to alert the service of problems so they can take action against the bully.

Pointers for parents of kids and teens

Watch over your kids

  • For younger kids, put the family computer and Internet-connected game consoles in a central location. This can help you keep an eye on whether they’re being harassed or are using the computer to bully others.
  • Teens have so many online access points that putting the computer in a central spot isn’t particularly useful. From age 12, it’s critical to have frank discussions about cyberbullying.
  • Help teens strengthen ties with supportive friends because bullies tend to target those who are socially isolated in some way.
  • Check in with your children periodically about whether they’re being bullied online or on their cell phones. Sometimes its hard for teens to even identify that what’s happening to them is cyberbullying.

Come up with a family plan about how you’ll respond to cyberbullying

As a family, come up with a plan that everyone promises to stick to.

  • Start with a conversation about cyberbullying — what it is and why people do it. (For information, read Cyberbullying is a serious and growing problem below.) Make clear that bullying is never the victim’s fault and that bullies’ actions are not a result of a fault within your child, but a fault within the bully.
  • Encourage your children to report bullying to you. Don’t dismiss their problems and let them know that you will take action on their behalf.
  • Talk about how you as a parent will respond. Tell teens that you won’t curtail teen phone and online usage and that you won’t “freak out” (difficult as that may be). Telling a teen to “turn off their phone”, or “stay off the Internet” doesn’t help. These connections are their lifelines to friends. This will also significantly increase the likelihood that you’ll be told.
  • Let your children know that they may never, under any circumstances, bully someone else. Help them understand that in addition to the harm bullying inflicts on others, bullying deeply affects the bully and discuss why revenge (online or offline) is not appropriate. Make it clear what the consequences will be if they bully others.
  • Understand both your child’s school policy and its actual responses toward cyberbullying. These are two separate points.

Learn More Know where you can turn for resources and support. The list at the end of this article makes a good starting point.

Pointers for seniors

Though the focus in the press is on cyberbullying among children and teens, cyberbullying affects people of all ages and seniors are no exception. One clear difference however is that cyberbullying of seniors, like the physical world bullying of seniors, is most often done by family members.

Cyberbullying (mostly through e-mail) of seniors can take several forms, but the most common are:

  • Emotional abuse with rage, threats, accusations, and belittling comments, often followed with periods of silence or ignoring the victim.
  • Financial abuse aimed at finding their account information, setting up online access to their accounts, and stealing their money.

Speaking out against cyberbullying can be particularly difficult for seniors who may not even have the word in their vocabulary compounded by lack of information about how deal with it. As with victims of any age are, seniors may feel violated and powerless, confusion and denial over what’s happening, shame and self blame for being a victim, and fear of more bullying or being ignored if they speak out.

Cyberbullying by family members is often an extension of face-to-face bullying and is therefore less likely than many other forms of cyberbullying to just end on its own. For help, follow the advice given earlier and contact a local senior center for further advice and assistance.

What to do if someone is cyberbullying you or your child

Don’t respond to the bully. Don’t answer phone calls, read text messages, e-mail, or comments from cyberbullies. Resist the urge to see or hear the latest insult. But do save the material in case law enforcement needs it as evidence or to take action.

Report bullying

  • Call the police or local law enforcement immediately If you feel that you or your child are physically at risk in any way including any criminal activity such as threats of violence, extortion, staking, or obscene or harassing phone calls or text messages. Explain the situation and let law enforcement guide you.
  • Report bullying to the service whose tools were used to bully – the Internet service provider, social networking site, chat room, e-mail or instant messaging service, and so on. They should respond to you and take measures to prevent further abuse through their service. Many services have moderators and places to report abuse or ways to help block undesirable people.

If a service doesn’t provide the support you need, change your service and let them know why you changed. Reputable companies should make it easy to report abuse and should take action if you do.

Pointers for parents of kids and teens

In addition to the actions above, here are some additional steps you can take with your child:

cyberbullying2Act immediately. If your child is being cyberbullied, don’t wait to see if it goes away. They need to know that you can and will help them with this problem.

Report the bully. If you know who is bullying your child, figure out whether speaking to the parents is the right course of action.1 Some parents may be very concerned that their child has been a bully and will put a stop to it. Others may not respond positively. So be cautious: make your first contact in writing and document what you know.

If the bully is attending school, let the school know.

Acknowledge your child’s pain. Recognizing your child’s pain and hearing you affirm that what happened wasn’t fair or right is important validation. Being cyberbullied is alienating enough; do nothing that makes your child feel any more isolated. Bullying hurts and that hurt is exhibited many forms — anger, embarrassment, betrayal, frustration, confusion, fear. Reactions also differ depending on who is doing the bullying, how pervasive it is, who witnessed it, what the nature of the bullying was, if bystanders lent support or not, and so on. Help them see that bullies’ actions are not a result of a fault within your child, but a fault within the bully.

Assess what additional help your child may need. It may be support from friends, the school, school counselors, or other counseling services. Ask the school counselor for names of those who might offer support in working through the bullying.

