Cyberbullying 101: A Digital Pandemic

Humantold April 14, 2021

Cyberbullying is a pervasive new form of bullying that impacts millions of people online each year. Here's everything you need to know about it.

Bullying is deliberate, aggressive, and unwanted behavior meant to damage the well-being of another person. It is an event that children, teens, and adults can experience at any point in their lives. It can have a significant and lasting psychological impact on everyone involved—even bystanders. 

We are all familiar with a bully, whether from our personal lives or movies, television, and books. From Biff Tannen from Back to the Future to Regina George from Mean Girls, bullies in media are a fictional trope used to add tension and conflict to a story. However, in the real world, bullies can do a lot more damage than their fictional counterparts. 

Contrary to popular belief, bullying occurs at all stages of life—not just on the playground. While bullying can exist in the home, workplace, and classroom, the internet has created a venue for bullies to harass people anonymously, unchecked, and often without consequences. This new digital harassment is called cyberbullying.

What is Cyberbullying? 

Cyberbullying is a form of harassment that occurs on digital devices such as cell phones, laptops, and tablets. It can happen anywhere online where people connect—text, forums, social media, email, online games, etc. 

Given the nature of the internet and the presumption of anonymity it affords, cyberbullying has become its own pandemic. It has contributed to, if not outright caused, many detrimental outcomes for victims such as anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, and academic/work performance difficulties. In some cases, it can also lead to self-harm, increased suicidality, and other forms of violence.

Cyberbullying is a unique kind of harassment because it can include "classic" bullying tactics (name-calling, teasing, violent threats, etc) while incorporating new ones specific to the digital medium. 

Here are just a few cyberbullying tactics:

  • Posting hurtful, mean, or intimate images of another person. 
  • Pretending to be someone else online to gather personal information or post false things about that person.
  • Using the internet to spread false rumors about someone to hurt or embarrass them. 

In many ways, cyberbullying is much more devastating than traditional bullying. Here are a few reasons why:

  1. Bullying online can be done anonymously; perpetrators can hide their identities through anonymous accounts and screen names.  
  2. The hurtful actions of bullies can go viral and spread to a broader audience.
  3.  Perpetrators can bully from a physically distant location and can't see the response or retaliation from their actions. 
  4. It is difficult for authority figures to monitor cyberbullying, and therefore a bully's actions can be left unchecked.

The History of Cyberbullying 

While cyberbullying is a relatively "new" phenomenon, it already has a dark history. With the inception of social media and the wide-spread adoption of cellphones, cyberbullying has evolved into a pervasive issue. 

The history of cyberbullying stretches back to the 1990s when the internet became more widely available and online forums began to grow in popularity. However, it didn't capture public attention until the early 2000s, when the first few cases of suicides related to cyberbullying began to surface. Since then, there have been many tragedies attributed to cyberbullying, such as school shootings and more suicides

What Motivates a Cyberbully? 

In order to end cyberbullying, it's essential to understand why people engage in this kind of behavior. 

People who become cyberbullies are not often people who would bully others in real life. Cyberbullying is easier to engage in and doesn't require the classic power dynamics needed for traditional bullying (popularity and/or physical dominance). It can be done anonymously, and often the perpetrator doesn't witness how their actions impact their victims—making it more emotionally easy to continue.  

The old adage, "hurt people hurt people" is true when it comes to bullies. And while this applies to some instances of cyberbullying, this kind of behavior is more complicated than you'd think. Here are a few reasons people engage in cyberbullying: 

  1. Revenge. Some cyberbullies use the medium to seek revenge against another individual because of an interpersonal conflict, such as a breakup. 
  2. Victimization. Studies show that a percentage of cyberbullies have been bullied themselves and are projecting their feelings of powerlessness and hurt onto others. 
  3. Mental health. Some cyberbullies suffer from mental health issues such as aggression, impulsivity, and substance abuse. As journalist Arlin Cuncic noted, these issues can hint at darker personality disorders like narcissism or psychopathy, and thus lower levels of empathy for victims. 
  4. Loneliness. Feeling alone or socially disconnected can have a tremendous impact on our emotional health and causes some cyberbullies to act out online. 
  5. Boredom. A study done by Dr. Claire Hardaker of Lancaster University found that some cyberbullies act out of boredom, searching for something to entertain themselves with.

How to Help Someone Being Cyberbullied

It can be difficult to bear witness to a loved one experience cyberbullying. You're not powerless, however. StopBullying.gov notes that there are five steps you can take to help someone you love who is being cyberbullied. 

  1. Notice. If you notice behavioral or mood changes in your loved ones, try to see if this behavior is connected to their use of a digital device.  
  2. Talk.  Ask your loved ones questions about their experience. Try to figure out how the bullying is happening, where, and by who. 
  3. Document. Because of the mercurial nature of the internet, documenting instances of cyber abuse is one of the most important steps to getting help. Try to keep a record of the abuse through screenshots of posts or comments.  
  4. Report. Physical threats of violence and criminal behavior should always be reported to the police.
  5. Support. Showing positive public online support of your loved one can help them feel supported and shift the conversation in a more positive direction.

This list includes only a few ways you can help someone who is being cyberbullied. Depending upon the age, orientation, setting, and circumstances there are many other ways to intervene and support. 

If you or a loved one are struggling with the impacts of bullying of any kind, a professional therapist can help you process painful feelings and teach you and your loved ones coping skills for the future. Connect with us today.

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