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Cyberbullying: How to identify and handle online harassment

Ari Howard

Jul 17, 2021 — 6 min read

Almost half of U.S. students report they were bullied in some way online during the pandemic lockdown.

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Similar to how a playground or workplace bully will terrorize someone in person, a cyberbully will harass and threaten their targets through various forms over the internet.

As our world becomes increasingly digital, dangers like cyberbullying that plague the online world continue to increase as well. COVID-19 unfortunately exacerbated online bullying since millions of students were exclusively taking courses online and relying on the internet for most types of social interaction. 

This increase in screen time throughout 2020 caused an immense spike in cyberbullying, with nearly 50% of students between the ages of 10 and 18 reporting that they were cyberbullied during the pandemic. In fact, the amount of reported bullying and hate speech on online chats increased by 70% in 2020. 

What is cyberbullying and what does it look like?

Even though cyberbullying isn’t face-to-face, the effects can still be detrimental to the person experiencing the bullying. In fact, emotional distress can be even more severe when online bullying occurs anonymously. And the bullying is more likely to occur for a longer stretch of time since there are no immediate repercussions for a cyberbully. 

Cyberbullying can occur through various online avenues, but here are some of the most common forms of cyberbullying among kids and teens:

  • Cyberbullying through chat rooms associated with work or school topics
  • Harassment on social media platforms 
  • Online rumors 
  • Purposefully leaving someone out of a chat or online group
  • Threatening emails 
  • Anonymous apps 
  • Harmful text messages 
  • Compromising pictures 
Types of cyberbullying

What are the effects of cyberbullying?

When you are the target of cyberbullying, it can feel like you have no online safe place to retreat. You may feel like you can’t escape since cyberbullying doesn’t always have a face or provide anything tangible to confront. The long-term effects on an individual can be devastating and can include:

  • Emotional abuse: feeling hurt and ashamed of being who you are and what you stand for. This can lead to losing interest in the things that you love.
  • Physical abuse: feelings of being overwhelmed that can lead to fatigue, sleepless nights, headaches, stomach aches and panic attacks.
  • Mental abuse: Uncontrolled anger, feelings of inadequacy, embarrassment and more can lead the victim to shut down completely. 

What to do if you are being bullied online 

The most important thing to remember is that even though you are a target of cyberbullying, this is not your fault and you are never alone. 

Here are some of the most important next steps you should take:

  • Remain calm and make sure to breathe 
  • Try not to reply to any threatening or antagonizing comment
  • Record any information that you can and save screenshots
  • Block and don’t communicate with the bully 
  • Make sure you know who your friends are 
  • Talk to a trusted adult 
  • Report the abuse and move forward with next steps 

What next steps look like

There are no federal laws against cyberbullying so what future steps can look like for you will depend on your state’s laws. However, a good place to start is by reporting bullying to your school district. They will be able to conduct an investigation for you and walk you through the whole process. 

How to ask for help from a trusted adult 

If you are experiencing bullying, it’s not always easy to talk to someone else about it or bring it to a trusted adult, but there are steps you can take. Here are some of the best things to keep in mind: 

  • Have a game plan and choose a time to talk to your chosen adult and make sure to explain that you are having a problem and may need their help 
  • They might not always know what new technology is out there, so be prepared to explain how the platform works and try to tell them everything
  • They might not immediately have the right information to help, but you can work together to solve this situation and become one step closer to helping yourself 

Distinguish the difference

Sometimes, a person’s inappropriate sense of humor or maturity level can lead to a misconception that they are being purposefully hurtful toward you. 

If you know this person and are having trouble identifying their motives, it can be useful to let them know how they are coming across to you. 

Simply telling the person that their comment was hurtful and asking them if that’s how they meant it to come across is enough for the unintentional bullying to immediately stop. 

If the person continues this behavior after you have talked to them, then this is cyberbullying. Stop engaging with them and gain the support of a trusted adult.

Ways to prevent future cyberbullying

You do not have to feel stifled or that you cannot be yourself while sharing information online, but there are ways to protect yourself and your information from being manipulated 

  • Understand what makes you comfortable and happy when sharing information, but be cautious when sharing anything online because it may stay online forever and could be harmful later.
  • Don’t give out personal information
  • Set certain preferences on your account so you can control who sees your information or comments both directly and indirectly
  • Know the ways you can report certain comments and adjust your privacy setting to best suit your situation 
  • It is okay to unfriend or block individuals if you are not feeling comfortable
  • Choose who you want to see your posts/comments and be selective with your friends

How to help if you see or know someone who is being bullied

People who are being bullied tend to isolate themselves and feel very alone. Therefore, just by reaching out or acknowledging the issue can help the person significantly. Here are some of the best ways to help someone who is experiencing online bullying: 

  • Let the individual know that what is happening is not okay and that it is not their fault 
  • Be open-minded and don’t assume you will know the whole story
  • Ask them how they are feeling and listen to their answers
  • Offer to talk through the situation and go with them to find help 
  • Keep the conversation positive and emphasize your willingness to help 
  • Do the research on how you can help and where you can direct an individual to help themselves
How to tell if someone is being cyberbullied

How the digital divide affects cyberbullying 

Although the COVID-19 pandemic intensified cyberbullying as a result of students needing to be online more frequently each day, the students who are often the victims of cyberbullying are those who lack consistent access to the internet. The digital divide that exists between those who have internet and device access and those who don’t not only affects learning opportunities, but also social interactions. 

The students who are not able to consistently talk to their peers because they lack the internet access to do so, tend to be more isolated socially and, therefore, can be more likely to be the victims of cyberbullying. 

The pandemic added more urgency to the argument to swiftly close the digital divide  as students’ education, social lives and emotional well-being are more on the line than ever before.

Resources

If you are a victim of cyberbullying or know someone who is, here are some of the best resources for help. 

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Illustration of a father and daughter in a living room. The father is sitting in an armchair and reading a newspaper, and the daughter is playing with a toy on the floor.
Ari Howard

Written by:

Ari Howard

Associate Writer, Broadband & Wireless Content

Ari is an Associate Writer for the Allconnect team, focusing on broadband and wireless news, as well as broadband and TV provider deals. She recently graduated from Davidson College with a bachelor’s degree in… Read more

Robin Layton

Edited by:

Robin Layton

Editor, Broadband Content

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