Teen girl looking at her smartphone

Youth bullying is no longer limited to the big kid stealing lunch money from a smaller student, or a popular kid spreading rumors about a peer to damage their reputation. While traditional bullying – such as these examples – remains a challenge, there is a newer bullying threat happening to our children today on phones and other connected devices. It’s called cyberbullying.

Cyberbullying involves repeated aggressive behavior that takes place over digital devices like cell phones, computers, tablets and gaming systems. It can occur through text messages and social media, in apps or online games where people can view, share and interact with content. Cyberbullying includes posting, sending or sharing mean, negative or false information about someone else with the intent of causing them harm or embarrassment.

The Center for Violence Prevention at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia has studied cyberbullying and developed a number of new programs and resources aimed at reducing its incidence and impact. Here, these experts share key findings and suggestions for families.

Defining cyberbullying

Cyberbullying is the willful or intentional harm inflicted upon another using computers, cell phones and other electronic devices. It can range in severity from mild to severe, can be done anonymously and because it's online, can be seen (and shared) by a wide audience.

Cyberbullying can happen anytime, anywhere and the victim often can’t get away or take a break. Cyberbullying is common on popular teen apps like TikTok, Snapchat, Twitter and Instagram, and can invade online gaming communities as well.

How does cyberbullying affect kids?

Cyberbullying has consequences for everyone involved – the victims, perpetrators and bystanders.

Kids who are victims of cyberbullying are more likely to experience:

  • Depression, anxiety, loneliness and decreased self-esteem
  • Changes in their eating and sleeping patterns
  • Frequent health complaints including headaches and stomach aches
  • A loss of interest in activities they used to enjoy
  • Changes to their online habits, such as checking social media more frequently
  • A decline in academic performance

The effects of bullying can last into adulthood. A small number of victims of bullying may retaliate with violence, and victims of cyberbullying are eight times more likely to carry a weapon to school than their peers.

Kids who bully or cyberbully others are more likely to:

  • Get into fights, vandalize property and drop out of school
  • Abuse alcohol and other drugs during adolescence and as adults
  • Have criminal convictions and traffic citations as adults
  • Be abusive toward their romantic partners, spouses or children as adults

Kids who witness the repeated bullying or cyberbullying of peers are more likely to:

  • Use tobacco, alcohol or other drugs
  • Experience depression, anxiety and other mental health problems
  • Miss or skip school

Responding to cyberbullying: tips for parents

If you suspect your child has been involved in cyberbullying – no matter their role – it is important to take it seriously and investigate as soon as possible.

Focus on facts. Ask your child questions to better understand the cyberbullying incident or incidents, when it started, how long it’s been going on and how your child has responded to this point.

Remain calm. Take a deep breath before responding to the situation that your child is explaining. If your child sees you calm, it will make them feel more comfortable and secure about your ability to help.

Withhold judgement. Ask clarifying questions if needed to help you fully understand the situation but try hard not to inject your feelings or beliefs into the situation.

Validate your child’s feelings. Help them name their feelings – i.e., scared, frustrated, sad, alone. Let them know their feelings are OK, whatever they may be.

Offer love and support. Tell your child that you love and care about them and that you will help them figure out what to do next.

Teach them coping strategies. You can help your child come up with strategies to deal with cyberbullying and future bullying incidents. All About Bullying: Stopping Bullying, part of the series of bullying prevention handouts from CHOP, is written for youth and offers helpful tips to avoid bullying, how to manage it if it does happen, and when to get help from a teacher, parent or other adult. To access the full series of handouts as well as bullying prevention workshops for parents and caregivers, visit the Center for Violence Prevention’s Tools page.

Talk to a professional. If cyberbullying is having a substantial impact on your child’s mental or physical health, encourage or arrange for your child to talk to a school counselor, psychologist or private therapist.

Get the authorities involved. If the cyberbullying is repeated, relentless or potentially illegal, talk to school administrators, the police and/or notify the specific social media sites involved about the inappropriate posts. Try to keep documentation of the situation. Do not directly contact the bully or their parents (even if known); let the school or police handle that part of the investigation.

Refrain from taking away your child’s phone. While taking your child’s smartphone or internet privileges away may seem like a good short-term solution to stop the harmful messages from getting to them, it can also make your child feel more isolated and less comfortable sharing things with you in the future.

For more information

CHOP’s Center for Violence Prevention has created a series of education fact sheets for families, youth and educators including:

Contributed by: Courtney Calloway, MSEd, and Brooke Paskewich, PsyD

Courtney Calloway is a School Intervention Coach II; Brooke Paskewich is Director of Operations for School-Based Bullying and Social-Emotional Learning, both with the Center for Violence Prevention at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.

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