Cyberbullying occurs when someone repeatedly sends or shares intentionally harmful content to or about a victim from a computer, cellphone, or another device. The interactions can include messages, videos, photos, or shared content online.
If you notice your child has drastic changes in their mood, appetite, or sleeping habits, hides their device, or withdraws from activities they used to enjoy, they may be the target of online bullying. Here are some steps you can take to address the issue:
- Stay calm and talk to your child in a supportive way.
- Record the evidence of cyberbullying.
- Ignore and block the bully.
- Set privacy settings and parental controls for more safety.
- Help your child find supportive friends who will rally around them.
- Teach your child ways to manage their stress.
- Report cyberbullying activities to your child’s school and other parents.
Most importantly, set a positive example for your child and teach them how to be resilient and see themselves in a positive light. They have a lot to be proud of and no one deserves to be the target of online harassment.
Cyberbullying statistics from a PEW Research study report that 59% of U.S. teens say they have been bullied or harassed online at some point in their lives. It’s not just American kids, either. According to a Unicef poll, one in three young people aged 13-24 across 30 countries has experienced online bullying. Due to the widespread use of technology today, kids and teens are at greater risk of cyberbullying than ever before.
Even though cyberbullies often hide behind screens and usernames, parents can address cyberbullying, and even help prevent it before it happens. The first step for parents is to arm themselves with information. Understand what cyberbullying is and then you can take steps to intervene, report, and prevent online bullying behavior.
What is Cyberbullying?
The Cyberbullying Research Center defines cyberbullying as “willful and repeated harm inflicted through the use of computers, cell phones, and other electronic devices.” These interactions often result in humiliation for the victim. They are intentional and relentless; victims feel like nowhere is safe from a cyberbully.
Characteristics of cyberbullying
There are a few key characteristics to help parents decide if online behaviors are part of a cyberbullying relationship. For an online interaction to be considered cyberbullying, it needs to be:
- Purposeful: cyberbullying behavior is done with the intent to harm.
- Repeated: a case of cyberbullying always involves multiple incidents of bullying behavior.
- Harmful: the victim experiences harm as inflicted by the bully.
- Occurring on a device: cyberbullying happens on cellphones, computers, gaming devices, or other electronic devices.
Cyberbullies and their targets are in a dysfunctional relationship. There is a pattern of online bullying behavior that occurs over time and must be stopped.
When and where is cyberbullying experienced most?
Since cyberbullying happens online via electronic devices, it can feel inescapable to the victim. Every time they unlock their phone or sign in to their social media account, they may face an attack. Cyberbullying often happens:
- On social media sites
- Through text messages
- On online messaging apps
- In forums and chat rooms
- Via email
- During online gaming
- In video live streams
Cyberbullies can stalk or troll their victims in ways that didn’t exist in previous decades. With online bullying, there are no black eyes or busted lips. But that isn’t the only difference between traditional in-person bullying and cyberbullying.
The Difference Between Online Bullying and In-Person Bullying
A PEW Research Center study says that, by the time they are teenagers, 45% of kids are online almost constantly. This gives online bullies more opportunities to target victims. Cyberbullying removes some of the limitations required for traditional bullying, so it can be relentless and harder to prevent.
Cyberbullying differs from traditional or in-person bullying in a couple of ways:
- It doesn’t require face-to-face contact — it can happen at a distance.
- It can happen anytime, anywhere (including at a child’s home, on their personal device).
- Contact with the bully often happens anonymously, so it’s harder to notice or address.
- Its reach can be huge: videos or photos can go viral on the internet.
- Content shared by cyberbullies will always be online.
- It hurts everyone involved, including the reputation of the cyberbullies.
On top of that, cyberbullying can happen to anyone. When you remove the limitations of physical space, anyone can become a target.
How to Recognize When Your Child is Being Cyberbullied
According to Security.org, 44% of all internet users have experienced some form of online harassment. When negative behavior persists, it becomes cyberbullying, which can have lasting, traumatic effects.
