Online Bullying and Cyberbullying

Find a Psychologist forchildhood and adolescent problems

More than one in five children in the U.S. has been bullied and nearly 40 percent report having been assaulted by other youths, according to 2010 data from the U.S. Department of Justice. The Centers for Disease Control considers bullying to be a major public health problem. Young people victimized by bullies are at increased risk for depression, anxiety, psychosomatic complaints such as headaches and stomachaches as well as poor school adjustment. Youth who bully others are at increased risk for substance use and violence later in adolescence and adulthood. Research indicates that bullied students’ academic performance is adversely affected in schools with high rates of bullying. At the extreme, bullying has been implicated in cases of suicide.

Bullying has been defined as intentional, repetitive, interpersonal aggressive behavior that involves an imbalance of power or strength and includes behaviors such as hitting or punching (physical bullying), teasing or name-calling (verbal bullying), or intimidation through gestures or social exclusion. Bullies often target individuals who are perceived to be “different” in race, national origin, color, religion, appearance or gender expression. Research indicates that bullying can exert a powerful influence on not just the targeted individual but the sideline witness or bystander who can experience stressful vicarious trauma.

Video: Bullying, Broken Down – Overlook Psychologists Helps Explain Why Kids Bully

Today’s technology including email, instant and digital messaging, chat rooms, blogging and website posts has provided vastly more bullying opportunities for a steadily expanding audience. Cyberbullying, or online social cruelty, requires only a phone and a vendetta. The behavior may include posting mean, vulgar or threatening messages or images; sending sensitive, private information about another person; pretending to be someone else in order to devalue a targeted individual; or intentionally excluding someone from an online group. Children as young as 12 have been taking compromising photos of themselves and use their cell phone to send pictures over their phone and computer.

With its 24 hours per day, seven days a week exposure to a “virtual social network” the internet has become the new digital playground and apparently there are no “off hours.” The lack of geographic boundaries and anonymity further complicate the problem. Studies have found that over 50% of young people have not told their parents or any adult about something mean or hurtful that has happened to them online. Young people who are targets of cyberbullying are more likely to report social problems, depressed mood, and feelings of victimization.

The media has highlighted the tragic effects that bullying can have on the well-being and psychological health of targeted individuals. For example, a Rutgers University student committed suicide after his roommate allegedly took a video of his romantic encounter with a man and streamed it on the internet.

To address the severity of bullying and cyberbullying problems, New Jersey’s Legislature drafted a law requiring its public schools to adopt extensive antibullying policies. Although most states have statutes, the New Jersey law requires schools to conduct extensive training of staff and students; appoint safety teams made up of parents, teachers and staff; and launch an investigation of every allegation of bullying. While other states’ laws have similar aims, many lack the rigorous oversight and quick response mechanisms that New Jersey is putting in place. The Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights unambiguously puts the state, school officials and law enforcement on the side of targets—and puts perpetrators on notice.

Unfortunately, legislation alone cannot reduce this pernicious public health problem. In order to create more peaceful school learning environments, a change in culture and commitment to non-violence in schools, workplaces, and homes is needed to achieve this transformation. A culture’s attitudes can change. For example, years ago many thought that smoking was a problem that public opinion could not address. Similarly, workplaces have begun to create a culture that doesn’t support or tolerate interpersonal violence and offers protection to workers. Bullying can no longer be viewed as a “necessary rite of passage” or “business as usual.” For meaningful change to occur, effective anti-bullying programs need to involve the school, home, and community along with students, parents, educators, psychologists, school administrators, and community groups. It is only in this way that we will begin to see a culture change that tolerates no bullying.

The National Crime Prevention Council recommends to parents that they talk to young people about cyberbullying and teach them the rules below to help prevent cyberbullying from happening:

What Kids Need to Know

  • Never give out personal information online, whether in instant message profiles, chat rooms, blogs, or personal websites.
  • Never tell anyone but your parents your password, even friends.
  • If someone sends a mean or threatening message, don’t respond. Save it or print it out and show it to an adult.
  • Never open emails from someone you don’t know or from someone you know is a bully.
  • Don’t put anything online that you wouldn’t want your classmates to see, even in email.
  • Don’t send messages when you’re angry. Before clicking “send” ask yourself how you would feel if you received the message.
  • Always be as polite online as you are in person. Since most cyberbullying takes place at home, it’s important that parents know about cyberbullying and that they get involved in helping prevent it.

The National Crime Prevention Council recommends the following:

What Parents Can Do

  • Keep your home computer in a busy area of your house.
  • Set up email and chat accounts with your children. Make sure that you know their screen names and passwords and that they don’t include any personal information in their online profiles.
  • Regularly go over their list of connections with them. Ask who each person is and how your children know him or her.
  • Discuss bullying and cyberbullying with your children and ask if they have ever experienced it or seen it happen to someone.
  • Emphasize that you won’t blame your children if they are cyberbullied, nor take away their computer privileges. This is the main reason kids don’t tell adults when they are cyberbullied.

Rosalind S. Dorlen, PsyD

Private Practice, Summit, NJ
Fellow, American Psychological Association
Past President, New Jersey Psychological Association
Former Member, National Register of Health Service Psychologists Board of Directors