A Comprehensive Cyberbullying Guide for Parents
Digital technology is ubiquitous.
Nearly a third of Americans say they’re on the internet almost constantly.
This has its advantages. We’ve got access to almost limitless information and we can communicate with anyone from anywhere in the world.
And teens typically get a lot out of the internet. In a survey in the US, 81% said they feel more connected to friends because of it, and 68% felt like the internet helped them build a strong support network.
There are disadvantages, too.
The same survey found that 45% of teens felt overwhelmed by “drama” on social media, with 37% feeling pressure to get lots of interactions on their posts.
Cyberbullying is another big risk for children and teens who are spending more time than ever on the internet.
What is Cyberbullying?
The Cyberbullying Research Center, a US non-profit, provides the go-to definition for cyberbullying.
Cyberbullying is “willful and repeated harm inflicted through the use of computers, cell phones, and other electronic devices.”
This definition captures the most important factors at play.
Some definitions, like the National Crime Prevention Council’s, make a bit more of a distinction around the harm element. It stipulates that cyberbullying also has to be behavior that’s meant to “hurt or embarrass” someone.
Tulane University has provided a simple definition: cyberbullying is a form of bullying that takes place on digital media.
When we’re talking to children and teenagers about cyberbullying, it helps to define it in a way that’s relevant to their experience.
I think it’s really effective to do this collaboratively as much as you can. There’s a good chance the children you care for know a lot more than you do about the nuts and bolts of cyberbullying today, not to mention the huge advantage that collaborative approaches provide for parenting, teaching, coaching, and mentoring.
TIP: Talking about cyberbullying with kids and teens
The Cyberbullying Research Center says something like this when they talk about cyberbullying in surveys with young people:
“Cyberbullying is when someone repeatedly makes fun of another person online or repeatedly picks on another person through email or text message or when someone posts something online about another person that they don’t like.”
And then you can talk in specifics about the kinds of behavior that cyberbullying might describe.
Be prepared to learn things that aren’t in this guide! Cyberbullying takes on many forms and is changing all the time.
Cyberbullying and Bullying Are Pretty Similar
It helps to think about cyberbullying in the context of bullying in general. It has a lot of the same elements, causes similar problems, and advice for one problem is usually relevant for the other.
A lot of the time, when cyberbullying is happening it’s happening as a part of a wider bullying problem that rears its ugly head in person as well. There are multiple papers demonstrating the close links between the different types of bullying offline and online, and parents should be aware of this.
TIP: The Link Between Cyberbullying and Bullying
If your child is being bullied, there’s a very good chance they’re being cyberbullied.
If your child is being cyberbullied, there’s a very good chance they’re being bullied.
But there are also a few key differences that set cyberbullying apart.
What Does Cyberbullying Look Like?
Cyberbullying is bullying (willful, repeated harm) that happens online. In terms of specifics, this can take on a lot of different forms. These will be constantly changing and potentially quite unique, but parents have a fantastic resource available to learn more: their kids.
TIP: Finding Out what Cyberbullying Looks Like for Your Children
After you’ve helped your kids understand what cyberbullying is, ask them for examples or specific behaviors that they’ve seen or heard of. If you use different social media platforms or play different games than they do, there’ll be lots to learn!
That being said, there are a few common types of cyberbullying that can serve as either a handy list to look out for or a good way to start a conversation with your children about examples that are relevant to them and how they use the internet.
Using any electronic communication to send repeated messages to someone, intending to harass or upset them, is a broad category that covers a lot of online bullying.
This kind of harassment can cause a lot of distress for victims, and it’s simple for bullies because of digital media’s unique capacity for frictionless, immediate communication.
Cyberbullying often happens in public online spaces where the bully is anonymous but the victim is not.
Often, cyberbullying takes place in public and victims continue to suffer its effects long after the anonymous bullies have moved on. Bullies may be posting rumors or hateful comments about victims which can stay online for years, even with (often inadequate) moderation policies in place on popular platforms.
In semi-public online spaces like big WhatsApp groups, cyberbullying can look a lot like in-person bullying: exclusion, constant teasing, and mean and abusive comments.
Another very common type of cyberbullying to look out for is called “doxing.” This is where bullies find out a target’s identity and personal information, and usually share it. This might be done by people your child would never meet in person. The information they might share can include the victim’s: full name and address, phone number, email address, social media accounts, and more.
More than 1 in 10 teenagers in a sample of 2,000 Hong Kong students admitted to having taken part in a doxing campaign at some point in their lives.
One of the harms that doxing causes is taking away the victim’s anonymity on anonymous platforms like Reddit or online games. Again, the bullies can remain anonymous.
