A decade ago, it was a simpler time for the average teenager. A decade ago, teens could go to school, interact with their friends, and come home without fear that bullies or harassment would follow them. They could go home, recharge and start fresh the next day.
That is no longer true. Thanks to the introduction of social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Twitch and TikTok as well as mobile devices and an “always-on” culture, it’s much more difficult for kids to get away from the social challenges they face throughout their day.
This problem is an even larger issue for people who deal with bullying because online platforms have led to cyberbullying.
Instead of only taking place in hallways and classrooms, cyberbullying can happen anywhere and on any device with an internet connection. According to a nationwide study done by Florida Atlantic University, 34% of young people have experienced cyberbullying firsthand and 87% have witnessed cyberbullying occur.
With how prevalent cyberbullying is in today’s world, it is important that social workers, teachers, parents and students understand its effects and how to prevent it.
What is Cyberbullying?
Cyberbullying can be defined as someone or a group of people intentionally targeting, harassing or threatening someone repeatedly through digital media and communication tools such as the internet, cell phones and/or social media.
While the components that make up cyberbullying may seem simple, it can take many different shapes and sizes, with different levels of severity and many negative effects.
Some common types of cyberbullying include:
Harassment through texts or direct messages
Text-based harassment can take a lot of different forms. Someone might take out their aggression on another person by sending them offensive and hurtful messages, but it could also include sending crude and unwanted jokes that make the recipient feel uncomfortable. If the messages are ongoing, unwanted and offensive, they likely fit into this category.
Cyberstalking is the act of continuous, unwanted romantic advances online. It typically occurs after the victim rejects someone’s initial advances and may consist of threats, sexually explicit texts and pleas for attention.
Online sexual harassment can also fit into this category. A severe, yet common example consists of frequent threats of rape or sexual assault.
Other examples of online sexual harassment include sending repeated and unwanted pornographic images, recording and/or distributing images of sexual assault and non-consensually sharing sexually explicit images of someone. In a 2008 study, 15% of middle school students reported they had received unwanted sexual solicitation online.
Spreading rumors or lies about someone across social media
This category includes exaggerated or completely false stories that are spread about a person across social media. Not only can this type of cyberbullying affect someone’s sense of self, it may damage their reputation among their peers and potential employers.
This includes invading someone’s personal accounts and posting without the person’s permission. Often, posts are meant to hurt the person’s reputation or embarrass them.
This involves commenting unrelated and cruel things on someone’s social media posts or attacking a person in their comments section repeatedly.
Trolling can also include behavior like repeatedly starting arguments in someone’s social media feed.
Threatening someone or telling them to harm themselves
One of the most extreme forms of cyberbullying is threatening harm or even death to the person. This can include physical and psychological threats, and they can also be highly specific and targeted—for example, some threats may include a person’s address or information about their family to create a greater feeling of fear.
A related type of cyberbullying involves telling a person to harm themselves, which can do severe damage to someone’s self-esteem, especially when done repeatedly over a long time.
Doxxing is the online publication of private information about someone, typically to encourage others to harass them. This not only includes hacking into personal accounts and posting personal information, but can also involve compiling publicly available information into one place to share with other people, making it easier for anyone to target the victim.
What Makes Cyberbulling So Severe?
As seen from the examples above, there is a new rulebook when it comes to bullying in the modern world. While the threat of physical contact is often absent, cyberbullying can still be extremely harmful due to its persistence and potential reach. Some instances of cyberbullying can result in mass harassment as more people start to target the individuals affected.
When bullying happens online, it can also be seen by friends, family members, classmates, teachers and even acquaintances, which can result in the sense of shame and embarrassment being heightened.
Here are a few key factors that make cyberbullying a significant problem:
Everyone has heard the adage, “once it’s on the internet, it’s there forever.” Hurtful images and comments can be deleted by the victim, but in the world of cyberbullying, they never really go away.
Cyberbullies can take screenshots of hurtful comments and the victim’s reactions, ensuring that they can continue being shared. One of the common tactics related to this is provoking a cyberbullying victim to post something when they’re angry, which can then be shared out-of-context to damage someone’s reputation, chances of employment or college enrollment opportunities. According to a 2018 survey from CareerBuilder, 70% of employers use social media to screen job candidates and 48% of employers use social media to check in on current employees.