Children who are being cyberbullied often struggle to talk to adults about what’s going on. They feel humiliated, or they worry their phone or internet privileges will be taken away. Cyberbullying affects children and teens in different ways, but nearly all targets of online bullying experience some level of distress. Parents must be observant of their child’s behavior to see if anything may be amiss.
Signs of cyberbullying
Some signs of cyberbullying include:
- Changes in appetite
- Changes in online behavior (more or less time spent online, behaving quiet or secretive about activities, closing or hiding their devices around parents)
- Changes in sleep pattern due to stress and anxiety
- Mood swings that include sadness and depression
- A reluctance to go to school in fear of facing the bully or feeling embarrassed by what others have seen online
- Spending less time with friends and family
- A decline in grades or participation in activities, usually due to stress, anxiety, or depression
- Feeling physically ill — for example, due to stress-induced stomachache or headaches
Changes in behavior can tip parents off that something is wrong with their child. The sooner a parent picks up on the signs, the faster they can intervene and prevent additional harm.
Is it teasing or bullying?
Identifying cyberbullying can be tricky. Interactions between two kids can start off as teasing and then evolve into a cyberbullying relationship. Teasing is usually playful and even helps kids bond or learn how to handle constructive criticism.
However, when someone teases to hurt someone else repeatedly, it becomes bullying. You can ask your child some specific questions to determine whether they’re experiencing peer-to-peer teasing or (cyber)bullying:
- Are the kids who tease you your friends?
- Do you like it when they tease you?
- Do you tease them back?
- If you told them to stop teasing, would they?
- If you told them that they hurt your feelings, would they say sorry?
If your child responds “no,” or isn’t sure about the answers to the questions, you may need to find out more about the incidents. Then, you can decide whether they’re a case of socially appropriate teasing or the more harmful alternative, bullying.
Obstacles Parents Face in Dealing with Cyberbullying
The first hurdle in treating cyberbullying is knowing when your child is being bullied. The second obstacle is addressing it. The technical nature of cyberbullying doesn’t make dealing with the issues easy for well-intentioned parents.
First of all, it can be hard to address the bully. The aggressors are often invisible or anonymous online.
Secondly, if cyberbullying involves students, it can be unclear who —and to what level— is responsible for mitigating the issue. Additionally, it might be unclear who takes responsibility for handling inappropriate use of technology.
- Parents often feel they don’t have time to learn about or deal with technology.
- Teachers don’t know when to intervene in situations that happen outside of school but involve students.
- Law enforcement will only get involved if there is concrete evidence of a crime.
These challenges can be daunting. Taken step by step, however, parents can work out solutions with their child or teen (as well as with other parents, teachers, or school administrators if needed) that stop the bullying and prevent further attacks.
What to Do if Your Child is Cyberbullied
One in five students (aged 12-18) has been bullied during the school year. Often, it’s up to you, the parent, to address any online issues that surface. Don’t expect the school or other parents to interfere in problematic behavior online, especially in the beginning. Start taking steps right away to mediate the situation.
If your child is cyberbullied, take these actions:
Each of these steps will be discussed in more detail below.
1. Talk to your child
The first step in addressing cyberbullying is to talk to your child calmly, without judgment or high emotions. If you feel upset, wait to talk to your child until you’ve calmed down and can see the situation objectively. Then, begin a supportive and reassuring conversation with your teen or child.
Here are some tips for talking to your child when they’ve been cyberbullied:
- Help your child or teen understand it’s not their fault. They have many positive attributes and so much to be proud of.
- Involve your child in the resolution process. Talk to them about what steps you are going to take and what they can do. This way they won’t feel isolated, or as if they have done something wrong. When they go through the process with you, they can even learn how to deal with cyberbullying in the future: who to talk to, what sites to stay off of, and how to set privacy settings.
- Emphasize that revenge against a bully is not a good idea. It could make things worse for everyone involved.
2. Record evidence of cyberbullying
Before you or your teen deletes cyberbullying content, save it for evidence. This can be useful at a later stage – particularly if the bullying doesn’t stop. Take screenshots and make sure to download messages, images, and videos if possible. Then save them, print them, or add them to a private file on your computer in case the bullying escalates and other parties, like law enforcement, need to get involved.