What schools and educators can do about cyberbullying

I want to underscore the need for an appropriate policy and consistent responses by schools. I get a tremendous number of questions from parents and students about whether coming forward about cyberbullying will actually help or if it will just further hurt the victim. It’s a sad commentary that I have to suggest that they tread cautiously, because the concern is legitimate. If your school does not have a clear policy and consistent training for staff and students, take it up with your PTSA. Educators must be prepared to correctly and consistently respond in ways that protect and help victims.

Develop clear policies against bullying, including cyberbullying

School policies often fall short of adequately responding to cyberbullying. One common shortcoming is ambiguity regarding the reach of educators’ authority when the abuse does not occur on school property. This needs to be made clear: if the cyberbullying is between students and a student no longer feels safe, regardless of where it occurs, schools need to respond. All students have the right to feel safe at school and that environment is heavily impacted by online attacks launched away from the schoolyard.

This includes protecting the victim from retaliation for coming forward and ongoing support to reduce the damage. It is a myth that “weaklings tattle.” In reality those who tell are the ones who are not willing to be bullied. Speaking out and getting help are positive declarations that they deserve to be treated better.

Develop clear, unambiguous steps to put the policy into practice

Having a solid anti-cyberbullying policy is only the first step. Educators must apply the policy consistently to help both the victim and the bully. The school’s policy must be clearly and frequently communicated and understood by staff, parents, and students so everyone can feel confident that the right responses and protections will be given.

Every effort should be made to find the bully and hold them accountable for their actions. Bullying in school directly affects the emotional well-being of children, impacts the capacity of all students to learn, and thwarts a school’s need to create a safe place for learning.

Cyberbullying is a serious and growing problem

Because physical size is no longer required to become an aggressor, the Internet provides a sort of “equal opportunity offender” environment. It allows anyone with a grudge or chip on their shoulder to act on their feelings regardless of their size or age. Cyberbullies don’t have to confront their victims in person or ever identify themselves and can bully others with little fear of retaliation — that’s part of the appeal. Anonymity can be even more damaging for the victim who may not know who the tormentor is — especially if the tormentor pretends to be a friend.

For lack of better terminology, we (including me) refer to online and offline bullying environments, but in reality we only have one environment. Cyberbullying may be the activity that most immediately highlights the way the online and offline experiences blend into one never-ending threat for victims. It is critical to understand that actions taken in a virtual world can inflict real pain.

It doesn’t really take much imagination to appreciate the far-reaching impact and damage spiteful online actions can cause. To understand how it would feel to have cruel comments about you posted on your site; to receive telephone threats at all hours of the day or night; to have your image defaced so you look fatter, nude, etc.; to have your Web site defaced so that it appears to insult your friends thereby antagonizing your whole support network; to have your reputation smeared in front of everyone you know — all of your friends, and friends of your friends.

These tactics often cause victims to withdraw from friends which weakens their support, increases feelings of isolation and stress, and leaves them even more vulnerable to future attacks. Bullying has at times gone so far that victims have sought psychiatric treatment or been pushed over the edge to suicide (or homicide).

Read on to find out more about:

  • Cyberbullying among children and teens
  • How people of all ages can be cyberbullies and victims
  • How bullying deeply affects the bully

Cyberbullying among children and teens

While physical bullying usually reaches its peak in late elementary school, research shows that over 30 percent of middle and high school students report being victims of cyberbullying. In fact, there is a body of research that indicates that online bullying is increasing. The data below gives further insight into the problem of cyberbullying among children and teens.

Unfortunately, research by Dr. Justin Patchin, assistant professor of criminal justice at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, indicates that at least 40 percent of teen victims don’t tell anyone about cyberbullying. One frequently cited reason is concern about parents’ potential reactions. Teens are afraid they’ll be blamed or that their parents will restrict their use of computers and cell phones to protect them, or make matters worse by ineffectively handling the situation. Teens don’t report cyberbullying to their teachers for the same reasons.

Think about it: victims already feel vulnerable and isolated. Unless they can feel confident that telling an adult about the bullying is going to help, they are unlikely to feel safe in coming forward. This is a legitimate concern as bungled responses to cyberbullying often result in more harm to the victim.

People of all ages are cyberbullies and victims

Though the focus in the press is on cyberbullying among children and teens, cyberbullying is not limited to the young. Women between the ages of 24 and 35 are often targeted by the men they dated (or wouldn’t date) who use the Internet to expand their ability to stalk and harass them. And both men and women have experienced cyberstalking by ex-spouses.

The prevalence of workplace bullying has required most companies and organizations to create clear rules against harassment. But cyberbullying has complicated workplace efforts to detect it and enforce the rules because, as in schools, bullying is no longer bound to the hours of work or to workplace computers.

Students angry at a teacher or principal can’t effectively bully them at school, but can attack them online by exposing their personal information like address and phone numbers, writing slanderous comments, posting altered photos, and the like.

