Cyberbullying in School:
Prevention and Support What to Do When Technology Becomes Torment

Meet the Experts

Margaret Arsenault Read bio
Jennifer Ponce Read bio

Written by

Kenya McCullum Read bio

According to a survey by the Cyberbullying Research Center, almost 34 percent of students in middle and high school had been cyberbullied in 2016 — the largest percentage reported since the organization began tracking cyberbullying 10 years ago. As this problem grows, it’s important for students, parents and educators to understand the effects of cyberbullying and what can be done to prevent it. This guide takes a holistic look at the issue and includes information on the types of cyberbullying, how students can protect themselves and what actions can be taken to address it after it happens.

What is Cyberbullying?

Cyberbullying occurs when someone harasses, torments, threatens or humiliates someone else through the use of technology — including text messages, social media sites, email, instant messages and websites. Like face-to-face bullying, cyberbullying can manifest itself in several different kinds of behaviors. The following are some common examples of what cyberbullying looks like.

Flaming.

Flaming is when people post derogatory comments on someone’s web or social media page or through instant messages, emails or chat rooms. This generally occurs during an online fight, and the communication is usually filled with angry and foul language.

Outing.

This type of cyberbullying involves sharing someone’s private information in order to publicly humiliate him or her. Outing can include posting photos, emails, text messages or videos on the internet or forwarding them to other people.

Impersonation.

“Probably the most common form of impersonation involves fake accounts or profiles designed to impersonate the victim. One form of impersonation, known as ‘fraping,’ involves someone gaining unauthorized access to the victim’s social media account, impersonating them and posting inappropriate content as the victim,” says Margaret Arsenault, co-founder and chief executive officer of Face2Face Youth Group Inc. “While some kids may think of it as a harmless prank, impersonating someone online and damaging their very real — and arguably fragile — reputation can have serious consequences. We remind the kids we interact with that once something gets out to the internet, it’s impossible to control it. Even things that are deleted can exist as many, many electronic copies elsewhere and resurface.”

Cyberstalking.

Cyberstalking is when someone uses technology to repeatedly harass, intimidate and threaten someone. Cyberstalkers may keep tabs on their victims and make attempts to meet them. Many cases of cyberstalking involve adults grooming teenagers to have sexual relationships with them.

Catfishing.

“Catfishing is when someone pretends to be someone they are not and sometimes assumes another person’s identity online, including the identity of the victim,” says Jennifer Ponce, prevention education manager with Laura’s House. “They might do this to post inappropriate content or manipulate and hurt other relationships the victim has online.”

Harassment.

Harassment involves the constant sending of malicious, abusive or threatening messages to an individual or group online. This can be done to the victims in public or private.

Trickery.

Like outing, trickery involves revealing private information about another person. When someone engages in this type of cyberbullying, the person befriends someone and gains his or her trust with the specific intention of sharing that person’s embarrassing information online.

Denigration.

This occurs when someone posts rumors and gossip about someone online. Cyberbullies use denigration in order to ruin the target’s relationships and reputation.

Trolling.

“This is the granddaddy of all cyberbullying techniques. It’s a term almost as old as the internet itself. Trolling is the deliberate act of provoking a response through the use of some type of inflammatory statements — such as using insults and bad language — in an online forum,” Arsenault says. “Back in the day, trolling was found on bulletin boards and on similar online forums. Today trolls ‘live’ on social networking sites. The goal is generally to incite someone to anger, perhaps so they post something inappropriate or embarrassing. Trolling is often done to try to make the troll feel better by making others upset.”

Exclusion.

“Exclusion is creating groups or events and excluding someone,” Ponce says. “This can also happen by not tagging someone in a photo or inviting them to an event, as well as excluding someone from an online conversation.”

Although it is important to understand what the different cyberbullying behaviors are, in order to get a full understanding of it, it’s also important to understand the bullies themselves and why they do what they do to their peers. There are many reasons that students may engage in these behaviors, including boredom, revenge, anger and to provoke reactions from their victims.

In addition, the anonymous nature of the internet makes it easier for people to cyberbully others, especially if they are social outcasts themselves who would not have the courage to bully anyone in person. In other cases, some people become cyberbullies because they are part of the in crowd, and they are mimicking the behaviors of their own peer groups in order to fit in.

