Cyberbullying – A New Face on an Old Problem

May 9 2014


  • Geo Howard, Operations & IT Manager
    Geo Howard
    Operations & IT Manager
  • Rick Phillips, Founder, Community Matters
    Rick Phillips
    Founder, Community Matters

Exclusion. Gossip and rumors. Name-calling. Threats and aggression. These “real-world” forms of peer mistreatment have long existed and continue to affect young people in schools and communities everywhere. Now, with the widespread adoption of social media and smartphones by teens and even younger children, bullies have a new playground in which to inflict meanness on their targets: cyberspace.

According to a Pew Research Center study (2007-2010) regarding social media use among 12-17 year-olds:

  • 95% use the Internet on a regular basis, and 80% use social networking sites;
  • 73% are users of online social networking sites, with 37% sending daily messages via social media.

OK, we know where our children are – they’re online! So what happens when they are there? According to the Pew study, of teens that use social media:

  • 39% reported being the victim of cyber-bullying compared to 22% of teens who don't engage in social media activities;
  • 88% have witnessed someone being mean or cruel to another online, with 12% saying cyber-bullying is a 'frequent' occurrence.

These figures reflect a disturbing prevalence of online cruelty, and the elusive nature of cyberbullying makes prevention and intervention more difficult than is the case with “in-person” bullying. Consider:

  • Cyberbullying can happen 24/7, and reach a child even when he or she is alone, and even in the ‘safe haven’ of his/her home;
  • It often happens off-campus and out of sight of adults and friends who might otherwise have an opportunity to intervene;
  • Messages and images can be posted anonymously and quickly go viral, and it can be very difficult to trace the source;
  • Targeted students are often reluctant to report it;
  • First Amendment free-speech protection is often afforded to aggressors/ perpetrators.

All of these factors work in favor of the aggressor, and put the target at greater risk; in high-profile cases where self-injury and even suicide have resulted, there is often the sense that the victim had no recourse and nowhere to retreat from the abuse.

Because cyberbullying does not happen face-to-face, aggressors are emboldened by their sense of anonymity to say mean things that they might not if they were in the target’s presence. And when such posts go viral on a social media platform, the urge to “pile on” is hard to resist, since it’s so easy to join the taunting with little fear of reprisal. This was recently the case with the social app YikYak, which, with its combination of complete user anonymity and its ability to be seen by anyone in a 1.5 mile radius, created a perfect storm for cyberbullying, so much so that the FBI intervened and the app’s creators used GPS technology to block the app from 130,000 school campuses.

So what can we do about it?

Students as Part of the Solution

With traditional bullying, research continues to show that the most effective strategies empower young people to be part of the solution. This is done by engaging their empathy and providing the skills to safely intervene and support each other, instead of joining in the mistreatment or remaining passive bystanders.

Enlist Students

Enlisting students as part of the solution is a key determinant in improving school climate, and schools that focus on creating a safe and inclusive climate have been shown to have fewer incidents of all forms of mistreatment, including cyberbullying.

Specifically, young people can help stop cyberbullying in their social networks by refusing to participate in spreading hateful messages, standing up for targets by offering support and by reporting to school staff or other adults when they see or experience persistent online harassment.

Good Online Security Practices

It’s also essential for youth to learn and follow good security practices when using social media sites and managing their devices. The Cyberbullying Research Center has published a list of tips for teens with good advice on ways to protect themselves online, including password-protecting devices, configuring privacy settings and thinking twice before posting compromising photos or statements that can invite abuse from others.

Clearly, both parents and educators have a huge stake in protecting young people from becoming targets of cyberbullying.

Parents Role

Parents have primary responsibility for keeping their children safe, but often find that the proliferation of new social sites and changing technology make it difficult to effectively monitor what they see and do online. It takes a proactive effort to stay up-to-date on current trends and a willingness to value safety over privacy where their kids are concerned. has published A Parent’s Guide to Cyberbullying, with helpful advice on engaging with your own children to effectively monitor their online behavior and respond appropriately if problems arise.

Educators recognize that cyberbullying affects learning and school climate. The relational hierarchy among students on a campus is usually the basis for who is likely to be targeted, both during school and after hours, and it is far from easy for a child to focus on studies when their emotional safety is compromised by relentless online taunting. Two guides for educators from the Cyberbullying Research Center provide helpful information on preventing and responding to cyberbullying.

Given the power of social media to provide instant and far-reaching communication, it can be easy to “blame the technology”. But cyberbullying is primarily a social problem. We can work to successfully solve it by educating ourselves about what it is (and isn’t), and engaging proactively with our children and students to guide appropriate online behavior. In doing so, we can help the “tech generation” take the lead in moving away from casual cruelty, and instead towards taking personal responsibility to treat each other well, both in cyberspace and the real world.

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