Parents are another target. Sometimes angry children bully their parents to retaliate for a perceived or real injury — for example, a divorce or separation of the parents. An angry child may post unfavorable comments, try to humiliate or even ruin a parent’s reputation by exposing domestic problems (drinking, loud arguments, even abuse), or simply make up damaging stories.

Bullying deeply affects the bully

People bully for many reasons. It can be because they lash out at their aggressors and bystanders who failed to help them (in extreme cases you get Columbine-like incidents), or if they don’t feel capable of retaliating against their tormentors, they may take their anger out by bullying others.

Another common reason that young people cyberbully is poor adult role models at home. When children see a parent bullying others – siblings, spouse, or are themselves the victim – they may see bullying as an appropriate tool to get one’s way.

Some young people bully to hide their own feelings of inadequacy or use bullying as a way to vent anger when they feel powerless to direct their anger at the cause of their pain. Some absorb the violence and bullying behaviors modeled on TV, in movies, and in video games.

Others cyberbully because they are bored. This usually starts with friends who are casting around for something to do and think it will funny to bully someone online. Once they start, it sometimes takes on a life of its own and continues for months, even an entire school year.

The potential list of underlying factors is long. Yet what we do know is that no child is born a bully; it is a learned behavior. It is also ultimately a choice. Plenty of kids grow up with the same predisposition factors as bullies yet choose to use other methods to solve problems.

The act of bullying, whether online or offline may have longer term consequences for the bully than for the victim. Bullying often becomes the default coping method, a negative pattern that is reinforced as bullies surround themselves with friends who approve of or even support their aggressive actions.

While young bullies may enjoy a temporary level of popularity and peer status, they often have trouble making and keeping friends, do poorly in school, and aren’t well liked by teachers. Bullies also have an increased risk for using alcohol and drugs.

Bullies may fail to develop a mature sense of justice. Instead they justify their actions by manufacturing a fault in their victim — it may be that the victim is “dumb” or conversely that the victim is “smart.” Any trait or perceived difference can be used to create a reason. When challenged, cyberbullies commonly defend their actions as benefiting their victims with claims like “it will help him toughen up” or “it will teach her to fit in.” Offenders of cyberbullying tend to rationalize their behavior in certain ways. Half justify it as being done in fun, instructive (22.2 percent), or as an indirect tool used to strengthen victims (13 percent).

Bullies may take their abusive patterns into adulthood, at work and home. Unchecked bullying is often an early step towards more serious misbehavior and unlawful activity:

  • cyberbullyin3Some research indicates that nearly 60 percent of boys who researchers classified as bullies in grades six to nine were convicted of at least one crime by the age of 24; 40 percent of them had three or more convictions by age 24.2
  • Among boys who said they had bullied others at least once a week in school, 43 percent had carried a weapon in school and 39 percent were involved in frequent fighting.3

A study conducted in Finland, Bullying, depression, and suicidal ideation in Finnish adolescents: school survey, concluded: “Adolescents who are being bullied and those who are bullies are at an increased risk of depression and suicide. The need for psychiatric intervention should be considered not only for victims of bullying but also for bullies.”

Parents of bullies often contribute to the problem by minimizing or dismissing the behavior of their child. These parents often fail to agree with other parents, teachers, and other school authorities on what constitutes bullying. They consider such behavior as “just a phase,” or say “kids will be kids.” Some parents believe kids will (or should) work out confrontations among themselves.

Often this viewpoint is accompanied by the attitude that the victim needs to “learn to take a joke” or “toughen up.” Not only does this point of view utterly disregard the damage done to victims; it fails to recognize the very dangerous path bullies themselves walk or to address the underlying causes of bullying.

Resources

Video shorts on cyberbullying

The Ad Council has an excellent series of educational videos (two are given below) to help you and your kids understand cyberbullying and its impact. Each is built around the tagline, “If you wouldn’t say it in person, why say it online?” Many are also available in Spanish.

  • Kitchen
  • Talent Show
  • StopBullyingNow! (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services) Thorough information, research, and advice about cyberbullying about both online and offline bullying, especially for younger children .
  • State’s actions on cyber-bullying (USA Today)This article outlines the actions various states have taken against cyberbullying. An excellent resource if you want to know the laws of your state.
  • Adolescent Bullies Move to Cyberspace (University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire) This article outlines research conducted in 2006 that discusses the harm cyberbullying can cause adolescents and backs up its points with statistics.
  • Cyberbullying.us A central repository of information about cyberbullying.
  • NCH children’s charity — Mobile bullying (British Children’s Charity) This report focuses specifically on bullying using mobile phones.

Web resources

My book

Read more about cyberbullying and harassment and how to protect yourself in chapter 16 (“Act to Avoid Harassment and Bullying”) in Look Both Ways.

 


1 Consider contacting the cyberbully’s parents.

2 Fight Crime: Invest in Kids, September 2003

3 National Institute of Health, 2003

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