How to Spot and Respond to Cyberbullying, a Growing Problem for Children and Teens
In a world where technology is a dominant feature in most of our lives, it would seem that bullying would be a thing of the past. Everyone’s on their phones now, especially amidst a global pandemic, so kids are minding their own business…right?
Unfortunately, this is not the case. Cyberbullying runs rampant throughout the maze of technology kids have access to and are using on a daily basis. The bullying hasn’t stopped—it’s gone viral.
As a provider of school-based behavioral health services, we’re worried about the negative effects of cyberbullying. We know this form of bullying is harmful, so we want to make sure caregivers can spot the signs to get help for the children in their lives.
What Is Cyberbullying?
Much like the traditional bullying you see in movies or might have experienced growing up, cyberbullying includes name calling and mockery. It goes further, though, in the extensive number of ways kids can communicate with each other.
According to the National Bullying Prevention Center, “Cyberbullying is the use of technology to repeatedly and intentionally harass, hurt, embarrass, humiliate, or intimidate another person.” This includes laptops, cell phones, and tablets—basically anywhere someone can access the internet. It’s particularly tricky because there is so much technology in so many places that it almost makes bullying easier.
As to what the bullying actually includes, StopBullying.gov, a website run by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, says it best: “Cyberbullying includes sending, posting, or sharing negative, harmful, false, or mean content about someone else. It can include sharing personal or private information about someone else causing embarrassment or humiliation.” This might mean vicious insults or hurtful comments, sharing an embarrassing photo, or even distributing a home address and phone number—a practice called doxing.
How It Differs from Traditional Forms of Bullying
There are many similarities between traditional physical bullying and cyberbullying. Bullies are notorious for being relentless and persistent. Some common reasons children are bullied include: socioeconomic status, sexual orientation, and even smaller things like what hobbies they enjoy.
While bullying and cyberbullying are similar, there are many problematic elements of cyberbullying that make it harder to detect and deal with. For instance, with technology available 24/7, a cyberbully can harass a child not just while at school, but also on social media and video games. In some cases, it may feel hard to ever get away from cyberbullying because technology keeps everyone so connected.
Cyberbullying can also be anonymous and reach a much wider audience. If a cyberbully shares an embarrassing photo all over the internet and social media, it could “go viral.” This not only creates a permanent paper trail of embarrassment for the child being bullied, but also creates a situation from which the child may not be able to escape, even as they grow older and mature.
What’s worse is that the cyberbully may create fake profiles or be completely anonymous when performing the cyberbullying. This makes it harder to track and creates an environment where it’s easier to be much more hurtful with much less remorse due to the lack of perceived consequences.
A final key difference between traditional bullying and cyberbullying is that cyberbullying can be hard to detect. Students use technology in and for class and assignments. They also communicate with friends and family using technology. There will, at some point, be a time where parents, guardians, and teachers can’t monitor children at every moment, especially during a global pandemic when so many parents and teachers are already juggling eLearning and new work-from-home environments.
Cyberbullying does a lot more mental and emotional damage before adults begin to see the effects than traditional physical bullying. If a child is getting physically harmed at school, it probably leaves a mark. Unfortunately, in the digital world cyberbullying does long-term damage to mental health before anyone recognizes what’s going on and is able to intervene.
Long-Term Effects of Cyberbullying
With so much cyberbullying occurring, there are mental and emotional long-term effects. Researchers note, “Victims of bullying are at significantly increased risk of self-harm or thinking about suicide in adolescence. Furthermore, being bullied in primary school has been found to both predict borderline personality symptoms and psychotic experiences, such as hallucinations or delusions, by adolescence. Where investigated, those who were either exposed to several forms of bullying or were bullied over long periods of time (chronic bullying) tended to show more adverse effects.”
Victims of bullying face a higher risk of many serious consequences from bullying—from serious mental health disorders to much higher risk of suicide. In fact, suicide rates in children and adolescents have doubled since 2008.
Aside from the obvious mental and emotional strain, there can also be physical effects from cyberbullying. According to recent research, “Children who were victims of bullying have been consistently found to be at higher risk for common somatic problems such as colds, or psychosomatic problems such as headaches, stomach aches or sleeping problems, and are more likely to take up smoking. Victims have also been reported to more often develop internalising problems and anxiety disorder or depression disorder.”
If you’ve been bullied, you’ll likely recall that showing weakness to bullies seems to push them further into their habits and bring more suffering and increased bullying into your life. For this reason, many children who are being bullied are more likely to withdraw from their daily lives and internalize their fear.
According to researchers Dieter Wolke and Suzet Tanya Lereya, “Bullying rather than other factors explains increases in internalising problems.” There are then physical consequences of this internalization, like more common colds and headaches, which can seem unrelated.
Spotting the Signs of Cyberbullying
We know that cyberbullying is a problem—a big one. And it’s not going away anytime soon. We also know that it can be hard to detect. After all, we can’t monitor every child all the time.
So what signs can we look for that might indicate cyberbullying is occurring? The Cyberbullying Research Center has a very helpful list:
- Unexpectedly stops using their device(s)
- Appears nervous or jumpy when using their device(s)
- Appears uneasy about going to school or outside in general
- Appears to be angry, depressed, or frustrated after going online (including gaming)
- Is oversleeping or not sleeping enough
- Becomes abnormally withdrawn from friends and family members
- Shows an increase or decrease in eating
- Seems regularly depressed
- Makes passing statements about suicide or the meaninglessness of life
- Loses interest in the things that mattered most to them
- Avoids discussions about what they are doing online
- Frequently calls or texts from school requesting to go home ill
- Desires to spend much more time with parents rather than peers
- Becomes unusually secretive, especially when it comes to online activities
Many signs involve unusual behavior with technology. When a child who loves being connected stops wanting to be involved with activities online or games they previously loved to play, it’s odd and something might not “feel right” with how they normally act.
There are also signs involving relationships with the people they care about. Sometimes children who are being bullied push away from their peers and closer to parents and siblings. But sometimes they begin to pull away from everyone and lose interest in relationships, as well as passions they used to love.
The bottom line is that cyberbullying is serious, and although it’s harder to detect than more traditional physical bullying, there are signs parents and guardians can and should watch for. Knowledge is power, especially in the digital age where so much information is readily available to learn.
We would encourage you to check on the children closest to you—whether your own children, nieces and nephews, grandchildren, or children of friends. The kids need you more now than ever before, although they might not say it out loud. Regular and open communication about bullying and its negative effects can really help children not just for their own sake, but also so they know what to look for when they see it happening to others. Help them help themselves.
If you find that a child close to you is being bullied, therapy can help. Cummins behavioral health partners with many school districts throughout central Indiana to provide quality mental health therapy for children in the school-based environment. If you have questions or are worried your child might be experiencing cyberbullying, call (888) 714-1927 today. Early intervention can save lives!
If you’re concerned about other challenges to children’s mental health especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, we recommend also reading our blog on child abuse prevention below!