Digital Threats: The Effects of Cyberbullying

For countless children, being bullied has been a tough reality of growing up. Although teasing and poking fun at others has always happened on the playground, bullying has long-lasting effects on the daily lives of some victims. Unfortunately, Internet access and social media have magnified the problem of bullying. The anonymity of the Internet has allowed youth to be subjected to more ferocious bullying than ever before. Unlike previous forms of bullying, cyberbullying can be far worse and is becoming more and more common.

Traditional Bullying vs. Cyberbullying

The word “bully” was first used in the 1500s to refer to a sweetheart, but through the years its meaning changed to someone who was a “harasser of the weak.” For many American children, traditional bullying has been a fact of school life and almost a rite of passage. However, technology has led to an evolution in bullying.

Defining Bullying and Cyberbullying, a government resource about bullying, defines the practice as “unwanted, aggressive behavior among school aged children that involves a real or perceived power imbalance.” Bullies use their power — whether from real sources (such as strength or wealth) or perceived sources (such as popularity or intelligence) — to control or harm others. Their actions are often repeated and can involve both emotional and physical attacks.

Cyberbullying is defined as bullying that takes place using digital technology. This may include social media networks, text messages or email. Cyberbullies may spread rumors, post embarrassing photos or videos, or use fake profiles.

How Cyberbullying Is Different

As more and more young people are being affected by cyberbullying, psychology experts are able to better understand just how different it is from traditional schoolyard teasing. The lack of face-to-face interaction that technology provides makes it much easier for children to cross the line from joking to bullying. The American Academy of Pediatrics lists cyberbullying as “the most common online risk for all teens.”

Unlike traditional bullying, a cyberbully can be completely anonymous. This makes the victim feel even more helpless, because they do not know the source of the attacks. Technology also makes tracing the source of the attacks nearly impossible. Before a victim finds out the identity of the bully, the information could have spread to a worldwide audience. Anonymity also helps remove the power imbalance so that anyone can be a bully. This contributes to what may become an endless cycle of bullying that hurts all victims involved.

Cyberbullying Statistics

According to a 2012 study, cyberbullying has become more common than traditional bullying. About 25 to 30 percent of youth admitted to either experiencing or taking part in cyberbullying. In contrast, just 12 percent said they had experienced or taken part in traditional bullying. Of those involved with cyberbullying, 95 percent said it was meant to be a joke.

A study of teens ages 13 to 17 from Harris Interactive found that 58 percent of middle school students and 56 percent of high school students admitted feeling angry as a result of cyberbullying experiences. Thirty-seven and 32 percent respectively felt hurt, while 18 and 11 percent felt scared.

Middle School Students
58% – Anger
37% – Hurt
18% – Scared

High School Students
56% – Anger
32% – Hurt
11% – Scared

Impact of Cyberbullying

With the increased cruelty of cyberbullying comes a deeper impact on those involved. The effects of cyberbullying are in many ways worse than traditional bullying, infiltrating every part of a victim’s life and causing psychological struggles. In some cases, teens have taken their own lives because they were victims of vicious cyberbullies.

Emotional and Physical Effects

According to WebMD, victims of cyberbullying can have lasting emotional, concentration and behavioral issues. These problems may bleed into their social lives, as they encounter more trouble getting along with others. They experience trust issues and are more likely to abuse alcohol or drugs at an earlier age. Victims of cyberbullying can develop dangerous stigmas, and experience harmful shame from their peers.

Despite not being threatened physically, victims of cyberbullying still suffer from physiological symptoms. They report frequent headaches and stomach pain that are often associated with nervousness. They may also turn to self-harm, including cutting or damaging their skin with razor blades.

Long-Term Effects

Victims can suffer because of cyberbullying long after it ends. Being bullied can lead to a lifetime of low self-esteem. This may cause chronic fatigue, insomnia and poor performance in school or at work. Depression is not uncommon, with some victims feeling an overall sense of hopelessness and worthlessness about their lives.

Unfortunately, the long-term effects of cyberbullying can become life-threatening problems. Nearly 20 percent of cyberbullying victims report having suicidal thoughts, according to the Cyberbullying Research Center. Several high-profile suicides have been blamed on cyberbullying. These tragic events have led to increasing attention on the issue, with prevention efforts becoming a priority.

Stopping Cyberbullying

As cyberbullying has grown, so have calls for prevention and legislation to address it. Groups of concerned parents across the country want to help youth understand the dangers of cyberbullying and its often unintended consequences. Some have even suggested making cyberbullying a crime, especially in extreme cases that lead to harm. However, the best way to prevent cyberbullying begins on the ground with the youth involved.

The Role of Therapy

Because traditional bullying has a long history, it has been rare for victims or bullies to receive therapy or counseling. But when given the opportunity, therapists have profoundly improved the lives of all parties in the situation. Professionals are beginning to use cognitive behavioral therapy to help both victims and bullies understand their thoughts and feelings.

Resources and Helplines

Both the government and action groups are creating easy-to-use resources for youth, parents and teachers. Helplines like the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline can also be of assistance, whether a teen is a victim or a bystander. Helplines are anonymous, so youth can talk without the fear of embarrassment.

Campaigns and Legislation

Several groups have emerged as leaders in the effort to prevent cyberbullying and traditional bullying. Organizations like STOMP Out Bullying, directed at youth and often promoted by celebrities, provide teen-friendly resources. Campaigns frequently involve school-by-school instruction and training for educators on how to stop cyberbullying before it becomes a problem.

Government officials have also developed laws and policies that cover cyberbullying. All 50 states have either a law or policy that seeks to prevent the practice and protect youth. Some laws go as far as making cyberbullying a crime. Although laws make it clear that the practice is unacceptable, it is hard to identify perpetrators thanks to Internet anonymity.

Tips for Prevention

Everyone can make a difference and prevent cyberbullying. Check out these tips for parents from

Be Aware

Knowing what kids are up to is half the battle. Know what sites your children are visiting and who they interact with online. Monitoring tools can help but shouldn’t be relied on. When asking for passwords and texting records, always say it is in case of emergency. Encourage trustworthiness and you may learn of an issue directly.

Establish Rules

Be clear about what sites kids can visit and what they are permitted to do when online. Showing them how to stay safe can lead to smart online behavior. Tell them not to share information that could embarrass themselves or others, and stress the permanent nature of information shared on the Internet.

Understand School Policies

Many schools have policies on how technology can be used by students. If students violate such policies, it could result in disciplinary action. The school may also help you with cyberbullying that is occurring.

Cyberbullying and Treatment

The continued growth of the Internet at a rapid pace guarantees that cyberbullying will continue to affect people’s lives. Thankfully, insurance companies are beginning to cover sessions with therapists who are trained to help victims of cyberbullying work through their problems.

If you’re interested in taking an active role in addressing cyberbullying, consider a career in marriage and family therapy. Learn more about the online marriage and family therapy graduate program from Touro University Worldwide today.

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