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Cyberbullying: What it is and Why it is a Big Deal

  • Sydney
  • March 11, 2019
  • News

ST. GEORGE, Utah, March 11, 2019 -- Reader discretion is advised. This article covers difficult content that may make some uncomfortable and may be too mature for young readers. We encourage parents and teachers to discuss cyberbullying with their children or students when they feel it is appropriate to do so.

“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” If only that phrase was true. Cyberbullying has become a relatively newfound issue as the internet has developed and grown within the past 30 years. It is a type of bullying that often occurs through electronic connections--such as websites, cellphones, social media, gaming and more. Unfortunately, cyberbullying has lead to tragic consequences and has damaged many lives. To understand this type of bullying, one must learn about how words can be hurtful (especially on the internet), how, where, when and who are bullied and what we can do about it.

How Words Can be Hurtful and Why Cyberbullying is a Big Deal

cyberbullying can hurt others

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From Youtube comments to Tweets, it is unbelievable how people can be so upsettingly cruel online. It leads us to question how people could say such things awful things on the web but never have the boldness to say similar things to another physical human being. On the other hand, they’re just words on a screen--can’t people just shrug it off? To learn more, we got in contact with Gina Sneddon, a retired professor of communication from the College of Southern Idaho, to delve deeper into the why and how cyberbullying can be so harmful.

How and why do words hurt us?

“Although words are abstract constructions, they have power, and so we need to choose those words carefully.”

In cyberbullying, the bully is not often physically present--does that influence how hurtful messages are conveyed or perceived?

“Social Media tends to have a limited ability to convey a message. It lacks vocal expression and/or non-verbal messages that accompany what is being stated. Additionally, those sending the message will say things online that they wouldn’t say in person. So, flaming and bullying is more belligerent than it would be in person.”

Why are people willing to be more mean online than in person?

“First off, you can’t see the other individual to gauge their reaction. Secondly it’s easier to be mean to a screen when you don’t see the consequences.”

As cyberbullying does not always provide tangible consequences and is harder to detect, this type of bullying could be just brushed off and be considered inconsequential. But be cautious of doing so. According to an article produced by Stopbullying.gov, research such as “the 2017 Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System indicates that an estimated 14.9% of high school students were electronically bullied in the 12 months prior to the survey” 7. That was just one year. Cyberbullying is growing.

In fact, “The percentages of individuals who have experienced cyberbullying at some point in their lifetimes have nearly doubled (18% to 34%) from 2007-2016” 3,6. Still think that words can’t hurt others? Think again. Consequences of being cyberbullied can include “anxiety, low self-esteem, depression 6, stress, and suicide ideation” 3,4. According to a review and meta analysis conducted by R M Kowalski, G W Giumetti, A N Schroeder, & M R Lattanner, even those who cyberbully can have similar emotional problems in the future 4. It will not due to brush off this type of bullying. It is very real in our community and has lasting consequences.

How, Where, When and Who

cyberbullying can occur anywhere such as a classroom

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There are actually multiple ways that a person can be bullied online. In an article posted by Stopbullying.gov, types of cyberbullying includes:

  • Posting comments or rumors about someone online that are mean, hurtful, or embarrassing.
  • Threatening to hurt someone or telling them to kill themselves.
  • Posting a mean or hurtful picture or video.
  • Pretending to be someone else online in order to solicit or post personal or false information about someone else. [AKA. Creating a Sockpuppet account].
  • Posting mean or hateful names, comments, or content about any race, religion, ethnicity, or other personal characteristics online.
  • Creating a mean or hurtful webpage about someone.
  • Doxing, an abbreviated form of the word documents, is a form of online harassment used to exact revenge and to threaten and destroy the privacy of individuals by making their personal information public, including addresses, social security, credit card and phone numbers, links to social media accounts, and other private data” 9.
  • Another type of cyberbullying or online harassment that was not on this list but has been bringing international attention are suicide games, such as the “Blue Whale Challenge” 8 or, more recently, the “Momo Challenge.” Although they are just as harmful, these games are not to be mixed up with internet challenges such as the Tide Pod Challenge or the Bird Box Challenge. While given progressively more dangerous tasks to complete, the victim is made to believe that any disobedience or leaving of the game would result in consequences such as personal information being displayed on the internet 8. Though many believe these games may have turned out to be online hoaxes, it is best to be aware and vigilant that games like these may be out there and that there may be even “copycat groups” that do these activities 1,2.