Another factor of cyberbullying is persistence. While there used to be a respite from bullying outside of school hours, it now follows victims home. Mobile devices, the ability to get WiFi practically anywhere and a hyper-connected culture have turned bullying into an inescapable, 24/7 problem that causes continued stress whenever plugged in.
This constant feeling of unease has been proven to cause a continued stress response, which leads to disruptions in early childhood brain development, an overly responsive stress system, conduct issues and antisocial behavior.
With the large number of people that have been exposed to the negative repercussions of cyberbullying, why is it still common? This leads to one of the biggest issues associated with the problem: the popularity factor.
According to a study published by The Journal of Early Adolescence, while people tend to look down on traditional bullying, cyberbullying can actually improve the perpetrator’s popularity.
Social media has introduced a culture where the ‘like’ is law. The more likes you get on something, the more likely you will be to post something similar in the future. Because of this, cyberbullies often feel validated, encouraging them to continue targeting their victims.
Because cyberbullying happens through a screen and not face-to-face, it’s much easier to attack someone without feeling ashamed or fearful of negative social responses. A screen can act as a buffer for the bully to be as mean as they want.
Anonymity only amplifies the negative effects of bullying. Cyberbullying victims with unknown perpetrators have reported a greater sense of weariness and suspicion when interacting with others. This can also make it difficult for social and law enforcement agencies to take action.
Effects of Cyberbullying
Mental health issues
One of the many negative effects of cyberbullying is the increased likelihood to experience mental health issues. Cyberbullying has a strong correlation with trauma, depression, anxiety and dissociation. A study on cyberbullying victims by Pennine, Bhagwanjee and Govender found that 22.4% of their participants could be clinically diagnosed with posttraumatic stress and 21% with dissociation.
Suicidal thoughts and actions
In extreme cases, cyberbullying can lead to death. Every year, new cases come to light of cyberbullying-related suicides. One reason for these occurrences is the brain’s physical response to trauma. Cyberbullying can cause a constant fear response, activating the emotional, visual and intuitive right side of the brain. It, in turn, deactivates the left side of the brain responsible for linguistic and analytical functions. The ability to think rationally decreases while emotional responses increase. Because of this, victims with higher levels of stress, anxiety and depression have a higher likelihood of committing suicide.
Lack of focus at school
With the mental, emotional and physical issues listed above, cyberbullying can have direct consequences on someone’s education. A study conducted by Jackson and Cohen reported that third to sixth graders who were victims of cyberbullying were more likely to have lower levels of optimism, fewer friendships and a lower perceived social acceptance. These factors have shown a direct correlation to performance in school.
The effects on optimism and social acceptance, paired with the above information that stress responses paralyze the analytical parts of the brain, make it very difficult for a cyberbullying victim to maintain focus on schoolwork and other responsibilities.
Signs of Cyberbullying
Because cyberbullying often goes unreported, it can be tricky to see the signs. Here are some important things to look for when working with younger clients or in school settings:
- Noticeable increase or decrease in phone use
- Becoming upset or angry after phone use
- Frequent, unexpected mood swings
- Reluctance to go to school or uneasiness with attending certain classes
- Unexplained decline in grades
- Unwillingness to share information about their online accounts
- Rapid weight gain or loss, trouble eating, stomachaches
- Withdrawing from close friends and family
- Signs of depression or anxiety
How to Stop and Prevent Cyberbullying
Cyberbullying is a pervasive issue in today’s culture, and it may become even more severe as technology continues to give us new ways to connect with each other. Because of this, it is important to understand how to stop and prevent cyberbullying from happening as soon as possible.
Many of your potential clients may struggle with cyberbullying, but you can play a significant role in helping them manage the problem or help to address the issue on a larger scale. Below are some tips for cyberbullying prevention:
Learn The Signs and the Tactics of Cyberbullying
Prevention starts with education. It’s hard to know how to help someone who is getting cyberbullied if you don’t fully understand it. Do your research into what cyberbullying is and its effects, turn to focused resources from experts and apply what you learn.