Platforms with more anonymity are linked with a higher risk of cyberbullying for users.
Trolling is behavior that’s intended to provoke or offend people enough to make them react. It’s not always anonymous. Trolls aren’t always cyberbullies, they can be relatively harmless and even (for some of us) quite funny.
But trolling repeatedly with the intention to hurt someone is cyberbullying.
If your teenager is using a cellphone, then the risks of cyberbullying can be ever-present. All social media platforms are mobile-first these days; they want their users on the app because they can get more data out of them that way.
As parents, you’re probably well aware of the frankly impressive and creative ways that your kids can use their (or your) smartphones. Phones are like miniature movie studios now, and the savvy can use them to make super high-quality content.
Cyberbullies can get creative, too.
This just means that smartphones pose unique threats. Again, your child is the best source of info on the latest ways that phone technology can be used to hurt someone.
These are some of the ways that cyberbullying can happen today, but it’s worth repeating that the specific modes of bullying are constantly changing. Parents need to talk to their kids to understand exactly how cyberbullying affects them.
Some People Are More Vulnerable Than Others
Young people are more vulnerable to cyberbullying if they belong to certain minority groups.
This is especially true for sexual minorities. Research shows that LGBTQ+ young people are 50% more likely to be victims of cyberbullies than straight peers.
Young people with disabilities, especially special educational needs and developmental disorders, are also more likely to be victims of cyberbullying than others.
Nearly a fifth of children aged 9 to 16 have experienced cyberbullying, but this increases by 12% for children with special educational needs. In a recent survey, 63% of children with autism reported that they had been bullied.
59% of US boys and 60% of girls aged 13 to 17 have experienced cyberbullying at some point in their lives.
The Effects of Cyberbullying
Cyberbullying, like bullying, is defined as being harmful. In worst-case scenarios, its effects can be long-lasting for victims.
Cyberbullying has known negative impacts on victims’ emotional and mental wellbeing. Children who get bullied can get poorer grades in school not to mention increased risks for anxiety, sleep difficulties, and depression.
Fifteen years’ worth of research has shown that teenagers who have been involved in cyberbullying – both victims and perpetrators – struggle more with their studies, their emotions, their psychological development, and their behavior.
Cyberbullying victims are more likely to suffer body-related self-esteem issues than victims of in-person bullying.
Some researchers say that there is a reciprocal relationship between depression and cyberbullying victimization. That is to say that depression indicates later cyberbullying, and cyberbullying indicates later depression. Anxiety also features in this vicious cycle, leading to both cyberbullying and depression, and vice versa.
Tragically, there is also an observable higher risk for suicidal ideation and suicide attempts for victims of cyberbullying.
The consequences of cyberbullying for your child will be unique to their situation.
They may respond to cyberbullying by avoiding certain groups online, or even in person. Or they might be feeling particularly low confidence about a specific task or aspect of their life. Again, the best resource for parents here is their children themselves.
How Can Parents Prevent Cyberbullying?
Fortunately, parents have a significant role to play to help prevent cyberbullying.
Educating their children on how to behave appropriately online is a good step, but it needs to be constantly reinforced with ongoing discussions.
Take the time to speak with your child about what they get up to online. Encouraging them to share their experiences with you frequently will open up the lines of communication so that you can spot the signs of cyberbullying with them early on.
Now, anyone with teenagers is likely not going to be able to get them to open up as much. But victimized teens still need to feel safe and secure knowing that they could bring up hurtful interactions with their parents if they need to.
Parents in a recent survey nearly all (96%) said that their child hadn’t been harassed or bullied online, but only just over half (57%) were confident that their child would tell them if they were.
But when they’re asked, 22.6% of teens report being cyberbullied recently. There’s obviously a gap here.
It might help to open up more lines of communication with your kid so that they would tell you if they’re being cyberbullied. But parents can also enable their children to access wider, reliable support networks of people around them – in person as well as on the internet.
TIP: Support Networks
Helping to make sure your child has a wide support network around them – online and offline – is a great way to preemptively tackle cyberbullying. More people who your child or teenager trusts and feels safe around means more opportunities for them to open up about problems.
But your regular relationship with your child is also a pretty good indicator of their level of risk from cyberbullying, and one of the most effective deterrents for potential cyberbullies is the perception of punishment or disappointment from their parents.
While you may not want to remove your child’s access to the internet entirely, you can still use parental controls to help protect them from cyberbullies.
An alternative to restricting devices outright is to restrict the sites that can be viewed on them. You can do this with filters at the level of your internet service provider, which means that all devices that use your home internet are restricted.