Make sure these files are stored in a secure way. You don’t want to lose them because you forgot to create a backup. You’ll also want to make sure no one else has access to them without your permission, as that can be very damaging to your child. You can read our articles about backing up your data on different devices for tips and how-to guides.
3. Ignore and block the bully
Don’t let your lack of experience with technology prevent you from taking action against cyberbullying. It’s relatively easy to make changes on your child’s devices immediately.
Start by blocking any contacts involved in cyberbullying, so they can’t reach out to your child online. Even if the cyberbully is anonymous, you can still block the user from contacting your child on apps using in-app safety features.
After content has been saved or recorded for evidence (if needed), consider deleting harmful information from your child’s apps and devices. If the cyberbully is a classmate, you can report the behavior to the school after blocking them. This step is discussed in more detail below.
4. Set the right privacy settings and parental controls
Aside from just blocking a bully, you can also take a critical look at the privacy settings of your child’s online accounts. These settings, along with parental control and family security software, can increase your child’s privacy and safety online.
Our team has written many guides that explain how to set stricter privacy settings on social media and devices. To give a few examples:
- Change your privacy settings on Instagram
- Change your privacy settings on Snapchat
- Change your privacy settings on YouTube
- Change your privacy settings on WhatsApp
Next to these privacy settings, you might want to consider using parental control software. The way you use parental control will depend on your child’s age. Teenagers may be fine with a periodic spot-check that doesn’t need any additional software. If you want to set some stricter parental controls and keep a close eye on what your child is doing online, a family security app might come in handy.
Parental control software, like the app Bark, can help you block sites, filter content, and monitor your child’s activity online to ensure bullies aren’t contacting them. This could be a good solution for younger children especially. If you’re interested in learning more, we rounded up a list of the best parental control apps.
Regardless of which safety and privacy measures you take, they should not be seen as a punishment. Make sure your child knows that they’re there as a way of providing an environment where they can feel safe. Moreover, be honest with your child: let them know exactly what you can see of their internet behavior. Make sure they feel protected, instead of spied upon.
5. Help your child find supportive friends
Cyberbullying statistics show that more than half (57%) of bullying events stopped once a peer intervened. Bullies are often deterred when a group of friends rallies around the target. Friends can also help record evidence, report misbehavior, and make a victim feel less isolated.
In order to get to that stage, your child will have to feel like they can trust their friends and have the possibility to reach out to peers. Depending on your child’s age, you could help them actively by contacting their friends’ parents and arranging fun activities, or passively by encouraging your child to initiate contact and talk about their friendships openly.
6. Teach your child ways to manage stress
Being a victim of online bullying can be incredibly stressful. Encourage your child or teen to make time for things they enjoy, like hanging out with supportive friends, going to a park, riding bikes, yoga, or playing sports. These activities release endorphins, build self-esteem, reduce the risk of depression, and remind kids that there’s more to life than what happens online.
7. Report cyberbullying activities
Depending on the severity of the situation, you might have to report it. There are multiple different authorities that need to know about cyberbullying, depending on where the bullying took place and who the bully is (a classmate or a stranger online).
You might have to report online bullying to one of the following authorities:
- Your child’s school: If your child is being cyberbullied by known classmates, report it to your child’s school. This way, they can help address the issue and provide support. The IT director might set extra security settings on school devices. School administrators could explain the consequences of bullying in school. If teachers feel unsure about what steps to take with students, programs like PTA Connected can help parents and teachers get connected to digital safety through discussions, resources, and tools.
- Other parents: If you know who the bully is, you can work together with other parents to create a plan towards resolution and check in with each other to see how things are progressing.
- Social media app: Whether the cyberbully is known or entirely anonymous, parents and teens can report the user using in-app features on any social media site or app where online bullying has happened. For example, Twitter’s safety mode features allow users to report harmful content. Twitter will then investigate the situation and possibly block the user. The Cyberbullying Research Center has curated a list of online gaming networks, social media companies, and other sites with options to report harmful behavior.
- Police: if there is a threat to the personal safety of your child, you should contact the police. If you’re in the USA, you can easily find your local law enforcement offices online.