The more you understand the online universe and how to navigate it, the better you will be at helping to prevent online bullying.
Keep an Open Dialogue and Build Trust
A support system is crucial for anyone, but especially for someone experiencing cyberbullying. Helping the victim understand that they aren’t at fault, listening to what they have to say and helping them navigate the legal system and other resources can make a huge difference.
School social workers have opportunities to work with teachers, administration and family members to offer better support both at home and in school. For example, helping to teach a victim’s family how to mitigate the risks and damage caused by cyberbullying can lift some of the burden off the individual.
Develop Guidelines and Influence Policy
Having clear, concise policies in place about the usage of the online spectrum is a great preventative measure you can take to combat cyberbullying. For school social workers, this may mean helping schools develop formal policies related specifically to cyberbullying, in addition to educating teachers and administrators.
Focus on Restorative Consequences
Setting up a system of guidelines for cyberbullying is important, but it is even more important to make sure the discipline is effective. In many schools and homes, punitive consequences are given to combat unwanted behavior. For example, many schools give detentions or timeouts to children who act up.
Instead of showing the perpetrator the negative effects of their behavior on others, this only shows how they’re personally affected by their negative actions. By contrast, restorative consequences focus on teaching someone more socially acceptable behavior. In cases where the bully themselves has suffered trauma, this strategy can also involve teaching them healthier coping mechanisms and helping them find resources for dealing with those issues.
This strategy may involve giving a cyberbully tasks like writing an in-depth research paper on the negative effects of cyberbullying or asking them to explain how they think someone else was affected by their actions.
Teach Internet Safety
Educating students on common internet etiquette is vital to your school or community. Safety practices like keeping passwords private and updating social media privacy settings are key to keeping kids safe online. As a social worker, you can prepare your community by helping them build basic internet and account security skills and understand how to keep themselves safe when online.
Build Development Programs
Studies have found that the best way to prevent cyberbullying from occurring is to develop healthy interpersonal skills in teens and young adults. Social workers have started programs in their schools or communities to teach adolescents concepts like shame management, resilience and emotional intelligence.
These programs help students gain self-confidence and social awareness that can lower the likelihood that they’ll become bullies. It also gives them the resilience to understand that any bullying they receive isn’t deserved and shouldn’t be hidden. When students gain the self-confidence that these programs teach, the amount of cyberbullying in a community decreases drastically.
Document the Harassment
Cyberbullying is a repeated offense against a person and sometimes the aggression can cross the line into criminal. Keeping a record of the posts, comments, videos and anything else will make prosecution for these offenses easier.
Social workers can work with their clients to educate them regarding the type of information that is most useful to keep a record of as well as help in documenting instances of bullying. In addition to documenting the content of online harassment, for example, recording the dates and times of each incident can be helpful for proving that the behavior has been repeated.
Not only do today’s teens need to be equipped with preventative and coping strategies, but the professionals who work with them also need to understand their role in minimizing the damage caused by problems like cyberbullying.
Complex issues like these can involve many different areas of expertise, from knowledge of diversity and culture to psychology and human development. However, social workers with a well-rounded foundation of skills can be the driving force for positive change, both in their clients’ lives and in their communities.
About Adelphi’s Online MSW
The highly respected School of Social Work at Adelphi has a long history of producing leaders in social work and helping to shape social policies. Since 1951, we have continually been accredited by the Council on Social Work Education, and Adelphi’s Social Work graduate program is now ranked in the top 5% of the country, according to US News & World Report. Additionally, our faculty are expert practitioners and researchers, having published across the full range of topics within the field—including disparities in healthcare, child advocacy, the role of social workers in shaping policies and more.
Our Online Master of Social Work program brings the combined decades of expertise and legacy of Adelphi’s leading social work school to a flexible curriculum designed for working professionals. While the program is primarily delivered online, we include two annual on-campus experiences due to the importance of building relationships in the social work field. Many students tell us that the on-campus training is a highlight of their education.
We are incredibly proud of our ability to deliver the personalized attention of an in-person education to the online classroom. Our graduates complete the program prepared to become Licensed Master Social Workers and begin rewarding careers.