Bullying is a serious, long-standing social problem that now occurs in digital spaces as well as physical ones. But, contrary to what you might have heard or read, it isn’t just a youth problem, it isn’t getting worse, and it isn’t more of a problem online than offline. Because of the rise of social media in the middle of the last decade, bullying and peer harassment have been getting a lot of news coverage, so – rather than increased bullying – what we’re really seeing is increased attention to it and a lot more concern about it.
Thanks to increased research, we know more about the problem and what will help, and we’re more motivated as a society to address it. We also know that the problem isn’t the technology people use. Technology can help amplify it and create another “place” where it happens, but – just like bullying – cyberbullying is rooted in relationships, in how people interact in everyday life. As for young people, since they spend a lot of time in social media, their interaction – good, bad or neutral – happens in apps, texts, games and sites too.
Even though it has been around for ages, experts still haven’t completely agreed on a definition of “bullying,” much less cyberbullying, the digital version. There are elements that keep popping up in definitions, though, so that we’re pretty clear on what it is not. It’s not social drama, an argument, mean gossip, an impulsive expression of anger or a prank that’s gone wrong but wasn’t meant to. Any of these can be hurtful and sometimes they can turn into bullying, but cyberbullying is not just any form of mean behavior any more than bullying is in offline life.
Most experts agree that bullying and cyberbullying are forms of serious aggression, usually targeted and repeated. With cyberbullying, the repetition can be less personal but just as hurtful when shared widely, or even virally, by anonymous posters. By most definitions, both involve a real or perceived power imbalance that’s physical, psychological and/or social. Although cyberbullying occurs in digital spaces and can be anonymous, there’s usually a connection to offline life – for kids, school life.
Anonymity is more of a factor in cyberbullying than in traditional bullying. Targets may believe that more people are witness to the abuse than actually are, which can compound the pain. And since online socializing can occur 24/7, home, weekends and vacation can’t be havens from the hurt.
Young people may use different terms
If you want to talk with kids about “cyberbullying,” it might be best not to use that term – at least not at first. Kids often use other terms, like “drama” to describe a range of behaviors that don’t necessarily fit into adult perceptions or a scholarly definition. Sometimes it involves mean gossip, pranks and arguments. Sometimes it can turn into cyberbullying, but too many kinds of behavior are called “cyberbullying,” which can cause overreaction and responses from adults that only increase the problem for the young people involved. To avoid that and get a clear picture of what’s going on, encourage your kids to use their own terms and be specific, so you can figure out together how to respond, if at all – and whether or not you need to be involved.
Putting numbers into perspective & some good news
Probably because there is no single definition of cyberbullying, the numbers are all over the map, but lower than we often hear. And, contrary to some reports, the numbers are not going up — if anything, they’ve gone down a little. The National Center for Educational Statistics reported that 15.6% of students in grades 6-12 were “electronically bullied” in 2015, down from 16.2% in 2011. When it comes to high school students (grades 9 to 12), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Youth Risk Behavior Survey found that 14.5% of high school students were electronically bullied in 2017, compared to 19% who had been bullied in school, during the 12 months prior to the survey. That’s actually lower than it was in 2011 and 2015. It does appear that bullying tapers off with age. CDC reported that, in 2015, 24% of middle school students were cyberbullied and 45% were bullied on school property.
After a review of multiple studies, the Cyberbullying Research Center, in 2016, estimated that, on average, about 24% of middle and high school students have been cyberbullied. In a 2012 paper, pioneering bullying researcher Dan Olweus reported that, among 440,000 US students surveyed (grades 3-12), 4.5% had been cyberbullied. Like other experts, Olweus reported that in-person bullying is a far bigger problem than cyberbullying, which “has not increased over time,” and “claims about cyberbullying made in the media” are “often greatly exaggerated.” Though numbers certainly don’t ease the problem for anyone who has experienced cyberbullying, they provide the sense of perspective that helps adults handle incidents calmly and appropriately. Dr. Olweus wrote that “a distorted portrayal of reality will probably generate a lot of unnecessary anxiety and tension among parents and maybe teachers and students.”