If you are buying your child a smartphone, there are also a number of parental control apps that you can get on your phone. Most of them can notify parents about suspicious or harmful messages, restrict access to specific apps completely or just set time limits, and some include GPS tracking to show the child’s location in real-time.
Using Social Media Safely
In 2021, a widely reported series of leaks from the Facebook (now Meta) head offices showed that the social media giant is not only fully aware of the harm that cyberbullying causes on its platforms (which include Instagram and WhatsApp) but also seems apathetic at best toward removing it.
So even though these are trillion-dollar companies, you can’t rely on tech giants to protect your kids from cyberbullying on their platforms.
Fortunately, there are (scant in some cases) tools embedded into these platforms that help you and your child use social media (relatively) safely.
The best way to keep cyberbullies out of your child’s social media world is to help them limit their contacts to trusted friends only and make their profile private.
Preventing Your Child from Cyberbullying Others
Parents also have a role to play in stopping their children from cyberbullying others.
Again, regular and open communication with your kids about what they do and who they talk to online is the best remedy here. Collaboratively setting ground rules for how to behave online is another great way to instill the values that you want in your children.
Directly monitoring their accounts can work, but creating an open environment in your home where your kids feel comfortable browsing their apps and sites in your company can be even more effective.
Keeping a family computer in a shared space with the screen visible to passersby is a good way of passively supervising your kids online. You can ask them to show you what they’ve found on social media that day, what was funny or interesting.
The important thing here is, again, trying to keep an open line of communication with your child about what they’re getting up to online. This protects them, not only from external threats but from their own (still immature!) poorer decisions.
How to Care for a Cyberbullying Victim
If you’re worried that your child is being cyberbullied, the first thing to make sure of is that they feel safe and secure by giving them your unconditional love and support.
Parents can then work together with their children to make a plan for dealing with cyberbullying. Getting their perspective and understanding their unique situation is essential for effectively tackling the problem.
TIP: Talk About Cyberbullying
- Speak to your child directly if you’re concerned that they might be a victim of cyberbullying.
- Think about speaking to teachers or the cyberbully’s parents directly.
- Give your child opportunities to speak with other trusted adults themselves.
Sometimes, involving professionals like school teachers or coaches might be called for. This can be to help mediate or settle a problem, or to give your child an opportunity to talk to a trusted adult and get another perspective outside of yours. Other adults in your family can also be a great resource for helping your child feel safe to open up about cyberbullying.
Depending on the situation, it might help to speak with the parents of the cyberbully directly. Again, depending on individual circumstances and the aptitude of local police, involving law enforcement is an option that may be available to some parents.
How to Handle a Cyberbullying Problem
Once you and other adults involved understand a cyberbullying problem, there are some practical steps you can take to tackle it.
School administrators can remove or restrict cyberbullies on platforms that they run. Often, private groups’ moderators (or their parents) will respond well if you reach out to them about cyberbullying in their group.
As well as bans or user restrictions for cyberbullies, you can ask for harassing posts to be deleted from the platform (but be aware that once something has been posted publicly there’s no knowing where it could be saved and reposted).
Your child’s cell phone likely has block features as well. You can block numbers from calling or texting, email addresses with most email clients, and contacts on most social media platforms.
TIP: Make Sure You’re Not Inadvertently Punishing Your Child
While it might seem like a good idea to simply block all accounts and take away the phone in an effort to prevent cyberbullying, this is usually not the best solution as it does nothing to address the real problem.
In a way, it is really punishing your child or teenager even though they’ve done nothing wrong. The core cyberbullying issue itself needs to be dealt with. It will not go away if it is ignored.
Finally, social media platforms like Instagram and TikTok have (albeit too few) moderation policies in place to tackle cyberbullying. Reporting cyberbullying with built-in features on these platforms doesn’t always get results, but it can lead to a ban or restriction for abusive accounts.
It is also very important to be as transparent as possible with your child. If you organize a meeting with school authorities and the children find out, it could lead to further marginalization. Involve them in the process of tackling their cyberbullying problem as much as possible.
Helping Your Child Recover from Cyberbullying
If the cyberbullying posts are taken down or you’ve helped your child block the bully, there may still be a fair bit of repair and recovery to help your child through.
The first thing is to let them know that it is common and it can and does happen to different people.
TIP: Making Sure Victims Don’t Feel at Fault
Reinforce to your kid that it is not their fault and there is a lot of help out there for them. If the victim believes they are at fault, it could be more likely to happen again.
Cyberbullying victims say that the thing that helps most is simply when they are listened to by other people. This helps them to release trapped emotions.
