What is cyberbullying and why is it so harmful?
By allowing us to share our stories and communicate with friends, family, and strangers all across the world, the internet has changed forever. It would be impossible for many of us to regress to a pre-wired-in age. Yet, the shift towards a social media-centered existence hasn’t been without its downsides, and the increasing prevalence of cyberbullying is one of the most alarming.
Cyberbullying is bullying — period — and we must work together to minimize its negative impact on our society.
Defined by Dictionary.com as, “the act of harassing someone online by sending or posting mean messages, usually anonymously”, cyberbullying comes in many forms. It affects adolescents the hardest, but also all age groups.
The effects of cyberbullying can be dire, leading to ostracization and mental trauma. In this guide, we’ll discuss the various forms of cyberbullying, how to identify and prevent it, and the laws and school policies against it.
Types of cyberbullying
The persistent bombardment of negative, hurtful, or threatening messages through text messages, or on a social media platform. Harassment attempts to wear down a victim with repeated threats and insults.
Occasionally this form of cyberbullying manifests itself in a group setting with one member of a chat group becoming the target of hurtful messages, or through the victim’s private messages being shared in a group setting.
Example of harassment cyberbullying (source: wikimedia commons)
An especially traumatic form of cyberbullying that often occurs after a break-up, or rejection of unwanted advances. It typically involves an assault of texts or direct messages through social media with pleas to get together, sexually explicit messages or taunts, or even threats of physical violence.
Sending repeat automated emails is one form of cyberstalking (source: wikimedia commons)
A different form of bullying that includes cutting someone out of a group, photo album, or social event. Exclusion intends to make the victim feel bad by leaving him or her out of a social circle that they were once part of.
Exclusion is usually coupled with harassment, or another form of cyberbullying. “In-group” members may also ridicule or make fun of the victim amongst themselves as added insult to the ostracized party.
Posting malicious and provocative comments in a message board or social media with the intent of inciting an extreme reaction from the victim, often in the form of taunts or insults regarding the victim’s personal opinion or beliefs. Trolling is often done anonymously, and the perpetrator may not have any relationship with the victim or even know them at all.
Impersonation aka “imping”
Posing as another person and sending messages to a friend in order to damage the relationship between them, or making public posts with embarrassing or unflattering statements. Impersonation can be particularly devastating if the cyberbully obtains the username and password of the victim’s Facebook, or Instagram account. The damage make take a long time to mend if hundreds of classmates catch sight of the material online.
The posting of mean-spirited gossip and rumors with the intent of harming the victim’s reputation or relationships. Whether the rumors or statements spread are true or not often does not matter, and they can achieve the same effect. Once a group is exposed to a particularly sordid or shocking rumor, it can have a snowball effect wherein the victim is unable to shed the stigma attached to it.
Sharing personal messages with revealing information, or photos in a public forum or within a larger social group. Outing is frequently practiced in the aftermath of a nasty breakup and may include the public posting of revealing photos intended only for the eyes of a former romantic partner.
Outing can be particularly devastating for an adolescent as it may involve the public reveal of their sexual orientation before they are ready to go public with the information. Cases of outing have resulted in suicides by the victims.
Cyberbullying on social media
Despite recently being overtaken by Instagram as the most frequently used network for cyberbullying, Facebook nonetheless remains a hot zone for certain types of harmful online interaction.
As with other social media networks, it is easier for kids to say cruel things about people on Facebook that they’d never say in person. Cyberbullying on Facebook often happens in a “pile-on” situation, where one user will leave a negative comment about another user’s post, which encourages others to follow suit. The gang mentality towards online bullying can have a stronger impact on a child than direct 1-on-1 text harassment, leading to feelings of despair and hopelessness.
Another alarming aspect of cyberbullying on Facebook is that the 13-year old-age limit for Facebook is rarely enforced, meaning vulnerable tweens and young children often create profiles and use the network, exposing themselves to the threat of cyberbullying and other online dangers.
15-year-old Tom Mullaney took his own life after an altercation with a younger boy at school extended to heated textual sparring on Facebook.
