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What is cyberbullying?

Cyberbullying is a type of bullying in which one or more individuals use digital technologies to intentionally and repeatedly cause harm to another person. Cyberbullies use mobile phones, computers or other electronic devices to send texts, emails or instant messages; post comments on social media or in chat rooms; or in other ways use private or public forums to attack their victims.

In 2019, researchers at the Cyberbullying Research Center conducted a national survey of middle and high school students in the United States between the ages 12 through 17. According to their results, 36.5% of the students reported that they had been victims of cyberbullying at some point in their lives (34.1% of the boys and 38.7% of the girls). In addition, 17.4% of those surveyed had been cyberbullied within the previous 30 days, during which time, the bullies carried out a variety of attacks, such as the following:

  • Posted mean or hurtful comments about the victim online (24.9%).
  • Spread rumors about the victim online (22.2%).
  • Threatened to hurt the victim through mobile phone text (12.2%).
  • Posted mean names or comments with sexual meaning about the victim (12.0%).
  • Threated to hurt the victim online (11.7%).
  • Posted a mean or hurtful picture online of the victim (10.8%).
  • Impersonated the victim online (10.1%).
  • Posted mean names or comments online about the victim's race or color (9.5%).
  • Posted a mean or hurtful video online about the victim (7.1%).
  • Posted mean names or comments online about the victim's religion (6.7%).
  • Created a mean or hurtful webpage about the victim (6.4%).

Over 30% of those surveyed also reported that they had been victims of one or more of the above categories two or more times.

The participants were also asked whether they had carried out cyberbullying. Nearly 15% admitted to having cyberbullied others during their lifetimes, and 6.3% admitted to having done so in the previous 30 days. In every category, boys caried out more cyberbullying than girls.

One of the reasons that cyberbullying has become so prevalent among teens is because cyberbullies can hide their identities online, operating anonymously or under an alias such as with email spoofing. The victim might never know where the bullying originated. Cyberbullies also have easy and quick access to online technologies day and night, and the reach of these technologies extends far beyond the school grounds. In addition, the cyberbullies are physically distanced from their victims, so they don't see firsthand the damage they're inflicting.

Another challenge with cyberbullying is that it can be difficult to detect, so it's not always apparent to parents, teachers or other adults. They don't become aware of the cyberbullying unless the victim comes forward, which from the victim's point of view, can be fraught with its own risks and consequences.

Cyberbully tactics and threats

Cyberbullies have a wide range of platforms to choose from when trying to harass, shame, hurt, threaten or intimidate others. Platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, Snapchat and Reddit are only some of the possible options. Cyberbullies might also use emails, texts, instant messages or online chats in popular games such as Roblox to harass their victims, employing methods like the following:

  • Attempt to infect the victim's computer with a virus.
  • Flood the victim's email inbox with messages.
  • Send messages to the victim that threaten physical harm or suggest that the victim should commit suicide.
  • Create a website that makes fun of the victim or spreads rumors or lies about the victim.
  • Create an account (such as email or social networking) under the victim's name and then post or send out damaging information that makes the victim look bad or embarrasses the victim.
  • Break into a victim's account and post or send damaging information in the name of the victim to shame the victim or make the victim look bad.
  • Post a suggestive or embarrassing photo or video of the victim on social media, perhaps using an image or video obtained by tricking the victim.
  • Threaten to reveal or actually reveal a victim's personal information such as a social security number.
  • Carry out an online attack against the victim based on his or her perceived race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, income bracket, living situation or other personal traits or circumstances.

Although these are common tactics used by cyberbullies, such attacks are not automatically classified as cyberbullying unless they're carried out repeatedly and with the specific intent to do harm. For example, a one-off comment, no matter how defamatory or hurtful, is not considered cyberbullying if it is not repeated or it was not intended to cause harm.

Impact of cyberbullying

Cyberbullying can have a devastating and long-lasting effect on its victims. According to UNICEF, cyberbullying can affect victims physically, mentally and emotionally, leaving them feeling afraid, angry, ashamed, tired or experiencing symptoms such as headaches or stomach aches.

"When you experience cyberbullying you might start to feel ashamed, nervous, anxious and insecure about what people say or think about you. This can lead to withdrawing from friends and family, negative thoughts and self-talk, feeling guilty about things you did or did not do, or feeling that you are being judged negatively," UNICEF reported. "Skipping school is another common effect of cyberbullying and can affect the mental health of young people who turn to substances like alcohol and drugs or violent behavior to deal with their psychological and physical pain."

Cyberbullying can even lead to people taking their own lives. Given that most U.S. teens are now online at some point during the day, the concern about cyberbullying has never been greater.

A number of organizations offer help for victims of cyberbullying as well as their parents and teachers. They can find information at UNICEF,, the Cyberbullying Research Center, Pacer's National Bullying Prevention Center, and other organizations. Their websites provide details about how to prevent and respond to cyberbullying and include tips for parents and teachers for how to handle cyberbullying.

If you discover that you're a victim of cyberbullying, you might consider taking one or more of the following steps:

  • Limit your online connection time.
  • Don't respond to threatening or defamatory messages.
  • Never open email messages from sources you do not recognize or from known sources of unwanted communications.
  • Blocklist or allowlist incoming email accounts.
  • Change your email address, ISP or mobile phone number.

Do not try to retaliate in any way. Such behavior can lead to heightened attacks or even result in civil actions or criminal charges against you. In some cases, it might be advisable to consult an attorney or report the cyberbullying to a law enforcement agency, especially if a crime has been committed.

All U.S. states have laws that cover bullying behavior to some extent, but each state addresses bullying differently. For example, the laws might specifically cover cyberbullying or they might mandate how schools should respond to bullying. In some cases, cyberbullying might be covered by existing laws against personal threats and harassment.

See also: cyberstalking, digital self-harm, internet shaming, cyberpsychology

This was last updated in December 2022

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