What to Do if Your Child is Cyberbullying Others
If you discover your child is cyberbullying others, you need to respond calmly and quickly. A focused and swift response will reduce further harm to the target and your child. Here’s how you need to respond if your child is a cyberbully:
1. Stay calm
Try not to judge your child. If they feel harshly judged, they may lash out or be less helpful in resolving the issues. Make sure you’re in the right state of mind before you have a conversation with your child. It’s better to take a minute to calm down than rush into a heated, unproductive conversation. The aim of your conversation should be to create understanding and find a solution together.
2. Investigate the situation
Give your kid or teen a chance to address the issue with you. Try to understand it from their perspective. Maybe they have been harmed by someone else or are feeling stresses of their own, so they project their anger and fear towards others. They might be dealing with peer pressure or don’t understand social cues when enough is enough. If you understand the root cause, you will have more luck curbing the bullying behaviors.
You can further investigate the situation by asking questions like:
- What caused the cyberbullying to happen?
- How long has it been going on?
- Who is being cyberbullied and who else is bullying?
- What has been done to the victim and can you show me the content?
It’s likely you won’t get direct answers at first, or at all. In this case, you will need to think about who their friends are, what things bother them, or what stressful events have happened recently. This could provide context to the cyberbullying behaviors.
3. Stop the online bullying
How you stop the bullying will be different depending on the degree of cyberbullying, who was bullied, and the age-appropriateness of consequences. There are five main steps to take to stop your child’s cyberbullying:
- Talk to your child about cyberbullying. Explain that they aren’t necessarily a bully, but that their behavior is problematic. They can change their actions and make better choices in the future. Show them examples of the consequences of cyberbullying. You can google news stories or talk about a personal experience. This can also cultivate empathy, which we’ll discuss in more depth later.
- Set stricter privacy settings and controls on devices. Make sure you’re aware of what your child is doing online, so you can make sure the bullying stops. You can do this by taking note of your child’s passwords and regularly checking their accounts, or by installing a family security app to track a kid or teen’s activity. Unfortunately, kids are often more tech-savvy than parents and can quickly delete posts or change their passwords. Parental control software might prove more effective in keeping their activity monitored.
- Decide on the consequences. Determine what consequences are appropriate to the severity of their behavior. This may involve taking away devices or prohibiting access to certain apps. Once your child proves that they can return to respectful behavior, you can revisit this topic.
- Report it. If the bullying involves a classmate, you’ll need to report it to the school so the behaviors can be monitored and stopped there, too. Also report and delete all messages, pictures, and posts that can be considered cyberbullying on any social media site, gaming network, or app. This way, the companies themselves can respond in accordance with their policies. Reporting it protects other children from being bullied and shows your child that everyone, including their favorite sites like Instagram, takes these matters very seriously.
- Continue to monitor activity and check in. Every child is different. If you can address the root causes of the bullying, it’s possible the behavior stops completely. In more difficult cases, further action may need to be taken. You might consider increasing the restrictions on device use or asking for help from professionals like therapists, school administrators, or anti-bullying advocates.
4. Work to cultivate more empathy to prevent further harm
Kids make mistakes. Still, your child must understand how serious bullying is. Restricting online activities or access to social media sites won’t always stop the behavior. Sometimes, children need to figure things out for themselves. A great way to do this is to put them in a new situation that cultivates empathy and challenges their beliefs or behaviors. Here are a few tips to encourage more empathy in your child:
- Show them examples of how cyberbullying has hurt people. As mentioned before, news stories can help. The New York Times has an entire section devoted to cyberbullying stories.
- Put your child or teen in new situations that may help them create more empathy. Think of community service projects, mission trips, volunteer opportunities, or other activities that show unique perspectives. This will foster the idea everyone has their own baggage and struggles.
- Hire a family or child therapist who can provide a professional outside perspective on your child’s cyberbullying behaviors.
How Parents Can Help Prevent Cyberbullying
Often, by the time a parent finds out their child is being cyberbullied, the damage has been done. The best way to keep your child safe online is to take steps to prevent cyberbullying before it happens:
1. Help your child build resilience on and offline
Everyone will encounter rude or harmful behavior in their life. If your child isn’t hurt by comments because they know their own worth, bullies will have a hard time trying to get to them. That’s why it’s important to build resilience. Here are a few ways in which you can encourage that:
- Set a positive example. If you’re on the receiving end of a negative comment, show your child how you ignore it, address it respectfully, and talk to someone supportive about how it made you feel. Show your child that rude things people say or do may make you feel sad, but they don’t take value away from who you are. Also, be vulnerable. Admit it when you make a mistake and show how you take ownership of it instead of hiding.
- Find relatable movie or book characters. For younger kids especially, fiction shows how to deal with a variety of problems. You can use your child’s favorite stories to show how protagonists overcome hurtful obstacles.
- Help them create a positive mantra about themselves and say it together every day in the bathroom mirror: You might choose something like, “I am strong. I am kind. I am smart and I stand up for others!”
- Practice yoga or meditate together. These skills can help reduce anxiety and build your kid’s self-esteem and resilience at the same time.
2. Show them real-world examples of cyberbullying
Creating empathy might help someone who cyberbullies others change their behavior, but it can also prevent that behavior to begin with. Cyberbullying or online harassment is often talked about in the news. Next time you see or hear a story like that, take it as an opportunity to talk about the consequences of cyberbullying with your child.
3. Stay in touch and be involved in their online activities
Communication is key. Regularly talk to your child about what’s going on in their lives. You can ask them what apps they use online, who they talk to, and who they play games with. You might even try to play their favorite game with them, so you can get a glimpse of your child’s hobby and become familiar with the way it works. If your kids use Reddit or other unmonitored platforms, make sure you understand the safety risks, too.
If you take an interest in your kid’s activities in a non-judgmental way, they will likely feel comfortable and safe enough to come to you with any issues. If a situation at school or at home puts them at risk of being bullied or becoming an online bully, they might share their worries with you, allowing you to steer them in the right direction.
Cyberbullying: How Can You Help Your child?
Cyberbullying is a complicated, frustrating experience for everyone involved. New technology emerges every day and kids and teens are spending more time online than ever, making it hard to keep up. That’s why we designed our cyberbullying prevention parent guide with actionable tips and steps to help parents prevent or respond to cyberbullying. One step at a time, families can make the internet a safer, more inclusive place for everyone.
For helplines and more information about where to report bullying behaviors, visit these anti-bullying resources:
Do you have more questions about cyberbullying? Read our frequently asked questions section to learn more about online bullying.
The causes of cyberbullying are different for every person. Some bullies are victims of harm themselves and use cyberbullying as a way to establish power or control. For others, it’s a result of peer pressure or the inability to read social cues that show when enough is enough.
The effects of cyberbullying can be long-lasting and result in physical, emotional, and psychological stress including:
- a decline in grades
- physical illness, like headaches
- mood changes like anxiety or depression
- eating more or less than normal
- changes in sleep patterns
It’s important to stop online bullying as soon as you notice it, and reach out to a trusted friend or adult for help.
The Cyberbullying Research Center defines cyberbullying as “willful and repeated harm inflicted through the use of computers, cell phones, and other electronic devices.” It often leads to humiliation for the target and can have long-lasting consequences.
All fifty states in the U.S. have laws that address online bullying, depending on the type of behavior. This doesn’t mean you should go to the police with every case of cyberbullying you come across. If you think your child is being cyberbullied or is engaging in cyberbullying behavior, the first step is to talk to them calmly. Learn more about the situation before getting law enforcement involved.
Parents and kids can take steps to stop cyberbullying and prevent further harm.
- Talk it through. If you are experiencing online bullying, tell a friend or adult you trust.
- Protect your devices. Block necessary contacts, delete apps, and set up safety features.
- Report the cyberbullying using in-app features. If the bully is a classmate, also report it to the school. If cyberbullying involves a threat to personal safety, it should be reported to law enforcement.
- Take a break. Consider taking a break from social media sites or find other ways to manage stress.