In some cases, cyberbullying on Facebook has lead to adolescents taking their own life. This is what happened with Birmingham teenager, Thomas Mullaney. The 15-year old, described by his family as a friendly boy who enjoyed sports, got into an argument with another boy a grade below him at school. The fight got physical, and both boys were suspended from school while the administration conducted an investigation. That evening, the argument between Thomas, the other boy and his friends shifted to Facebook. The dispute began with direct messages, but shifted over to Thomas’s main wall. The younger boy and his friends teamed up, posting a barrage of insults and physical threats towards Thomas. At some point, the taunts grew too much for Thomas to bear. He went back into the family shed and hung himself by a telephone cord. This alarming incident illustrates the profoundly damaging effect that the “pile on” strategy of cyberbullying common on Facebook can have on an emotionally wounded teenager.
As more and more teens have made Instagram their social network of choice, it has become the most common platform for youths to experience cyberbullying. The image-oriented nature of Instagram makes the network rife with opportunity for bullies to make cruel and hateful comments about the appearance of others.
In addition to posting cruel comments, bullies will also post unflattering or doctored pictures of others on their own account, inviting their followers to mock the victim. These posts can often snowball, getting spread around to an audience much wider than originally intended.
The Instagram user @stlukeidiots repeatedly targeted young girls from sixth graders from a Catholic middle school in New York. The victims suffered severe emotional distress and even thoughts of suicide. Law enforcement were called in to investigate the incidents but could not identify the culprit.
In an alarming example of the potential dangers vulnerable pre-teens face on Instagram, an anonymous user, @StLukeIdiots, went on a cyberbullying spree one weekend in May 2014. The user assaulted the Instagram accounts of 11 middle school girls enrolled at St. Luke School in Queens,NY posting mean spirited and hurtful comments under their pictures. @StLukeIdiots drew more than 130 follows before the account was deactivated. The victims were devastated, with some professing the desire to die. Police investigated the situation but the culprit was never identified. This incident strongly illustrates that preteens do not belong on Instagram, where they are vulnerable to the attacks of predators and trolls.
Because snapchat messages, or “snaps”, are automatically deleted soon after being viewed (although there is also the option to create “stories” which exist for up to 24 hours after creation), senders are often not as careful with the content of their messages as they would be with other platforms.
However, despite the fact that snaps quickly “self-destruct”, recipients of the messages are able to take screenshots of the messages and save them to their phone. This can lead to the dispersal of private, intimate content that the sender did not intend to be distributed, leading to embarrassing and upsetting situations.
Snaps are also a means of sending hurtful messages directly to another child, with the knowledge that it will most likely be deleted, leaving no evidence of abuse. Exclusion, where one friend is left out of a “Story” or a certain member of a social group is not sent a snap that others received, is also common on Snapchat.
In a horrifying incident caught on Snapchat, a teen in Ridgewood, NJ was brutally beaten by an assailant after coming to the defense of a girl–herself a cyberbullying victim–, fractured his skull in the incident. The bully then posted a photo of the bloodied boy lying on the ground to his Snapchat account. The victim’s aunt claims that the girl he defended was actively being harassed by a large group of students online after her pictures were shared around on social media networks. In the aftermath of the attack, the boy was then ridiculed on social media for coming to her defense. This incident demonstrates the role cyberbullying can play in tandem with face-to-face bullying and how it can exacerbate and magnify a terrible situation.
YouTube is another site where cyberbullying occurs in a alarming frequency. Due to the fact that YouTube users are often anonymous, they can post cruel, hateful comments on the videos of others without fear of reprisal. The “pile-on” situation that occurs on Facebook also happens on YouTube, with the difference being that users do not have to be friends with the poster to comment on the video, opening the door for for trolls and cyberbullies everywhere to engage in the taunting.
For years, Twitter has held reputation as a haven for trolling and cyberbullying, with many high profile cases making the news, such as when the daughter of beloved comedian Robin Williams was driven off the site following a torrent of abuse and mean-spirited taunts in the wake of her father’s death by suicide.
Cyberbullies on Twitter hide behind anonymous accounts, as on Youtube, freeing them from practicing the restraint they otherwise would if their identity were public. Attacking others for their lifestyles, ethnicities and political beliefs is commonplace. Cyberbullying on Twitter is not just a problem between students and their peers, but a global issue.