Cyberbullying Effects

Being the victim of bullying is already a stressful experience, but when the internet is added to the equation, it can be especially painful because of the reach that the bully has on the victim, according to Arsenault.

“Before the internet, kids who were bullied at school often had a respite when they got home. Today, bullying happens in person and online, so it can be incessant,” she says. “For those victims of bullying who spend a lot of time online, especially on social media, they are literally subjected to the bullying and its negative effects around the clock.”

In addition, the permanent nature of the internet can contribute to the stress and hurt that the victims of cyberbullying feel, which is exactly what the bully wants.

“In these instances, the victim feels even more powerless since it is very easy to disseminate information online and very hard to retrieve and remove what is already out there,” Ponce says. “A lot of times, a cyberbully may use the internet or cell phone as a weapon of choice, and the bullying can very easily spill over into more harm at school with their peers.”

As a result of the relentless nature of cyberbullying, there can be a lot of negative effects that students can experience, including:

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Decreased academic performance
  • Feelings of isolation
  • Changes in eating and sleeping habits
  • Lowered self-esteem
  • Increased school absences
  • Loss of interest in hobbies and other activities
  • Using alcohol and drugs to cope
  • Withdrawing from family and friends

Cyberbullying Self-Harm

If left unchecked, the effects of cyberbullying can lead to extreme stress and depression, and students who are victims may feel drawn to self-harm as a result of their experiences. In fact, according to a study published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research, students who have been cyberbullied are twice as likely to engage in self-harming behaviors and to have suicidal thoughts than those who have not.

However, the victims of bullying are not the only ones who are vulnerable to self-harm and suicidal behaviors: The study also reports that young people who cyberbully others are at a significantly higher risk of experiencing these feelings than those who don’t.

What If You’re Being Cyberbullied?

Students who are victims of cyberbullying may feel so overwhelmed that they don’t know what they can do about it. Following are some steps they can take to handle these situations and get the help they need.

Oftentimes, cyberbullies will stop their behavior if their victim just ignores them. Bullies thrive on getting reactions, so students should keep in mind that trying to retaliate with similar behaviors in order to make bullies stop will not work. In fact, responding will most likely escalate the situation and make it worse.

Students should remember that they don’t have to suffer through cyberbullying in silence. When they experience it, they should let their parents know what’s going on so they can get help and emotional support. In addition, telling someone at the school, like a teacher, coach or counselor, can go a long way toward making the abuse stop.

“The student should immediately block the bully on the platform and any other social media sites with which they are able to contact the victim. Every social media site has a method to block other users. Chances are your kids know how, even if the parents don’t,” Arsenault says. “This prevents the cyberbully from sending any more messages, pictures or videos to the child. In most cases, blocking someone prevents them from being able to locate your profile on the service altogether.”

Another way that students can cut off a cyberbully is by changing his or her email address and phone number. This way, the person has no way to get in contact to continue the behavior.

“Some social media platforms use temporary posts, such as Snapchat, and virtually all platforms allow users to delete their own images and messages, sometimes even those sent privately. Taking a screenshot of the offending post is a record that can be used to substantiate a complaint, even if the bully later deletes the posts in question,” Arsenault says.

In some cases, such as with photos that are considered child pornography, the evidence of cyberbullying is not legal to have, so documenting it will get the student, or his or her parents, into legal trouble. When this happens, parents should contact the authorities in order to document the instances of cyberbullying and take legal action against the person committing it. Also, victims of cyberbullying can contact the police if threats of violence have been made.

If someone is being bullied through a website or social media platform, that person should contact the site and let the administrators know what’s going on. Since bullying behaviors are against the terms of service, getting the person kicked off the site can make the bully stop harassing the victim.

“We always encourage our adolescents to create a safety plan if they are in an unhealthy relationship; this includes bullying and cyberbullying. Part of that plan might be changing your passwords, blocking the people who are bullying you and reporting any negative or offensive posts,” Ponce says.

