Cyberbullying is bullying using digital platforms to harass, threaten, embarrass, hurt or target another person in a public way. It can happen on gaming platforms, social media or by text or email. Cyberbullies often find it easier to bully people this way because they don’t have to confront their target in person.
Examples of cyberbullying include:
- Online threats
- Mean, aggressive or rude texts, tweets, posts or messages
- Posting personal information, or embarrassing pictures or videos online
- Spreading lies, or criticising or judging someone on social media
- Sending hurtful or embarrassing messages on messaging platforms
- Impersonating someone and sending mean messages to others in their name
Face-to-face bullying and cyberbullying can often happen alongside each other. But cyberbullying leaves a digital footprint, which can often be more public and long-lasting. However, it also serves as a record that can be useful in providing evidence to help stop the abuse.
Cyberbullying can be particularly damaging and upsetting when it’s anonymous or hard to trace. It’s hard to control, and the person being victimised has no idea how many people (or hundreds of people) have seen the messages or posts. It can be relentless, wearing the victim down and affecting their mental health.
From the work that Be In Touch does in South African schools, about 40% of learners report having been cyberbullied by Grade 9. Josh Ramsey, the co-founder of Be In Touch, says, “It is a serious challenge that kids of this generation have to deal with, and something that parents need to be empowered to help them solve.”
Types of cyberbullying
Children may not realise at first that they are a victim of cyberbullying, given the many forms it can take, including:
- Exclusion: deliberately leaving someone out
- Harassment: constant and intentionally threatening, unkind or malicious messages
- Outing or doxing: posting someone’s sensitive, private or embarrassing information online without their consent
- Fraping: logging in to someone’s social media account and impersonating them by posting inappropriate content in their name
- Masquerading: using a made-up profile or identity online with the sole purpose of cyberbullying someone
- Dissing: sending or posting cruel information, photos or videos of someone online to damage their reputation or friendships with others
- Trickery: gaining someone’s trust so that they reveal secrets or embarrassing information that the cyberbully then shares publicly online
- Trolling: deliberately provoking a response through the use of insults or bad language on online forums and social networking sites
- Flaming: similar to trolling, but involves a more direct attack on a victim to incite them to engage in online fights
Effects of cyberbullying
The effects of cyberbullying can be more severe than the effects of traditional bullying. Not only do the hurtful messages reach an unlimited audience, but the words and images are often kept online. It can feel as if you’re being attacked everywhere, with no letting up or way to escape, even inside your own home. These effects can last a long time and have a wide-reaching impact in the following ways:
- Mentally: feeling upset, embarrassed, stupid or angry
- Emotionally: feeling ashamed of or losing interest in the things you love
- Physically: feeling tired (loss of sleep) or experiencing symptoms like stomach aches and headaches
The feeling of being laughed at or harassed by others is difficult for anyone to deal with, let alone children. In extreme cases, cyberbullying can even lead to people taking their own lives.
How to spot if your child might be a victim of cyberbullying
The signs that your child is being bullied online are often similar to those of being bullied in person. It can be hard for children to understand what is happening to them, as it may be quite an insidious process (it’s gradual and subtle, but also very harmful). It can also be very daunting for children to speak out about their experiences, or to admit they are being bullied. This is why it is important that parents can spot if their child is a victim of online abuse or harassment. Here are some signs to look out for:
Unexplained physical changes
While physical changes aren’t a sure-fire sign of cyberbullying, if your child has suddenly lost weight or appetite, has trouble sleeping during the night, or looks stressed out in the morning, it is worth having a conversation about whether everything is okay.
If your child is regularly pretending to be ill to avoid going to school, this could also indicate there’s a problem. Of course, almost every child uses excuses to get out of school from time to time, but if it is becoming a habit, there might be a more serious issue at hand, such as the fear of a conflict with a bully.
Anxiety, sudden mood swings and snappy answers to your questions may be characteristics commonly associated with moody teenagers. But if mood changes are regularly accompanied by petulant responses and jumpy reactions, it might be time to check if everything is okay.
Loss of interest
A sudden loss of interest in a hobby or passion could also be a sign that somebody is giving them a hard time. Similarly, if your child begins distancing themselves from family and friends, this may be a sign that they are struggling with something they find difficult to talk about.
Quitting social media
In an age where teens invest a lot of time and energy in building their digital presence, abruptly deleting a social media account should set off alarm bells for parents.
What should you do if your child is a victim of cyberbullying?
Josh Ramsey says, “Many kids don’t tell their parents that they’re being cyberbullied. They might feel embarrassed or ashamed, worried that their parent’s involvement will make things worse, and afraid that their device will be taken away from them.” Finding out that your child has been cyberbullied is an emotional rollercoaster for parents. You might want to retaliate, but it’s best to help your child defuse the situation, protect themselves and make rational efforts to put a stop to the bullying.
These are the immediate steps that Be In Touch recommends for parents:
- Reassure your child that you love and support them.
- Help your child step away from the device and take an extended break.
- Collect more facts by talking through the situation with your child.
- Save screenshots or printouts of the bullying messages as evidence in case it is needed later.
- Work out a plan of action together, making sure that you and your child agree on what the outcome should be.
- Encourage your child to reach out to friends for support. Peers sticking up for each other (also known as upstanders) is a very effective defence against bullies.
- Help your child to use the app or game settings available to block and report the bully to that platform.
- If you can identify the bully, consider talking with their parents.
- Consider contacting your child’s school: if bullying is happening online, it might be happening offline at school, too.
Of course, if there are any real threats to your child’s safety, always contact the authorities immediately.
Stopping the cycle of cyberbullying
As hard as it may be to accept, parents should also be on the lookout for signs that their child may be bullying someone else and take immediate steps to stop it and help their child to make recompense.
Your child may be a bully if they:
- Keep to themselves, refusing to include certain kids in play, sports or studies
- Continue with inappropriate or unpleasant behaviour even after you have told them to stop
- Are very concerned with being and staying popular
- Constantly play extremely aggressive video games
- Seem intolerant of or show contempt for children who are “different”
- Are critical of, or try to put down, other children who may outshine them
- Frequently tease or taunt other children
- Hurt animals
- See you excluding, gossiping about or otherwise hurting others
As parents, we have a tremendous influence on our children, and they model our behaviour. As human beings, we all occasionally exhibit some bullying behaviours. Stopping cyberbullying is not just about calling out bullies, it’s also about recognising that everyone deserves respect – online and in real life.
The article was written for Discovery Health Mental Health Information Hub