What makes cyberbullying unique and more difficult to control is where and when that abuse occurs and who is bullied/is the bully. Cyberbullying can be done at anytime, anywhere and by anyone 4,9. Unlike places such as schools, where it can be a little easier to leave the situation, the internet, social media and other methods of electronic communication are designed to be on and available all of the time. Don’t forget that the internet was made to be and is public. In fact, according to a fact sheet on cyber bullying by Sameer Hinduja and Justin Patchin, actions done in cyberbullying can even go viral 4. Unfortunately, the harm does not stop there. With cyberbullying, there is no off switch--which can deepen and cause even more harm as the victim can look back and re-experience the bullying done 4,6. This type of abuse is unique in its delivery and consequences when compared to regular bullying-- but it is just as real.

Other facts about those that are involved in cyberbullying might surprise you. According to the same fact sheet listed above, the victim does not have to know who the perpetrator is or even know why they are being targeted 4. Which means that the perpetrator can literally be anyone or at any age. There have been cases where even adults have cyberbullied minors. As for why would someone cyberbully? The answer lies from shallow to fairly deep. Cyberbullies may have “a lack of confidence or desire to feel better about themselves, [have] a desire for control, [find] it entertaining, and [want] retaliation” 4,14. Ironically, the tables are likely to turn on those that bully and those who are bullied. Those who are bullied online are more likely to “revenge bully” and those who cyberbully increase their chances of being cyberbullied themselves “twenty-fold" 4,15. And it would all start because someone decided to post something malicious.

What can be done?

don't tolerate or allow cyberbullying

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Prevention and appropriate reactions can start before cyberbullying even begins. It starts with a person educating themselves and others around them. For parents, understanding statistics such as that in the past “only 33% of teens that were targets of cyberbullying told their parents or guardians about [being bullied online]” due to fear of punishment" 4, is vital to being aware on how children or teens may react to this kind of malicious treatment. Therefore, it may be helpful to make online activities an open discussion right from the start 11. Before letting their children or teens get a social media account, one idea parents can try is teaching about important tactics and rules that should be abided by when on the web and look into finding programs that help monitor their family’s internet activity 10. Examples of lessons and rules that should be followed include: learning about the consequences of cyberbullying (e.g., ruining online reputations), knowing that bullying online can be detrimental, not accepting friend requests of unknown people 4, not taking or posting nude or suggestive pictures and utilizing good online edicate 4,9,11.

Using education as a preventative measure gives children, teens and parents a heads up on what could happen and what could be done to prevent these terrible events from occurring. One idea, according to the cyber bullying fact sheet by Hinduja and Patchin, is to even have parents and their children make a contract that outlines what should and should not be done on the internet and the consequences of following or not following those procedures 4. This way boundaries and rules are set beforehand. Therefore children and teens would know what the protocol would be if they were to be cyberbullied or what consequences would occur if they did cyberbully someone.

Although cyberbullying can be difficult to detect, there are some telltale signs of it. For example, according to Stopbullying.gov, here are some behaviors that could imply cyberbullying is happening:

  • Noticeable increases or decreases in device use, including texting.
  • A child exhibits emotional responses (laughter, anger, upset) to what is happening on their device.
  • A child hides their screen or device when others are near, and avoids discussion about what they are doing on their device.
  • Social media accounts are shut down or new ones appear.
  • A child starts to avoid social situations, even those that were enjoyed in the past.
  • A child becomes withdrawn or depressed, or loses interest in people and activities” 12.

What should you do once cyberbullying is established to be occurring? According to the fact sheet by Hinduja and Patchin, screenshot, print, write down, describe--do what you need to to document the occurrences of cyberbullying 4. This will help trace the messages, the number of occurrences and what was said 13. You will then need to take action. The victim should remember that they may not know who the bully is, should not respond or forward the malicious messages, should look into ways of blocking and ignoring the messages sent by the perpetrator 4,14, and contact the site where the abuse occured on to look into preventing the bully from doing more harm 13.

However, preventing the consequences of cyberbullying should not just stop at the social media front. For instance, according to a research article written by M P Hamm, et al., a child that is cyberbullied online is more likely to be bullied outside of the internet 4. Therefore, it may be good to contact the school and the website’s providers to see if interference can be provided from their positions. When contacting the school, get a copy of and learn about the bully prevention policies for your child’s school district 5. If all else fails, Pacer’s National Bullying Prevention Center pamphlet on cyberbullying recommends to do the following:

  • Research the bullying prevention laws in your state.
  • Ask for a meeting with school authorities.
  • Contact PACER’s National Bullying Prevention Center. [We have the contact information below!]” 5.

After one is bullied, what do you do? Know there is always hope and help. Professionals, such as counselors, can always make a difference in helping somebody recover. Parents should be supportive of their child while being bullied 5 and while he or she is recovering.