“There are a lot of local organizations that are here to help and can provide valuable resources to an adolescent who has experienced any type of bullying,” says Ponce. “If a student is feeling distressed or anxious, or having feelings of sadness or depression about the situation, they shouldn’t be afraid to seek professional help to start healing and navigate the process. The school counselor is also another valuable resource. Finding friends, family and outside support services is essential in helping an adolescent through this.”

Students may think they are at fault when they’re the victims of cyberbullying, especially if the bullies are people they’ve had friendships or romantic relationships with. It’s important for them to remember that they are not responsible for how other people are treating them, and they should not feel guilty about it.

Cyberbullying Prevention

Since the consequences of cyberbullying can be so severe — for the bully as well as the victim — it’s imperative for teachers, parents and even other students, to work together to prevent cyberbullying. The following are some strategies that can help.

  • Let students know that it’s OK for them to report any online abuse that happens to them.
  • Participate in training on cyberbullying prevention to better understand it and learn strategies for addressing it.
  • Teach students about what cyberbullying behaviors are and why they’re wrong.
  • Create an environment of mutual respect and tolerance in the classroom.
  • Incorporate the internet and social media into lesson plans to teach students how to be respectful to others online.
  • Work closely with parents so they understand cyberbullying.
  • Implement anti-cyberbullying policies in the classroom.
  • Monitor children’s online activities.
  • Take away children’s mobile devices if they are caught mistreating people online.
  • Teach children how to use technology responsibly.
  • Find out whom children are speaking to, and making friends with, online.
  • Understand the signs of someone who is a bullying victim.
  • Learn how to use the technology that children are using in order to get a perspective of their online world.
  • Think before making every post online, and avoid making posts that can have a negative effect on your reputation.
  • Learn what cyberbullying is and what behaviors are involved in cyberbullying.
  • Avoid putting inappropriate photos online because they can be the fuel that cyberbullies use.
  • Delete messages from unknown people without opening them. Also, avoid opening messages from known bullies.
  • Treat everything and everyone with respect.

Laws on Cyberbullying

Cyberbullying behaviors are not just a nuisance; in some cases, they’re a crime. The following is a sampling of some of the cyberbullying laws on the books in different states around the country.

Utah

In Utah, cyberbullying law prohibits the use of a mobile device or the internet to post messages to intentionally embarrass, hurt or threaten someone. In addition, the State Board of Education policy requires that schools implement rules prohibiting bullying and cyberbullying.

Hawaii

Hawaii prohibits harassment by electronic means. In the state, if a minor bullies or cyberbullies someone, the parents or legal guardians may be fined up to $100 for each incident.

Arizona

Arizona’s cyberbullying law covers intimidation, bullying and harassment done by way of technology. School districts are required to create procedures to address harassment, intimidation and bullying that is done on school grounds, as well as buses, bus stops and off-campus events.

Illinois

In Illinois, cyberbullying is the severe or pervasive electronic communication that is meant to harm a student’s mental health, interfere with academic performance or prevent the victim from enjoying school services or activities. Students who engage in these behaviors may be suspended or expelled from school.

Connecticut

Connecticut law defines cyberbullying as any act of bullying done through the internet, digital technologies and mobile electronic devices. Schools in the state are required to enact policies that address bullying that takes place off school grounds if the behavior infringes on the victim’s rights, disrupts education or makes the school environment hostile.

In addition, on a federal level, there are no laws that specifically address cyberbullying; however, discrimination law may apply if the cyberbully targets someone because of his or her race, religion, age, sex or disability.

More information about cyberbullying laws in specific states can be found at www.stopbullying.gov and www.cyberbullying.org.

Social Media Safety Tips

While the internet can be a great resource to help students prepare for tests and do research for assignments, as well as stay in touch with their friends, it’s still important for them to be safe when using technology — especially social media sites. The following are some tips to help teens stay safe when using social media.

Your Cyberbullying Questions Answered

Cyberbullying is a serious issue, so it’s important for parents, teachers and students to understand how to handle it. We asked our experts, Margaret Arsenault and Jennifer Ponce, to weigh in and provide more insights on cyberbullying.

