How to Identify Cyberbullying: What it Is, Signs It’s Happening, & What to Do About It

There have always been, and probably always will be, bullies in all stages of life. Nearly all of us adults can recall witnessing bullying situations, being victimized by a bully, or perhaps even bullying someone else at some point.

However, technology has taken the problem to whole new levels. Children and teens have become particularly vulnerable to various forms of bullying that involve technology like cell phones, social media, and online gaming.

Cyberbullying is just as bad if not worse than other kinds of bullying

What Is Cyberbullying?

What exactly constitutes cyberbullying? The authors of StopBullying.gov have compiled a somewhat detailed list, but even it is not comprehensive. These authors write that

Cyberbullying is bullying that takes place over digital devices like cell phones, computers, and tablets. Cyberbullying can occur through SMS, Text, and apps, or online in social media, forums, or gaming where people can view, participate in, or share content.

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.“

They go on to note that some cyberbullying actually crosses the line into criminal behavior. The statistics are unsettling. The i-SAFE Foundation reports that over half of all teens have been the victims of cyberbullying and a similar number have bullied others using technology. Nearly 25% of students are victimized again and again, and only about 1 in 10 tell their parents.

Sadly, victims of cyberbullying experience increased stress, depression, and anxiety, and some are driven to attempt or commit suicide. It’s serious business. You can find even more statistics at BullyingStatistics.org.

Do Not Take Bullying Lightly

There are dissenting voices in the crowd. Some say that bullying isn’t that bad; after all, it happens to most of us. Others wonder if the problem is being blown out of proportion. They feel that some people see bullying where no such thing was intended. For this reason, it’s important to have a clear understanding of what bullying is and is not, both online and off.

Identify if Behavior is Bullying

A common explanation that can be used with children of nearly any age is very useful. Teachers across the United States have picked up on this:

  • When someone does something unintentionally harmful or hurtful to others one time, it is rude.
  • When someone does something on purpose one time that is harmful or hurtful to others, it is mean.
  • When someone does these things repeatedly, after being asked to stop, it is bullying.

The same applies to cyberbullying, and it’s a good, simple way to talk to kids. Many seemingly innocent behaviors cross the line into bullying when they are harmful to others and repeated again and again.

Signs That Your Student May Be a Victim of Cyberbullying

If your child uses technology, he or she is at risk of being the victim of cyberbullying. Cyberbullying can take place over social media, through SMS or text messaging, on online gaming sites, and any other place where your child can communicate with others.

No One is Immune

It’s also possible to be cyberbullied even if you do not have much of an online presence. Just because your child is not allowed to use a particular social media site or you are monitoring their text messages, it does not mean that others are not saying mean or embarrassing things about him or her where you cannot see them but the child’s peers can. Some children are also victimized by others taking illicit photographs of them, even without their knowledge, and then the pictures are posted online.

Of course, some children are far more at risk of being victimized in this way than others. If your child has special needs, is socially insecure, has a body type or feature that is atypical, or dresses or behaves differently from the crowd, he or she could well be bullied.

Detect Cyberbullying

Understood.org has a good set of signs to watch for to detect cyberbullying. This website is one of the leaders in solid information to help families of children with learning and attention problems. They suggest:

  • Watch for changes in computer usage habits. A student who suddenly does not want to use the computer when his or her habits have been very different could be being bullied.
  • Bullying may cause your student to become secretive about computer use. Watch for more closed doors, more computer use when you are not at home, and similar signs. Kids and teens also sometimes become experts at screen switching when parents come close.
  • Your child may become anxious when receiving digital messages. This can be from any source – text, e-mail, social media messages, etc.
  • Avoiding social situations and gathering. Just like with other kinds of bullying, children sometimes become reluctant to go to school or hang out with friends. They may make comments that indicate they are having social problems.
  • Bullied children often become withdrawn and may even act out by bullying someone else.

NetNanny.com suggests that parents also watch for general signs of stress—changes in sleep habits, changes in eating habits, weight loss or weight gain, or physical complaints like stomach aches or headaches. Kids may lose interest in formerly important activities or hobbies, and they may also seem overly tired during the day if they’ve been texting through the night.

The Cyberbullying Research Center adds that children and teens who are being cyberbullied may have an abrupt increase in calls to leave school because they are ill.

Of course, the biggest red flag of all is talks of suicide or comments about how life is not worth living. These are signs that you need to take immediate action. Your child’s life may depend upon it. Get a mental health professional involved right away; these sorts of comments or behaviors can be a strong sign that something is seriously wrong.