Attacks on a person’s political views on Twitter
Texting and other forms
Cyberbullying can also happen through text and personal messages. Though the damaging comments may not be posted for others to see, the harassment can be equally damaging for teens.
Tips for parents on cyberbullying management and prevention
How to tell if your child or loved one is a cyberbullying victim
There’s a chance your child, friend or loved one is the victim of cyberbullying but too embarrassed to admit it. Here are some signs:
Comforting your child after an incident of cyberbullying
If the damage done by cyberbullying is severe, and the victim feels ostracized from their peers or afraid to go to school, he or she may benefit from professional counseling. Professional counselors, at school and otherwise, are trained to deal with cyberbullying and use specific techniques to manage the situation and help victims overcome their pain and self-esteem issues.
Tips on preventing cyberbullying from happening to your child
Cyberbullying laws and in school policy
Reporting cyberbullying to schools
Often a child will not be able to deal with an instance of cyberbullying alone, and the situation may require intervention by the school in order to put a stop to the behavior.
You may believe that confronting the parents of the bully is a good solution, but they might react unpredictably, denying the charge, or becoming aggressive. Research finds that the bullies are often physically and verbally abused by their parents, and they may not be the best individuals to confront about a cyberbullying situation.
Approaching the school in order to deal with an incident of cyberbullying is the best choice. Even before going to the police, this is the best course of action, as the school will have the contacts of every student, as well as a law enforcement liaison on campus at all times who will best know how to proceed with the situation. If bringing in the cops is necessary, then they will likely do so.
Schools are mandated by state law in every state, to have an official anti-bullying policy, with Montana being the last to do so in 2015. Many states have laws that require schools to deal with off-campus behavior as well. Even if cyberbullying incidents take place off school grounds and after the last bell, they may still be forced to take action. Schools are required to keep classrooms a safe place conducive to learning, and off-campus cyberbullying can negatively impact this environment.
Laws against cyberbullying
As yet, there are no federal laws against cyberbullying, however most states have stepped up and passed their own laws against the behavior. State laws against bullying and cyberbullying vary from state to state. An overwhelming majority of states include criminal sanctions for cyberbullying.
The punishments for cyberbullying vary: in California, using an “electronic communication device” to cause someone to fear for their life is a misdemeanor offense punishable by a fine of up to $1000 or a year in jail. While in states such as Missouri, a cyberbullying offender may face a misdemeanor harassment charge.
Educate yourself on your own state’s cyberbullying laws in order to be better prepared and aware of your options if and when a situation arises.
Generally, severe bullying is classified as a Class 1 misdemeanor, but in some states, as in the case of South Dakota in 2009, legislators failed to pass a comprehensive law against bullying. In states where this is the case, cases against bullies can be filed under existing harassment laws.
In an unprecedented case, Michelle Carter, a 17-year-old from Massachusetts, was sentenced with involuntary manslaughter for sending texts encouraging her boyfriend, Conrad Roy III, to commit suicide. Roy, suffered from depression, and Carter repeatedly encouraged him to follow through with his threats to kill himself. In his final successful attempt, Roy filled his truck with carbon monoxide. He told Carter he was scared, and she encouraged him to “get back in”, which he did, and died of inhaling the fumes. The case may prompt Massachusetts to pass a new law which makes encouraging suicide a criminal act.
Share this on your site
- Stomp out Bullying – The leading non-profit organization dedicated to ending bullying for students everywhere.
- Stopbullying.gov – Government sponsored site dedicated to spreading anti-bullying awareness and prevention tips, with resources and directories for mental health centers.
Mental health resources
- Mentalhealth.gov – The federal government’s site of resources for those battling mental illness.
- Get Help Now – A guide on how to act in a variety of bullying and cyberbullying situations.
- Wellness Everyday: Cyberbullying – Excellent mental health resource on cyberbullying created by the Ventura County Mental Health Department
Law and policy resources
- Find Law – Cyberbullying Laws – Guide to laws against cyberbullying around the country
The following are links to each social network’s page where you can report cyberbullying on the site:
- Abuse and Spam on Instagram
- Report abuse on Snapchat
- Report abuse on Twitter
- Report bullying on Facebook
- Youtube’s harassment and cyberbullying policy
Home Safety Resources
If you are concerned about cyber bullying becoming physical, please check out our various security resources and round ups: