What is cyberbullying?

Cyberbullying is the use of digital media (such as websites, apps, and text messages) to intimidate, upset, or harm someone. It includes repeatedly sending, posting, or sharing negative, harmful, or mean content about someone else on purpose.

Usually, with cyberbullying, there are other people who see cyberbullying happen. In these situations, people can be bystanders, allies, or upstanders. A bystander observes the conflict or unacceptable behavior but does not take part in it. An ally is someone who responds to the bullying situation by supporting the person being bullied (e.g., checking in with them, being a friend to them, etc.). An upstander tries to stop the bullying by confronting the person who is bullying directly or by telling a trusted adult.

Cyberbullying differs from face-to-face bullying in several key ways. For one, it can feel harder to escape because it can happen anywhere anytime. It’s also harder to detect because so much of kids’ digital media use is unmonitored by adults. At the same time, cyberbullying can also be very public: Large numbers of people online can see what’s happening and even gang up on the target. Though the target is usually exposed publicly, cyberbullies can hide who they are because they can post anonymously or use pseudonyms. And since cyberbullying isn’t face-to-face, the one doing the bullying may not see or even understand the implications of their actions.

How common is cyberbullying?

Reported data on how many kids experience cyberbullying can vary depending on the age of kids surveyed and how cyberbullying is defined. According to the 2018 Common Sense report Social Media, Social Life, 13 percent of teens age 13-17 say they’ve been cyberbullied, including 9 percent who say it has happened to them more than twice. A summary of research by the Cyberbullying Research Center on cyberbullying in middle and high school from 2004 to 2016 indicated that, on average, 28 percent of students have been targets of cyberbullying and 16 percent of students admitted to cyberbullying others. And according to a 2018 Pew Research Center survey, a majority of teens (59 percent) have experienced “some form of cyberbullying” when it is defined to include name-calling and the spreading of rumors.

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The Common Sense study also found that some kids are more vulnerable to cyberbullying than others, with girls more likely than boys to experience it. A separate study identified kids with a disability or obesity or who identify as LGBTQ as more likely to be cyberbullied than other kids.

Even if kids aren’t the target of cyberbullying (and the majority aren’t), chances are high they’ve witnessed it since it often happens online and publicly. Common Sense reports 23 percent of teens have tried to help someone who has been cyberbullied, such as by talking to the person who was cyberbullied, reporting it to adults, or posting positive stuff about the person being cyberbullied online.

How can I tell if a student is being cyberbullied?

Be aware of your students’ emotional state. Do they seem depressed? Fearful? Distracted? Pay attention to what’s happening for students socially at lunchtime, in the hallways, or in other areas of your school campus. Has their friend group changed? Do you sense a conflict between students? Are you overhearing talk about “drama” or “haters” (two words kids might use to describe cyberbullying situations)? Don’t be afraid to check in with students directly about what’s going on. And reach out to their support networks including parents or caregivers, the school counselor, a coach, or other teachers.

When and how should I intervene in a cyberbullying situation?

Obviously, cyberbullying is something to take seriously. At the same time, it’s important to remember that, depending on their ages, kids are still developing skills like empathy, self-control, self-regulation, and how to communicate respectfully online. These situations can be learning opportunities for everyone involved.

About the Author:

Erin Wilkey Oh’s work has focused on supporting K-12 students and teachers for over a decade. As executive editor of education content for Common Sense, she provides teachers with practical tips and strategies for using classroom technology, and helps students use media productively to become critical thinkers and creators. Prior to her work with Common Sense, she taught English at a public high school in Kansas City and evening classes to adult English learners. Her time as a National Writing Project Teacher Consultant nurtured her passion for student digital creation and media literacy.


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