You may see other numbers thrown around — some as high at 85%, but examine the survey’s methodology. Some of those are opt-in surveys aimed at specific groups of teens and not representative of teens as a whole.
In-person bullying is also on the decline. A 2017 study published in Journal of the American Academic of Pediatrics reviewed the prevalence of bullying and related behaviors between 2005 and 2014 and found that “Prevalence of bullying and related behaviors generally decreased over this 10-year period with the most recent years showing the greatest improvements in school climate and reductions in bullying.”
Of course, both online and in-person bullying remains a serious problem affecting a significant number of young people and the news that the prevalence is declining is of no solace to any child who is experiencing bullying or any parent or educator supporting that child. Every child deserves to be safe and comfortable online, in school or wherever they happen to be.
Every case is as individual as the people involved, so it’s hard to generalize, but we do have some data on who tends to be more vulnerable: ethnic, racial and religious minorities, young people with special needs or learning disabilities and lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT) youth (see ConnectSafely’s booklet, The Parent, Educator & Youth Guide to LGBTQ Cyberbullying). There is even a term for this, “bias-based bullying” which Laura Walton, in a 2018 paper, refers to as “physical, verbal, social, or cyber-based threats directed toward a minority population based upon race, ethnicity, religious belief, gender, or sexual orientation,” or age, familial status, or mental, physical or sensory handicap. And, even though bullying, in general, is on the decline, Elizabeth Englander of the Massachusetts Aggression Reduction Center observed in 2017 that “bias-based incidents seem to be increasing in the U.S.”
But even young people with no noticeable vulnerabilities have been bullied and cyberbullied – whether very shy or beauty contest winners (some teen pageant contestants and celebrities have made bullying prevention their cause because of victimization in their pasts). Just being perceived as “different” can be challenging for young people, so no one’s completely immune. Because we want to support, not stifle, individuality, it’s important to help our children appreciate and respect what’s unique in themselves and others.
Not just a ‘kid thing’
A 2014 US national survey published by WorkplaceBullying.org indicates that 27% of American workers have “suffered abusive conduct at work.” It’s at least as big a problem among adults as among youth, which in no way discounts the impact on kids, as they explore identity and learn to navigate complex social landscapes. Sadly, there are also plenty of reported cases of adults who bully kids, and anyone who watches TV – including some reality shows, talk shows and political debates – has probably seen so-called “responsible adults” get pretty nasty to each other – something you might want to point out to your kids next time you see it on TV.
WHAT CAN HELP
For kids and teens
Each case is individual, but there’s some general, tried-and-true advice that you could consider sharing with your child:
Know that it’s not your fault. What people call “bullying” is sometimes an argument between two people. But if someone is repeatedly cruel to you, that’s bullying and you mustn’t blame yourself. No one deserves to be treated cruelly.
Don’t respond or retaliate. Sometimes a reaction is exactly what aggressors are looking for because they think it gives them power over you, and you don’t want to empower a bully. As for retaliating, getting back at a bully turns you into one – and can turn one mean act into a chain reaction. If you can, remove yourself from the situation. If you can’t, sometimes humor disarms or distracts a person from bullying.
Save the evidence. The only good news about bullying online or on phones is that it can usually be captured, saved, and shown to someone who can help. You can save that evidence in case things escalate. [Visit ConnectSafely.org/cyberbullying for instructions on how to capture screens on phones and computers.]
Tell the person to stop. This is completely up to you – don’t do it if you don’t feel totally comfortable doing it, because you need to make your position completely clear that you will not stand for this treatment anymore. You may need to practice beforehand with someone you trust, like a parent or good friend.
Reach out for help – especially if the behavior’s really getting to you. You deserve backup. See if there’s someone who can listen, help you process what’s going on and work through it – a friend, relative or maybe an adult you trust.
Use available tech tools. Most social media apps and services allow you to block the person. Whether the harassment’s in an app, texting, comments or tagged photos, do yourself a favor and take advantage of that. You can also report the problem to the service. That probably won’t end it, but you don’t need the harassment in your face, and you’ll be less tempted to respond. If you’re getting threats of physical harm, you should call your local police (with a parent or guardian’s help) and consider reporting it to school authorities.
