Cyberbullying: What to Do When Harassment Goes Online
October is National Bullying Prevention Month!
For as long as there have been people, there have also been bullies. There are certain people in the world who take pleasure from belittling others, and unfortunately, young people have always been especially vulnerable to physical and emotional bullying. But with the advent of the Internet, social media and smartphones, bullying has taken on a technological face.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services defines cyberbullying as “bullying that takes place over digital devices like cell phones, computers, and tablets.” Cyberbullying can occur through social media, SMS text, instant messaging apps, email, forums or online gaming. Examples of cyberbullying include sending, posting or sharing negative, harmful, false or mean content about someone else, including personal or private information that causes embarrassment or humiliation.
With the rise of digital communication, cyberbullying is becoming ever more common. In 2017, the National Center for Education Statistics surveyed students ages 12–18 about bullying in school. Approximately 20% of respondents reported being bullied at school, and of those students, 15% said they had been bullied online or by text.
As the prominence of cyberbulling grows, it’s important for children, teens and adults to understand how cyberbullying is unique and what to do about it. In honor of National Bullying Prevention Month, we spoke with Krista Fay, Mental Wellness Coordinator at Avon Community School Corporation in Avon, IN, to learn more about cyberbullying and how to address it.
Anonymity and Online Culture: Fuel for Cruelty
What makes cyberbullying especially concerning is the fact that it’s very different from other types of bullying. Before the Internet, anyone who chose to tease or harass another person usually had to do it face to face. This meant the person being bullied knew the identity of the bully, and the bully was forced to observe the emotional pain they caused their victim.
As Fay explains, all of this has changed with cyberbullying. “The danger of this is the safety of the screen. You don’t see the hurt in the other person, so you don’t know the effect that bullying has. You don’t see the long-term damage you’re doing because you can put your phone down and walk away from it,” she says.
In addition, anonymity and the impersonal nature of communication on the Internet has led to a troublesome online culture. Many Web users take a combative approach toward others, always looking for an opportunity to criticize or condemn. This culture further isolates individuals and makes it difficult to form the authentic human connections that undermine bullying.
“There’s inherent risk in being vulnerable on the Internet,” Fay says. “There’s a huge Internet culture around ‘trolling,’ ‘flaming’ and ‘roasting’ people. If you share a vulnerability, there’s a chance that somebody may make your vulnerability a joke.”
How to Respond to Cyberbullying
It can be difficult to know how to react when we are cyberbullied or witness someone else being bullied online. How should we respond to the bully? What about the person being bullied? Should we report the incident or keep quiet about it?
The Department of Health and Human Services offers advice for dealing with cyberbullying on its website StopBullying.gov. Here’s what you should do whenever you encounter cyberbullying:
If you are being bullied,
- Do not respond to negative comments or posts
- Block the bully from communicating with you further, and report their behavior to the social media or messaging platform if you believe it violates the terms of service
- Share your feelings and seek emotional support from a trusted person, like a close friend or family member
- Remind yourself that hurtful comments are a reflection of the person who made them, not you
If someone else is being bullied,
- Do not engage with the negative comment or post, and don’t forward it to other people
- Follow up with the victim privately to lend them your emotional support
- If you feel comfortable doing so, respond to the bully privately and let them know that you don’t agree with their behavior
On top of these measures, we can all do our part to change toxic Internet culture by displaying empathy and vulnerability online. Krista Fay has made this her personal mission in an effort to make the Internet a friendlier, more welcoming place:
“There’s a very cultivated image of ourselves that we project on social media. We only see the good things that other people share, so if we’re having a moment of struggle, we feel a huge disparity between ourselves and what feels like the rest of the world. I’m trying to share some of my struggles online, not to get ‘likes’ or sympathy, but to let people know that struggles happen and it’s OK to have a bad day. People will still be there for you.”
For more information on health issues facing children and teens, we recommend our posts about childhood sleep deprivation and the power of relationships for childhood mental health!