Arsenault:

If your child tells you he or she is being bullied or that someone else is acting inappropriately online, don’t underestimate what’s going on. A young person may downplay a situation out of embarrassment or maybe even exaggerate. Talk to your child and let them explain in their own words what’s happening. You know your child best, but remember, too, that just coming to you with an issue like being bullied likely took a lot of courage for them to do. Stay calm, hear them out and then look into the situation to determine if it warrants more intervention.

Parents should certainly contact the school to report the incident, even if only informally. You never know what kind of pattern of bullying might be happening at the school, and your report could be the one that moves the administration to act or escalate the way it handles the allegations.

Ponce:

Sometimes, as parents, it is difficult to learn your children have any type of negative experiences, but it is during these times that teens and adolescents will need you the most. The first piece of advice I always give is to listen and be open to what your child is sharing with you. Sometimes teens are afraid of telling Mom or Dad because they do not want to get in trouble. This is a crucial time to put all judgment aside and really listen to your children and let them know that you are there for them no matter what.

I also encourage parents to do their research and know the signs that a child may be being cyberbullied or bullied in general. Some of the things parents can watch out for are:

  • Increases or decreases in cell phone use.
  • Your child having a strong emotional reaction after being online or reading a text message.
  • A child who is being more secretive about their electronic devices and social media; maybe your child removes you or blocks you from his or her social media accounts.
  • Your child starts to avoid activities or going places he or she once enjoyed.
  • Your child seems depressed or more agitated, as if something is just “off.”

Knowing what resources are available is also a great way a parent can support a child who may have been cyberbullied.

Arsenault:

Parents can absolutely work with the school to address the problem. In fact, I believe they should. The more involved parents are in their children’s education, the better. There’s such a thing as too much help, however. I’d recommend parents educate themselves on their districts’ policies regarding assault, sexual harassment and bullying, as well as the district’s formal complaint system. Talk to the administration. This will typically mean the principal or vice principal. Find out if they’re aware of the problem already and what, if anything, they’re doing about it.

On a sensitive note, be open to the possibility that your child’s role might not be exactly the way it was portrayed to you. A child who reports being bullied might be inciting the alleged bully, turning the situation into more of a mutually hostile situation. Then again, the youth being bullied might react in an inappropriate way, resorting to physical violence or loud outbursts of bad language, out of desperation. Be willing to address your own child’s behavior, if necessary, but don’t allow others to paint your child as the instigator if that’s not what’s happening.

Ponce:

Parents most definitely can work with the school. I would say it is important that parents know their options, but that they also include the child and make it clear that they are going to take this course of action so that the child is aware and not caught off guard.

Arsenault:

The short answer is no, not if you don’t know them personally. The most obvious reason, I think, is that the cyberbully may be learning their behavior from a parent. It’s possible that the parent you confront could be just as much a bully as the child. Or worse. They might not be, but why take that chance? Now, if you know that parent and have a good relationship with that person, by all means, get together and see if you can work it out.

In situations involving cyberbullying, I think it’s a good idea for parents to allow the school to address it, if practical. As well-intentioned as parents may be, we all want to go to bat for our kids, and we want to believe everything they tell us. School officials, as a rule, are better prepared to be objective arbitrators among the students and, in fact, are probably more familiar with each student’s behavior patterns at school.

In situations where the school is unable or unwilling to address the problem, such as when the cyberbully is not a student at that school, then contacting the police or consulting with a counselor or clergy member might be a good idea. Even if they can’t directly deal with the problem, they will likely be able to suggest some resources.

Ponce:

I would encourage parents not to directly confront their child’s bully. It would be up to the parents whether or not they feel comfortable addressing the situation with the bully’s parents. Another option would be to report it to the school and allow the school to facilitate a resolution in some way.

Arsenault:

The first place I would recommend a parent look is to the school district. Each district should have policies regarding bullying. Look online on the district’s website. This is also a good time to review that parent/student manual that got tossed in the closet at the beginning of the school year.

Ponce:

There are a number of resources for teens who have been bullied. If someone is in immediate physical or emotional danger, I would always encourage 911 to be at the top of the list. If a victim is feeling helpless or hopeless, it would be important to take advantage of teen crisis hotlines such as the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, (800) 273-TALK (8255). If a teen needs emotional support or someone to talk to, there are many local community mental health services available. Laura’s House offers a free and confidential text/chat line for teens experiencing any form of violence, including bullying and cyberbullying. A teen can text the word “HEART” to (949) 484-8440 and be connected to an advocate who can help and/or connect the teen to additional resources, or they can live chat online by visiting www.laurashouse.org/lhteen. If the cyberbullying is happening at school, I would encourage reporting it to the teacher and school administrators.

