Confronting Cyberbullying

Cyber Bullying 101

The bullying today is different from when you were growing up. Here's some help to get up to speed.

The Old Bully

When we hear the word bully, it’s easy to imagine a stereotypical character like Moe in the comic Calvin & Hobbes or Biff in the Back to the Future series: big, dumb, and doomed to fail. A sort of juvenile threat limited to the small world of the schoolyard.

But have you ever experienced what it’s like to be bullied? Do you know the fear? The pain? The isolation?

Some of us still remember, even as adults whose childhood seems a lifetime away. It’s not some small problem to simply dismiss, not just a minor misfortune that is easily fixed by “toughening up” or “growing a thicker skin.” The hurt can be deep and lasting.

The New Bully

The world has shifted. In our internet-oriented, hyper-connected world, bullying isn’t limited to the classroom, the playground, or even to a particular time and place. Digital communication allows the effects of bullying to multiply exponentially through cyberbullying and cyber harassment.

It can show up in a lot of different ways, as simple as persistent messages when someone has asked for no further contact, or as elaborate as a coordinated pack effort to deliberately harass a chosen target. Cyberbullying can happen privately, or it can be publicly shared with thousands of other people through social media.

The Scale of the Issue

It is difficult to measure how often cyberbullying actually occurs since definitions vary from study to study. But after collecting data for decades from more than 25,000 middle and high school students, the Cyberbullying Research Center has found that, on average, 28% of the students surveyed said they have been the victim of cyberbullying at some point in their lifetime. And these rates have gone way up over the last several years. A 2018 Pew survey of U.S. teens found that  59% of the surveyed teenagers report having been bullied or harassed online. 63% say online harassment is a major problem for people their age. 

Beyond the increased frequency of cyber cruelty, there’s also a lot more to worry about today than “sticks and stones” or even “broken bones.” The same Pew survey reported that 42% of teen respondents had experienced “offensive name-calling,” 32% were victims from others “spreading false rumors,” and 25% had “receiv[ed] explicit images they didn’t ask for.” In addition to these more common types of cyberbullying, respondents also experienced threats of physical harm and stalking behavior where others constantly asked what they were doing and who they were with. 

Targeted Areas

In the 2020 Annual Bullying Survey, teenagers offered reasons why they thought someone was bullying them in the last 12 months. 59% of respondents mentioned appearance and 25% said their clothing or style. Other reasons teens reported that bullies targeted them were their “interests or hobbies” (46% of respondents), “mannerisms” (19%), or a disability (13%). 

It’s common for cyberbullies to target teens perceived as being at the extremes of some characteristic. For example, 20% of teenage victims reported they were targeted for their “high grades,” while 15% said they were targeted for their “low grades.” Similarly, 9% of victims said they were targeted for their “low household income” and 8% for their “high household income.”  Likewise, children who are overweight or underweight, who don’t get along well with others, who are considered annoying by their peers, or who seem depressed or anxious are all at greater risk of being targeted by a bully.  

Patterns of Cyber Bullying

Studying the messages from actual cyberbullies reveals a pattern of insulting, weaponized words like “pathetic” “weak” “fat” and “worthless.” Acts of cyber cruelty basically target anything that makes the other person feel worse about themselves. As one teen confessed, “I get bullied for the way I look and for what I like to do. Whenever I speak my mind on the internet I am bullied for it.” Another teen recounting being called an “ADD freak, sped (which is “special ed” for short), and lesbian.” Attacking a person’s identity is unfortunately common: 5% of cyberbullying victims say they were targeted for their gender identity; 10% for their sexuality; and 24% speak of being called gay or lesbian even when they didn’t identify as such. 8% of teens said they were targeted for their religion and 9% for their race.

One eleven-year-old girl spoke of getting an email from a friend at school that shocked her: “Tomorrow watch your back we’re coming for you.” The message made the girl feel so scared, it brought her to tears. She said, “I was afraid to leave the house, to have friends, to pick up the phone. I lived in fear for so long.” On top of inflicting pain through cruel and frightening messages, many bullies go on to make fun of that pain—even to the point of encouraging suicide and making “jokes” about their victims dying violently.

Knowing When to Get Involved

The point here isn’t to paint a bleak, hopeless outlook for your children, but rather to make sure we take the problem seriously. Too often, kids being bullied don’t reach out for help, and there is no instance of cyber cruelty that’s not made worse by suffering insolation. That’s why, like always, we at Raise keep encouraging your focus to be on building a strong relationship with your child. That can and will make all the difference.

Having discussed the scope and damage of cyberbullying, it is also important to note that not all instances of hurtful behavior is cyberbullying. Sometimes as a parent, it can be hard to tell whether your kid is facing cyberbullying that requires intervention, or whether they’re facing the kind of everyday frustration of dealing with people who may be rude or inconsiderate. Here are six questions to help distinguish whether the circumstance in question is cyberbullying or not.

6 Questions To Consider

1. How well does my child know this person? 
2. Was the communication intended to hurt? 
3. What is the context and history behind the communication? 
4. Was the communication private, semi-public, or public in nature? 
5. Has this behavior happened just once or is it an ongoing, repeated pattern? 
6. Are real threats being made or are there other safety concerns? 

In combination, these questions can help you gauge how to respond and see the situation accurately.

There are a lot of parenting challenges to navigate in today’s world. For more help identifying and responding to cyberbullying, including how to react if your child has been the perpetrator of bullying, check out the free Raise App.

Photo by John Schnobrich on Unsplash

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