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What Is Cyberbullying and How to Stop It

Cyberbullying affects countless teens and adolescents. A 2019 study of 4,972 middle and high school students in the United States between the ages of 12 and 17 shows that 36.5% of the students have been cyberbullied in their lifetimes. Other studies report that 60% of young people had witnessed their peers being bullied, but they didn’t intervene for fear of becoming targets themselves. Victims of online bullying are much more likely to use alcohol and drugs, avoid school, have poor grades, experience depression and low self-esteem, and may even contemplate suicide.

What Is Cyberbullying?

Cyberbullying is a broad term and is any form of abuse repeatedly directed at a child through technology by another child. According to “Bullying Beyond the Schoolyard: Preventing and Responding to Cyberbullying,” cyberbullying is defined as “willful and repeated harm inflicted through the use of computers, cell phones, and other electronic devices.”

The difference between traditional bullying, which takes place in person, and cyberbullying, is that the latter must involve the use of technology. Additionally, to be defined as cyberbullying, the interaction between two or more people must contain the following elements:

  • The action must be willful. The behavior has to be intentional, not accidental.

  • The incident must have occurred more than once. Bullying reflects a repeated pattern of behavior.

  • The victim must perceive that harm was inflicted.

Cyberbullying takes place online through social media sites, like Facebook or Snapchat, in chat rooms, or via instant messages or text messages on their mobile phones. Types of cyberbullying include:

  • Sharing and posting videos or photos on social media of a person that are cruel in intention or violent.

  • Sharing and posting videos or photos on social media or via text messages that are sexually explicit or display violent sexual behavior.

  • Making threats of physical harm towards a person or telling someone to kill themselves via email, text, or social media. Threats may also include family members.

  • Attacking a person online or via text messages regarding their physical appearance, religion, sexuality, disability, or mental ability, or mental health.

  • Impersonating another person online to trick someone into revealing personal details, and then sharing it with others.

  • Hacking into another person's social networking sites, instant messaging apps, or email to send false and cruel messages to others.

With 95% of teens reporting going online at least once daily and 45% stating that they are "online constantly," the amount of potential exposure to cyberbullying is high. Unlike bullying, cyberbullying can be unrelenting and seem inescapable since it is online and on mobile phones. It can happen at any time of the day, follows pre-teens and teens home after school, and is often completely anonymous.

Cyberbullies can create fake social media profiles and download apps that provide temporary disposable numbers that allow them to send threatening text messages without the victim knowing the identity of their attacker.

In addition to the anonymity, messages, images, and videos can also be spread very quickly via social media sites, instant messages, and group text messages. Once the information has been shared it's impossible to permanently delete the information since it can be downloaded by others and repeatedly uploaded.

Facts About Cyberbullying

  • A poll of 200,000 students showed that 70% of teens had someone spread rumors about them online.

  • Girls (38.7%) are much more likely to be victims of cyberbullying than boys (34.1%). Girls also dominate social media, while boys tend to play videogames.

  • Over 12% of LGBT youth have been cyberbullied. 58% experienced hate messages and 35% received online threats.

  • Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat are the top three most popular social media platforms for teens. According to a recent report, teens are commonly bullied on Facebook (42%), Instagram (42%), Snapchat (37%), WhatsApp (12%), YouTube (10%), and Twitter (9%).

  • The report also shows that 67% of teens who are online almost constantly have experienced cyberbullying, compared with 53% of less frequent users.

  • Bullying, cyberbullying and cyberstalking are closely related. Children who are victims of traditional bullying in school also experience cyberbullying at home. Children who bully traditionally will also bully other children on social media and with text messages.

  • In a 2019 study, 16.1% of boys and 13.1% of girls admitted to cyberbullying another person at least once.

  • Over 95% of teens have a cellphone, making texting one of the most common means of cyberbullying.

  • 22.5% of teens say mean comments are the most common type of online bullying. That is followed by online rumors (20.1%) and sexual remarks (12.1%).

  • 35% of teens had sent a screenshot of someone’s photo or online status to laugh at them

  • 61% of teens say they were cyberbullied because of their appearance. Lesser reasons include: Academic achievement/intelligence 25%, race 17%, sexuality 15%, financial status 15%, religion 11%. The other 20% lists “other” as the reason for being bullied.

  • 64% of victims who are cyberbullied through instant message know the bully personally.

Cyberbullying and Kids With Learning Differences

Bullies target anyone different from themselves, including those with disabilities, mental

health issues, or learning differences. The bullies say mean things about someone who has ADD or ADHD; a student that is dyslexic, on the autism spectrum, or simply learns differently than other students. The bullying takes away attention from the bully’s issues and places them on others. Plus, teens with learning differences or disabilities are less likely to fight back. Many schools have anti-bullying policies, however, that does not prevent cyberbullying which can take place in or outside of the school.

Cyberbullying Laws

Each state has different laws and policies regarding bullying, however, there is no federal anti-bullying law at the moment. As of November 2018, 50 states have anti-bullying laws, 48 states include a definition of electronic harassment in their anti-bullying laws, and 44 states include criminal sanctions in their cyberbullying laws.

Montana is the only state that does not require schools to have anti-bullying policies. It does, however, provide for criminal sanctions against harassment by electronic means. Of the 49 states that have mandatory school anti-bullying policies, 17 states have mandatory off-campus anti-bullying policies. Off-campus policies have been proposed in Georgia and Nebraska.

For more information on the laws and policies in your state, the Cyberbullying Research Center provides an up-to-date PDF with descriptions of all current laws throughout the United States.

Sexting Laws

As of November 2018, only 26 states had sexting laws in place. There are 25 states with sexting laws addressing cases in which the individual sending the inappropriate content is under 18. Only 23 of the 26 states address cases in which the recipient of the messages, images, or video is under 18.

There are currently 42 states that have laws in place to protect victims of revenge porn. The Cyberbullying Research Center provides an up-to-date map of current sexting and revenge porn laws throughout the U.S.

For more information on sexting, we've created a guide with tips on how to prevent teens from sexting and what to do if private photos and videos are leaked.

How to Stop Cyberbullying

Cyberbullying is an issue, but it's one that can be stopped. There are many online resources to help both parents and children cope with cyberbullying and prevent it.

What teens can do...

...if you are a target of cyberbullying:

  • Don't blame yourself for the unfair treatment you are receiving. Bullies have often been the victims of bullying themselves and they treat you poorly so that they can feel control and power.