Bullying has always been a major problem in schools (and in the workplace, for that matter). However, in the past, bullies couldn’t usually follow their victims’ home and torment them during all hours of the day and night.
With the rise of social platforms online, everything has changed. Cyberbullying can affect vulnerable kids even where they are supposed to feel the safest: in their own homes, surrounded by their families.
As the internet has evolved, so has cyberbullying. Understanding how cyberbullying has changed is critical in preventing harm to kids all over the world.
Here’s what’s changed, and where we are today.
What is Cyberbullying?
Cyberbullying is defined as intentionally causing harm to another person over a digital medium. Usually, cyberbullying is used to cause mental or emotional harm, although physical harm can be a consequence of online harassment in some cases.
Although the majority of bullying still happens on school grounds, a survey of parents revealed that one-fifth of students had experienced bullying on a social media site or app. A smaller percentage were bullied via text messages and when playing online video games.
In most countries throughout the world, cyberbullying is on the rise, especially in hyper-connected parts of the world. As kids and teens continue to rely more and more on technology for communication, preventing cyberbullying will become an even greater concern.
Early Days of Cyberbullying
Cyberbullying has been around for as long as the internet and cell phones. Online communication made it possible for people to reach— and harm— one another through chat programs, forums, email, online comments, and more.
In the early days of cyberbullying, however, mediums were more limited, and fewer people were spending time online. Not everyone had a computer in their home or a digital camera. It wasn’t as easy to distribute a video to, say someone’s entire friend group.
There was still a lot of harm done even in the early days of cyberbullying, especially because the issue wasn’t yet on parents’ and teachers’ radars. Kids who are cyberbullied often experience self-esteem issues and other emotional difficulties stemming from their experiences, regardless of how the bullying takes place.
Evolution of Cyberbullying Platforms
As chatrooms faded away and social media became the medium of choice, smartphones were also on the rise. More people had cell phones and more kids had comprehensive access to these devices and platforms.
Mobile apps, in particular, made it difficult for kids to log off and get away from their bullies. Parents also started to have less access to their kids’ online lives, since phones made it easier to hide online activity. Anonymous platforms and fake profiles also made it easier than ever for kids to bully each other online.
Today, social media is still the most common method for cyberbullying.
Common Modern Cyberbullying Tactics
Bullies might use a range of tactics to harm their peers. These can include online threats (often anonymous) and harassment. Doxing and outing is also common— this involves collecting someone’s personal information, such as a home address, phone number, or even social security number, and posting it publicly.
Another common cyberbullying technique is image-based abuse. A bully in possession of a compromising or embarrassing image of their victim circulates it online, sharing it with people who were never intended to see it. In many cases, image-based abuse involves teens who have sent nude photographs to each other.
Cyberbullies also might pretend to be someone they’re not online. Impersonating someone the victim knows, or creating a fake profile and pretending to be the victim’s friend (catfishing) before beginning to harass them, can have devastating consequences.
The Psychological and Emotional Impact of Cyberbullying
It’s hard to overstate just how harmful cyberbullying can be, especially for kids and teens. Many young people feel insecure as it is, and feel that their fears are confirmed when they start becoming the target of online harassment. As cyberbullying isn’t confined to school grounds, that pain can follow them home.
Kids and teens who experience cyberbullying can develop mental health concerns such as anxiety and depression. Being bullied can affect their overall well-being, performance in school, and their self-esteem. It can even lead to physical harm, with some cyberbullying cases leading to teen suicides.
The fact that bullies can act somewhat anonymously online makes the problem even worse. A victim might have no idea who is harming them, which can make it difficult for anyone to intervene and stop the harassment. It also makes it much more difficult to hold bullies accountable for their behavior.
Fighting Back Against Cyberbullying
Because it can have such a lasting impact on young people, it’s critical to take the problem seriously. Parents, teachers, administrators, and even the social media platforms themselves need to be involved in fighting back against cyberbullying. Many kids are afraid to speak up if they are victimized or they see someone else being bullied online.
Although some states have laws surrounding cyberbullying, they can be inconsistent and difficult to enforce. It’s also difficult to effectively monitor students’ internet use while maintaining their privacy. Parents have to be involved in this kind of surveillance as well, especially before and after school hours.
Social media platforms have the challenge of balancing free speech with safety, especially when it comes to users under the age of 18. These platforms need to have strong content removal and moderation policies to help protect kids. Artificial intelligence (AI) tools are helping to cut down on the amount of manual review that’s needed on these platforms to keep kids safe.
Education and Support for Cyberbullying Victims
It’s important for adults to provide kids with ongoing education surrounding the topics of online safety and cyberbullying. Kids need to know where and how to report these kinds of incidents so that they can feel safe and get the protection they need. Cyberbullying prevention programs in schools can be very helpful in creating an academic atmosphere that prevents bullying as much as possible and holds bullies accountable.
Kids and teens who have experienced cyberbullying often need extra support when it comes to their mental health. Ensuring that young people have access to counseling services and mental health support can be critical for healing and moving forward.
Cyberbullying can affect people of all ages, but young people, whose brains are still developing, are at the greatest risk of lasting harm. It’s important to take this problem seriously and continue to develop new strategies for preventing and responding to online bullying.
About the Author
Ryan Ayers is a researcher and consultant within multiple industries including information technology, blockchain and business development. Always up for a challenge, Ayers enjoys working with startups as well as Fortune 500 companies. When not at work, Ayers loves reading science fiction novels and watching the LA Clippers.