Protect your accounts. Don’t share your passwords with anyone – even your closest friends, who may not be close forever – and password-protect your phone so no one can use it to impersonate you. You’ll find advice at passwords.connectsafely.org.
If someone you know is being bullied, take action. Just standing by can empower an aggressor and does nothing to help. The best thing you can do is try to stop the bullying by taking a stand against it. If you can’t stop it, support the person being bullied. If the person’s a friend, you can listen and see how to help. Consider together whether you should report the bullying. If you’re not already friends, even a kind word can help reduce the pain. At the very least, help by not passing along a mean message and not giving positive attention to the person doing the bullying.
If your child is cyberbullying others
No parent wants to think that their child is hurting others, but — let’s face it — if someone is being bullied, that means that someone else is bullying and that person, too, almost certainly has a loving parent. The first thing to do is get them to stop the bullying but try not to overreact. Talk with your child, get all the facts and consider probing further in their devices and accounts. Look for underlying issues and problems that might be affecting your child. Even though your child may be engaged in bullying, he or she is not “a bully.” Education, communication and caring – not labels – are the best ways to help children improve.
If your child is being disciplined by school or law enforcement, make sure he or she is being treated fairly and appropriately. There are some in positions of authority who tend to be punitive rather than corrective. Some schools, communities and states have a “zero-tolerance policy” when it comes to both physical and cyberbullying but, according to research reported by Shared Justice, “This type of disciplinary procedure has been proven in research to have an overall negative effect on students, and a disproportionately negative effect on minorities.”
Additional advice for parents
Know that you’re lucky if your child asks for help. Most young people don’t tell their parents about bullying online or offline. So if your child’s losing sleep or doesn’t want to go to school or seems agitated when on his or her computer or phone, ask why as calmly and open-heartedly as possible. Feel free to ask if it has anything to do with mean behavior or social issues. But even if it does, don’t assume it’s bullying. You won’t know until you get the full story, starting with your child’s perspective.
Work with your child. There are two reasons why you’ll want to keep your child involved. Bullying and cyberbullying usually involve a loss of dignity or control over a social situation, and involving your child in finding solutions helps him or her regain that. The second reason is about context. Because the bullying is almost always related to school life and our kids understand the situation and context better than parents ever can, their perspective is key to getting to the bottom of the situation and working out a solution. You may need to have private conversations with others, but let your child know if you do, and report back. This is about your child’s life, so your child needs to be part of the solution.
Respond thoughtfully, not fast. What parents don’t always know is that they can make things worse for their kids if they act rashly. A lot of cyberbullying involves somebody getting marginalized (put down and excluded), which the bully thinks increases his or her power or status. If you respond publicly or if your child’s peers find out about even a discreet meeting with school authorities, the marginalization can get worse, which is why any response needs to be well thought out.
More than one perspective needed. Your child’s account of what happened is likely completely sincere, but remember that one person’s truth isn’t necessarily everybody’s. You’ll need to get other perspectives and be open-minded about what they are. Sometimes kids let themselves get pulled into chain reactions, and often what we see online is only one side of or part of the story.
What victims say helps most is to be heard – really listened to – either by a friend or an adult who cares. That’s why, if your kids come to you for help, it’s so important to respond thoughtfully and involve them. Just by being heard respectfully, a child is often well on the way to healing.
Solutions are more important than punishment. Of course, there should be consequences for anyone who bullies, whether online or off, but severe punishment and “zero tolerance” is not usually the answer. Remember, that children who bully are still children. They too may be hurting which could be why they’re acting out. If you’re the parent of a child who is being bullied your first responsibility, of course, is to take care of your child. And while you may not be the one to tend to the needs of the child who is acting out, it’s important to not make matters worse by demanding severe consequences when a more measured response might get better results.
The ultimate goal is restored self-respect and greater resilience in your child. This, not getting someone punished, is the best focus for resolving the problem and helping your child heal. What your child needs most is to regain a sense of dignity. Sometimes that means standing up to the bully, sometimes not. Together, you and your child can figure out how to get there.