Signs That Your Child Might Be Bullying Someone Else Online

The situation may be reversed, but you are still responsible for knowing what your child is up to online. In fact, parents are being found liable for their children’s actions in a legal sense, so it’s important to be putting forth your best effort at keeping tabs on their actions.

According to Cyberbullying.org, signs that your child might be bullying others online include

  • Laughing while using devices, but not willing to share the joke
  • Using technology late at night or at other times when they are not supposed to
  • Increasing concern about popularity or being a part of the “right” crowd
  • Changing the people they hang out with
  • Expressing inordinate pride over technological abilities or skills
  • Using others’ social media accounts or having multiple accounts on the same service
  • Showing increasingly mean or rude behavior

Other signs look a lot like the signs that they are being bullied:

  • Increasing behavior problems or acting out at school
  • Refusing to talk about their use of technology
  • Becoming withdrawn or more alone

Pay attention to your child’s behavior and use of technology. You may be in a position to make a difference in the life of other children or teens, as well as help your own youngster.

How You Can Respond to Cyberbullying

Your response to cyberbullying makes all the difference in the world.

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Like most large problems, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Make it your business to know what your children and teens are doing online and be shameless about monitoring their online accounts. There are countless monitoring apps and systems available, ranging from limited free programs to subscription-based monitors that allow you almost unfettered access to your child’s devices and online life.

Keep the lines of communication open, too. Make it clear to your child that you not only want to hear about what they are doing online, you EXPECT them to be forthcoming. You can make communication one of the prerequisites to earning privileges and freedoms in the digital world. You are not being nosy; you are protecting someone you love.

Remember that your child likely has access to digital things beyond the devices that you control and know about. They can get online at the local library, at many coffee shops, at school, at friends’ houses, and many other places. For this reason, it is critical that you develop an open and honest relationship about what goes on in their digital world.

Teach the 3-Steps for Responding to Cyberbullying: Block, Report, Tell an Adult

You can also teach them certain methods for quickly dealing with harmful messages received online, such as blocking, reporting, and telling an adult as featured here in this video about cyberbullying:

If you suspect your child is being victimized by cyberbullies, here are some concrete steps you can take:

Talk to Your Child & the Bully’s Parents

Talk to your child first and foremost.

See if he or she can tell you how long this has been going on, give you names of the bullies or other identifying information, and if he or she has any evidence (posts, texts, messages, and so forth).

If so, be sure to save these things in case you need them for evidence later. And be careful not to be judgmental! Praise your child for being honest and do NOT reprimand or question his or her delays in coming forward. Help your youngster feel supported and loved.

If you have a relationship with the bully’s parents, and you believe you can discuss the situation rationally, talk with them and see if you can collectively come up with a solution.

But if you do not know the parents, if you have doubts about your own ability to keep your cool, or if you believe the other parents may become abusive, do not contact them.

Inform the School & State

Inform yourself about your school district’s and state’s policies on cyberbullying. These should be available online, or you can call.

Some questions to ask the school include what actions the school takes in response to such situations, how the school protects victims of cyberbullying, and how the school steps in to improve the situation.

Sadly, there are some administrators or even entire districts who make matters worse inadvertently, so include your child in this decision.

Check State & Local Laws

Examine the situation carefully and see if any state or local laws have been broken. This might include (but is not limited to) threats, harassment, stalking, cybertrespass, and more. Again, do your research.

Even if some of these things are going on and even if they are illegal in your state, not all law enforcement agencies are up to the challenges or up to date in how they handle these situations. Include your child in these decisions.

Encourage Positive & Empowering Socializing

Help your child move to more positive social interactions by supervising get-togethers and supporting wholesome relationships.

Do all in your power to help your child feel in control and as though there are choices. Empowering your child goes a long way to “bully-proofing” as much as possible.

Seek Help From a Professional

Seek outside help from mental health professionals, such as school guidance counselors, clergy, counselor or therapist. Seek emergency help if there are threats of violence, harm, suicide, or self-harm. It’s critical that you get your child help under these circumstances.

Resources for Parents

Cyberbullying is a large problem. There are lots of agencies that have been formed to help you, and you can find most of them online. Here are a few to start with:

  • StopBullying.gov has training and resources for parents. There is also a handy list of other agencies that may be able to help.
  • Understood.org has resources for parents and caregivers of students who struggle with learning differences or attention problems. They have an extensive section of helpful information on emotions and feelings that includes information on cyberbullying.
  • PTA.org has a really good list of practical tips to prevent cyberbullying.
  • StompOutBullying.org has many resources to help you find information about identifying, preventing, and responding to cyberbullying.