Responses to Cyberbullying
Cyberbullying is increasingly being recognized as a serious problem for kids and teenagers. This is good news, as authorities, schools, youth organizations, and technology platforms are working to tackle it.
As parents, you want to know that the institutions that you trust your children with are going to keep them safe.
TIP: Getting Evidence
One of the upsides of cyberbullying is that it’s relatively straightforward to get evidence. Take screenshots of the harmful content or messages and save them if you need to take the issue up with professionals or other adults.
Speaking with professionals who have a duty of care for your child to gauge their understanding and approach to cyberbullying, checking out school policies, and lobbying social media firms and tech giants to moderate their platforms better are all proactive steps you can take as a parent to help keep your children safe.
Lobbying local politicians, school boards, and police departments to take cyberbullying seriously is another proactive way that parents can tackle cyberbullying.
At the platform level, automated systems carry out the bulk of the work in tackling cyberbullying.
For example, researchers have used machine learning-based labeling products like CrowdFlower (now Figure Eight) to investigate cyberbullying on the video-sharing platform Vine. Numerous AI approaches are in use across the platforms.
As someone who writes pretty extensively on internet safety and digital technologies, I wouldn’t rely on these automatic features to keep your child safe from cyberbullying. Bans are easily circumvented, especially on anonymous platforms. Reports are often wrongly categorized. There are too few human moderators in the systems.
Resources for Parents
The home page for UNICEF’s extensive cyberbullying campaign is packed full of links to resources.
UNICEF is backed by the United Nations and has a remit to keep children’s rights on the global agenda. The organization is committed to research and delivering practical solutions for children.
UNICEF worked with international experts in cyberbullying and child protection and partnered with TikTok, Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter to put these resources together.
This official website from the US government contains lots of practical resources like templates, visual cues, and reliable advice.
The site has content for parents, families, and children to explore by themselves.
The NSPCC (National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children) is a UK charity that has published extensive advice for parents and carers to help safeguard children from bullying and cyberbullying.
This resource includes UK hotlines and emergency contacts, signs of cyberbullying, and places parents and carers can access support.
This US-based non-profit is dedicated to researching and tackling cyberbullying.
The website hosts extensive resources, lists of services, and links to the latest reliable research on cyberbullying.
Our comprehensive guide to pretty much every parental control available.
- About three-in-ten U.S. adults say they are ‘almost constantly’ online – Pew Research Center
- Adolescents and Cyberbullying: The Precaution Adoption Process Model – John Chapin
- A Majority of Teens Have Experienced Some Form of Cyberbullying – Pew Research Center
- Analysis and detection of labeled cyberbullying instances in Vine, a video-based social network – Rahat Ibn Rafic, et al.
- Approaches to Automated Detection of Cyberbullying – Semia Salawu, Yulan He, and Joanna Lumsden
- Autism and Bullying – Anti-Bullying Alliance
- Bullying During the COVID-19 Pandemic – Cyberbullying Research Center
- Cyberbullying – Megan A. Moreno
- Cyberbullying in 2021 by Age, Gender, Sexual Orientation, and Race – Cyberbullying Research Center
- Doxing: What Adolescents Look for and Their Intentions – Mengtong Chen, Anne Shann Yue Cheung, and Ko Ling Chan
- Deterring Teen Bullying: Assessing the Impact of Perceived Punishment From Police, Schools, and Parents – Justin W. Patchin and Sameer Hinduja
- Learning Disabilities, Autism and Internet Safety – Cerebra
- Longitudinal Associations Between Cybervictimization and Mental Health Among U.S. Adolescents – Chad A. Rose and Brendesha M. Tynes
- Mobile Fact Sheet – Pew Research Center
- Parenting approaches and concerns related to digital devices – Pew Research Center
- Perpetration and Victimization in Offline and Cyber Contexts – Christoph Burger and Lea Bachmann
- School bullying before and during COVID-19 – Tracy Vaillancourt, et al.
- Social Influences on Cyberbullying Behaviors Among Middle and High School Students – Sameer Hinduja and Justin W. Patchin
- Teens, Social Media and Technology – Pew Research Center
- Teens’ Social Media Habits and Experiences – Pew Research Center
- The Overlap Between Cyberbullying and Traditional Bullying – Tracy E. Waasdorp and Catherine P. Bradshaw
- The Facebook Papers: What you need to know about the trove of insider documents – NPR
- Towards understanding cyberbullying behavior in a semi-anonymous social network – Homa Hosseinmardi, et al.
- What is Cyberbullying – Cyberbullying Research Center