To find inspiration, look towards people like Lizzie Velásquez. Due to her having a syndrome that prevented her from gaining weight, she looked different from other kids and was bullied a lot when she was young. When she was a teenager, she stumbled upon a devastating Youtube video labeled, “The Ugliest Woman in the World.” That video displayed a picture of Lizzie that prompted cold-blooded Youtube comments that asked why she wasn’t aborted at birth or said that she should kill herself. Fast forward twelve years, and Ms. Velásquez is now a motivational speaker, author, Youtuber and advocate against bullying. Because of her experiences, she has empathy for and fights for those who are bullied. She has become an inspiration to millions and is definitely one that bully victims should look towards as an example. (Here is a link to her TedX Talk!)

Bullying in any form is never okay. One must understand the effects of cyberbullying and know what to do to combat it. If we all stick together and are kind, like Ms. Velasquez, we can make a difference. But we can only achieve this together. What do you say?

PACER’s National Bullying Prevention Center

(952) 838-9000 | (800) 537-2237 | Bullying411@PACER.org


Works Cited

  1. Blue Whale (game). (n.d.). In Wikipedia. Retrieved February 22, 2019, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blue_Whale_(game)
  2. Momo Challenge. (n.d.). In Wikipedia. Retrieved February 22, 2019, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Momo_Challenge
  3. Kowalski, Robin & W Giumetti, Gary & Schroeder, Amber & R Lattanner, Micah. (2014). Bullying in the Digital Age: A Critical Review and Meta-Analysis of Cyberbullying Research Among Youth. Psychological bulletin. 140. 10.1037/a0035618.
  4. Pacer's National Bullying Prevention Center. (n.d.). Cyberbullying. In Pacer's National Bullying Prevention Center. Retrieved from https://www.pacer.org/bullying/resources/cyberbullying/
  5. Pacer's National Bullying Prevention Center. (2017). Cyberbullying: what parents can do to protect their children. In Pacer's National Bullying Prevention Center. Retrieved from https://www.pacer.org/publications/bullypdf/BP-23.pdf
  6. Parent, J. (n.d.). How to Prevent Cyberbullying: Hands Off the Keyboard until You’re Calm!. In Your Teen: For parents. Retrieved from https://yourteenmag.com/social-life/teen-bullying-tips/how-to-prevent-cyberbullying
  7. Hinduja, S. & Patchin, J. W. (2015). Bullying Beyond the Schoolyard: Preventing and Responding to Cyberbullying (2nd edition). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.
  8. Rossow, A. (2018, February 28). Cyberbullying Taken To A Whole New Level: Enter The 'Blue Whale Challenge'. In Forbes. Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/andrewrossow/2018/02/28/cyberbullying-taken-to-a-whole-new-level-enter-the-blue-whale-challenge/#60e595de2673
  9. Stopbullying.gov. (n.d.-a). What Is cyberbullying. In Stopbullying.gov. Retrieved from https://www.stopbullying.gov/cyberbullying/what-is-it/index.html
  10. Stopbullying.gov. (n.d.-b). Digital Awareness for Parents. In Stopbullying.gov. Retrieved from https://www.stopbullying.gov/cyberbullying/digital-awareness-for-parents/index.html
  11. Stopbullying.gov. (n.d.-c). Establishing Rules. In Stopbullying.gov. Retrieved from https://www.stopbullying.gov/cyberbullying/establishing-rules/index.html
  12. Stopbullying.gov. (n.d.-d). Prevent Cyberbullying. In Stopbullying.gov. Retrieved from https://www.stopbullying.gov/cyberbullying/prevention/index.html
  13. Stopbullying.gov. (n.d.-e). Report Cyberbullying. In Stopbullying.gov. Retrieved from https://www.stopbullying.gov/cyberbullying/how-to-report/index.html
  14. P Hamm, Michele & S Newton, Amanda & Chisholm, Annabritt & Shulhan, Jocelyn & Milne, Andrea & Sundar, Purnima & Ennis, Heather & D Scott, Shannon & Hartling, Lisa. (2015). Prevalence and Effect of Cyberbullying on Children and Young People: A Scoping Review of Social Media Studies. JAMA pediatrics. 169. 10.1001/jamapediatrics.2015.0944.
  15. Arslan, Sevda & Sevim, Savaşer & Hallett, Victoria & Balci, Serap. (2012). Cyberbullying Among Primary School Students in Turkey: Self-Reported Prevalence and Associations with Home and School Life. Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking. 15. 527-533. 10.1089/cyber.2012.0207.

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