One positive outcome we don’t think about (or hear in the news) enough is resilience. We know the human race will never completely eradicate meanness or cruelty, and we also know that bullying is not, as heard in past generations, “normal” or a rite of passage. We need to keep working to eradicate it. But when it does happen and we overcome it – our resilience grows. Resilience isn’t something that can be “downloaded” or taught. We grow it through exposure to challenges and figuring out how to deal with them. So sometimes it’s important to give them space to do that and let them know we have their back.
A few closing thoughts for parents
When our children are suffering, we naturally want to stop the hurt as fast as possible. The problem is, there are no quick fixes or formulas for relational issues, and speed can sometimes lead to increased hurt. It’s almost always best to slow down and listen, which may actually contribute to the victim’s healing. At least, it’s what children are asking for, and it demonstrates our respect for them and helps them process what happened, learn from it, gain more resilience, and regain the sense of dignity they felt they lost.
It might be tempting to think the solution is just to take away phones, ban the latest problematic social network site, or delete social media altogether. But that’s not the solution for a number of reasons….
First, young people are constantly growing their social literacy as they interact with others, and both the socializing and the learning are happening in social media too now. They basically happen everywhere, because the interaction moves fluidly from online to offline, between home and school and through media and devices. Deleting one service or device doesn’t really delete the interaction, especially since the context isn’t a device or service. For most young people, the context is the peer group or social scene at school.
Second, social media is just another place where their friends gather. Banning a popular social media service can contribute to kids getting marginalized or just left out, whether peers intentionally stop including them or just because they’re not “around.” Marginalization is one form or aim of bullying and cyberbullying.
Third, when one social outlet gets banned, bad behavior can just move elsewhere – offline or to sites or apps adults have never heard of. Think of it this way: If you got into an argument on the phone and someone made you hang up, did that resolve the argument?
Finally, remember that what we see in a particular site or game chat is rarely the whole picture – it’s more likely to be the tip of the iceberg. The “bully” online might’ve been the one who was victimized offline right beforehand in what could’ve been a chain reaction. Very often “bullies” are hurting too. We need to try to stop everybody’s hurt to work out lasting solutions. But greater visibility because of social media does not mean cyberbullying is a bigger social problem.
And we can collectively shrink the problem further by being good role models and encouraging other adults, including public figures, to engage in civil discourse. Also, we can work to get social-emotional learning into as many schools as possible, giving all children the social and emotional skills that reduce bullying and increase academic and social success.
Top 5 Questions Parents Have About Cyberbullying
1. What is cyberbullying anyway?
For the most part, cyberbullying is bullying, only it happens online or on phones or other connected devices. As for what bullying is, that depends on who you ask, but most experts agree that it involves repeated harassment and some type of power imbalance – and, when young people are involved, it usually has something to do with what’s happening with peers at school. It’s important to remember that not every mean comment or unpleasant interaction rises to the level of bullying. Sometimes it’s just what kids call “drama.” We mention this because too many kinds of behavior are called “cyberbullying,” which can cause overreaction and inappropriate responses.
2. How likely is it that my child will be cyberbullied?
Some studies say only 4.5% of teens have ever been cyberbullied and others say the figure’s as high as 24% (more on this below). Either way, too many students have experienced cyberbullying, but it’s important to note that most have not, and most don’t bully others. We point this out not to minimize a serious problem, but to emphasize that bullying is not a norm. Kindness, not cruelty, is the norm and, just as with other social problems, communicating the facts reinforces positive behaviors and actually reduces the problem.
As for any one child, it depends so much on the person, his or her peer group and their context. A positive school culture can make a difference, especially for higher-risk populations, such as special-needs students or lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) youth. For just about all kids, “online” is social – a shared experience – so no single individual has complete control over what happens in digital spaces. Research has found that a child’s emotional makeup and home and school environments predict online risk better than any technology he or she uses. Treating others (and oneself!) with respect and kindness can really help keep social media use positive.