Arsenault:

I think most kids who are bullies aren’t thinking about how they can change. I think they are dealing with issues of their own and acting out as a way of coping. Bullying is a negative method of coping, but still a form of coping nonetheless. I’ve seen kids who were bullying others break down crying when an adult talked to them about their behavior and asked what was going on. It may be that the bully is acting out of anger or fear because of some circumstance in his or her life. I’m not a licensed counselor, but I’m a parent and I’m a human being. When people start behaving in ways that are out of character, it’s a good indicator that the person is dealing with one or more issues. Adults who interact with the youth, such as teachers, parents, athletic coaches and so on are in a position to recognize these changes in behavior and refer the youth to a school counselor. Early recognition and intervention can increase the number of youths who get mental-health issues treated, which would have a cascade effect.

Ponce:

Just as a victim will need emotional support, we have found the same to be true for people who cause harm to others. I would encourage them to connect with mental health professionals in order for them to learn better interpersonal and relationship skills, including conflict and/or anger management and better coping strategies.

Arsenault:

Students need to know that if they are being cyberbullied, it’s not their fault. It’s easy for kids to internalize feelings of guilt or shame when accused of something, even when they are falsely accused. The pressure that comes from shaming is intense, especially for kids in middle school. Sometimes what people might call bullying is really just a disagreement between two people.

If you feel you can do it safely, tell the bully to stop. Seriously. My husband, who spent a lot of time working in the county jail, says, “Bullies will keep bullying only while the cost is outweighed by the fun. The moment the cost is higher than the bully is willing to pay, he or she will stop bullying that person.” For some bullies, not getting a response from their targets is “no fun,” and they stop. For others, having the targets stand up to them puts an end to it. Some bullies are more than willing to turn physical. You have to gauge the situation. It’s easier to tell a bully to stop online than it is in person.

Ponce:

The most important thing to remember is that you are not at fault, and that you are not alone. A lot of times, victims feel that they have done something to deserve this behavior or have played a role in their own victimization, and that is not true. It is never the victim’s fault. The next important thing to remember is that you are not alone and that there is support out there. Don’t be afraid to speak up to tell someone. It might be a scary thing to do, and it is OK to be afraid, but it is important to remember that what has happened was not your fault, there is help out there and you will be able to find support to help you through this; it will get better.

Additional Cyberbullying Resources

StopBullying.gov: Maintained by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, this site includes information on the tactics cyberbullies use, how to prevent cyberbullying and the laws in place to address it. There are also resources for parents and teachers, as well as information on cyberbullying continuing education courses that teachers and school bus drivers can participate in.

Anti-Cyberbullying Toolkit: This toolkit from the nonprofit organization Common Sense provides information for educators, including lesson plans that can be used in the classroom and resources that can be shared with parents and families.

NPR Stores About Cyberbullying: This page on NPR’s website includes reports on topics related to cyberbullying, including why children bully, how to keep teens safe on social media and what cyberbullying law are in effect.

Rethink Before You Type: In this TEDxTeen Talks video, Trisha Prabhu discusses the effects of cyberbullying.

Suicide Prevention Lifeline: This organization provides help for bullying victims who are struggling with suicidal thoughts.

Cyberbullying: Teens Against Bullying answers questions teenagers may have about cyberbullying on this page.

What Parents Can Do About Cyberbullying: This Parents magazine article provides 18 tips parents and schools can use to prevent and address cyberbullying.

Cyberbullying: What Teachers and Schools Can Do: On this Scholastic page, educators get advice on how to deal with cyberbullying among students.

Cyberbullying Facts – Top 10 Forms of Cyber Bullying: This video from Kaspersky Lab outlines the different kinds of cyberbullying people engage in.

Cyberbullying 101: Fact vs. Fiction: This CNET podcast addresses popular misconceptions about cyberbullying.

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