3. How do I know if my child is being cyberbullied?
Even if you have a good feel for your kids’ emotional state, social skills, and peer relations – key factors in how well their online (as well as offline) experiences go – it’s a good idea to ask whether cyberbullying’s going on with them or any of their friends. You may not get a clear answer right away, but engage your kids in occasional conversations about how things are going online as well as offline. See what they know about cyberbullying, ask if they know others who have experienced it, if it’s a problem at their school and what they would do if they were cyberbullied or knew about others who were. If they seem obsessed about checking text messages and social apps, it could be because they’re worried about what’s being said about them. It may not be bullying, but it may be a sign your child needs a little extra support. The federal government’s StopBullying.gov website suggests that parents be on the lookout for signs such as difficulty sleeping, frequent nightmares, declining grades, not wanting to go to school, feelings of helplessness or decreased self-esteem.
4. What do I do if my child is cyberbullied?
Cyberbullying cases are as individual as the people involved. So our general advice is not to react or retaliate, block the “bully,” and print out and keep evidence in case it’ll be needed – can help in some cases. But the most important thing to do is talk with your kids about what’s going on, help them think through what happened, how they feel about it, and what they’re going to do about it. No one knows how to resolve a situation without understanding it fully. It’s important to involve your child in the process, not just take over yourself, because the main goal is to help him or her strengthen the self-confidence that might’ve been shaken and restore a sense of physical and/or emotional safety.
5. What if my child witnesses cyberbullying or bullies others?
If your child does experience cyberbullying as a witness or bystander, it’s important to talk through some strategies as to how they can help their peers. Being kind goes a long way. Suggest your child sit with a child who’s being bullied or invite them to hang out. Your child can reach out to the other child via social media by being positive and supportive. It’s not helpful to retaliate online as that rarely influences the person doing the bullying and can put your child at risk.
If your child is bullying or cyberbullying others, get them to stop the bullying but try not to overreact.Talk with your child, get all the facts and consider probing further in their devices and accounts. Look for underlying issues and problems that might be affecting your child. While there should be consequences, solutions are more important than punishment.
- Celebrate Bullying Prevention Month by being an ‘upstander’
- The Internet, Youth Safety and the Problem of ‘Juvenoia’ by David Finkelhor PhD
- Assessing Bullying in New Jersey Secondary Schools: Applying the Social Norms Model to Adolescent Violence by Drs. David W. Craig and H. Wesley Perkins
- Cyberbullying: A Serious problem but not an epidemic by Larry Magid, CEO ConnectSafely
- Researchers dispel myths about cyberbullying by Larry Magid, CEO ConnectSafely
- Pew Study: Kids Are Mostly Kind to Others Online
- Five Things Teachers Should Tell Students About Socializing Online by Elizabeth Kandel Englander PhD
- There Are No Bullies – Just Children Who Bully, and You Can Help Them at Tolerance.org
- Bullying & ‘peer victimization’: Clearer terms, better communication and other articles about cyberbullying here at ConnectSafely
- Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System: 2011 National Overview
- 2008-’09 School Crime Supplement (National Center for Education Statistics and Bureau of Justice Statistics)
- Teens, kindness and cruelty on social network sites (Pew Research, 2011)
- United States Adolescent Health Facts – Search for “bullying” (U.S. Dept. of Health & Human Services)
- Cyberbullying: An overrated phenomenon (Dan Olweus, EUROPEAN JOURNAL OF DEVELOPMENTAL PSYCHOLOGY, 2012)
- My Secret Bully, a children’s book by Trudy Ludwig and illustrated by Abigail Marble
- Masterminds and Wingmen and Queen Bees and Wannabes, by Rosalind Wiseman
- Kids Are Worth It!, by Barbara Coloroso
- School Climate 2.0: Preventing Cyberbullying and Sexting One Classroom at a Time and Cyberbullying Prevention and Response: Expert Perspectives, by Drs. Sameer Hinduja and Justin W. Patchin
- Cyberbullying and Cyberthreats: Responding to the Challenge of Online Social Aggression, Threats, and Distress, by Nancy Willard
- Cyberbullying prevention curricula for grades 3-5 and 6-12, by Drs. Susan P. Limber, Robin M. Kowalski, and Patricia W. Agatston
Organizations, Research Centers and Other Resources
- Cybebullying Research Center
- Olweus Bullying Prevention Program
- Committee for Children
- Embrace Civility in the Digital Age
- Bullying Bulletin Board
- Resources for Youth in Crisis
- Massachusetts Aggression Research Center
- Pacer’s National Bullying Prevention Center