Over the last 20 years, there has been a substantial growth in the number of people using various forms of digital technology and in today’s society, many people have several electronic devices that they come to rely on to organise many aspects of their lives.
This is likely to include work, education and their social lives, where they can take advantage of many communication channels and direct messenger options to stay in touch with people anywhere at any time. (2)
The negative side of technology
Unfortunately, there is a massive downside to this technology and the same technology that allows us to stay in touch with significant people in our lives also means that we can be easily reached by individuals who wish to cause us harm and psychological distress.
Cyberbullying is an example of such a phenomenon that has appeared over the last decade and its consequences can have a very debilitating effect on the lives of people who find themselves victims of this behaviour.
The fact that online social media technology helps to create a global community where people can communicate with people across physical geographical boundaries can be considered a good thing, but the downside of that is a great number of people can also gain access to negative content posted about people. (3)
What is cyberbullying?
Cyberbullying has been defined as a form of sustained, personal persecution aimed at an individual or group of people that takes place via a range of electronic and digital platforms.
It tends to be a very repetitive act with offenders launching a sustained campaign of harmful communication designed with the intent of causing the victim psychological distress.
1. Cyberbullying leads to victims experiencing mental distress and humiliation.
Cyberbullies aim to harass, threaten and humiliate their targets and set about victimising them regularly with malicious content, and will often encourage other people to join in their bullying campaign against them, making the victim feel alone and isolated. (1,2)
Cyberbullies therefore can cause people highly damaging mental distress by exposing their victims to public humiliation if they post videos and content that shows them in an embarrassing or vulnerable light. (2,3)
In previous years before the development of sophisticated digital technologies bullying was only apparent when the perpetrator and victim were in close proximity, whether this was in school, college/university, the workplace or a social setting.
However technological advances mean that the perpetrator and victim do not have to be physically near to each other for bullying to occur.
Victims can be reached in their own homes around the clock, so if they regularly spend time online they can be easily targeted relentlessly with no hiding place or rest bite from their tormentors.
Where and how does cyberbullying take place?
One of the main platforms that cyberbullying takes place on is social media sites such as Facebook, Instagram, Tiktok and Snapchat.
Cyberbullying tends to occur on the following platforms:
- Email and texts if the offenders manage to get hold of your personal information.
- Posting malicious or humiliating content about the victim on social media pages can be in text and audio form.
- Messaging apps.
- Internet Chat forums.
- WhatsApp group messages.
- Gaming networks.
- Texts on personal phones. (2,4)
Cyberbullying involves different types of toxic behaviour, including:
- Use of inflammatory language to provoke a negative emotional reaction in the victim, a behaviour known as “Flaming”,
- Revealing sensitive personal information, possibly relating to the victim’s sexual choices, a medical condition, mental health issue or learning difficulty/developmental disorder.
- Making a large number of people aware of an event, situation or behaviour that the victim was involved in may cause them a great deal of embarrassment, or show them in a negative light to others.
- Issuing threats of physical harm.
- Racist, sexist and homophobic comments or taunting them about a personal issue.
- Spreading untrue rumours.
- Posting explicit/compromising images of the victim without their consent, for example, revenge porn.
- Excluding the victim from group community chats/forums and online activities, they like to alienate their victims to cut off any support they may have.
Cyberbullying involves constant harassment which escalates over time
Cyberstalking tends to be constant and in many cases even though some of the initial messages may seem innocent enough the offender will be very persistent with their messaging and seek to invade personal boundaries with their messages.
Over time the offenders will gradually escalate the behaviour which will take on a more sinister tone before they finally start issuing dangerous threats which make the victim feel anxious and afraid.
Cyberbullies sometimes use fake profiles.
Some offenders set up fake social media accounts which deceive the online world into thinking that the account is the genuine account of the victims that the perpetrator is targeting.
The perpetrator then proceeds to send hurtful messages to close friends and family of the targeted person, so the recipients believe the messages are from the victim. (3,5)
How is cyberbullying different to in-person bullying?
Many researchers who have investigated the area of cyberbullying have suggested that this form of bullying is more stressful than face-to-face bullying. There are several reasons why this could be the case:
- There is no rest from bullying, which can be relentless.
- Far more people can see the personal information cyberbullies have revealed.
- Cyberbullying can intrude on your personal space, and you can be targeted in your own home.
- The offender can be anonymous, so you do not know who they are.
- People can suffer a high degree of humiliation due to online exposure. (1,3)
Victims of Cyberbullying
Cyberbullies generally seek to target people that may appear different, this may relate to dress sense, hairstyle and social class or even someone that is involved in activities or causes that the bully does not approve of.
The following people are commonly targeted by cyberbullies:
- Cyberbullies target shy people and introverts who choose not to be as social as others. This can include people diagnosed with a specific learning difficulty such as dyslexia or a developmental disorder such as ADHD.
- A significant proportion of cyberbullying victims are from low-income households in areas of poverty.
- Research into the area of cyberbullying has revealed that children between the ages of 13 and 15 are the most likely to become victims of cyberbullying.
- Females are more likely to be the targets of cyberbullies than males, particularly in terms of the use of explicit images and material to cause them psychological harm.
- Members of the LGBTQ+ group are likely to be a target for online bullies.
- Research suggests that many victims of cyberbullying tend to spend a lot of their time on the internet and social media sites. (3,4)
Consequences/effects of cyberbullying
Victims of cyberbullying can become highly traumatised by the experience and suffer physical and psychological consequences as a result.
1. Physical consequences
Victims become physically tired and may find it difficult to sleep because the persecution against them can be relentless and never-ending. The longer the behaviour carries on the more of a toll it will take on a person’s physical health.
2. Increases in stress and anxiety.
Because of this they may lose focus on their school, or college work, or underperform at work. This is because of the constant feeling of worry that takes over their mind which may leave them in a permanent state of hypervigilance and anxiety as they wait for the next contact from the offender.
Other consequences of cyberbullying
- Increased likelihood of depression as their constant worrying will eventually turn inwards and they become depressed.
- Prone to experiencing a low mood, indicated by feeling sad, empty, lonely and hopeless.
- Develop a mental health condition such as anxiety, depression and social phobia.
- Changes in weight, either weight gain or weight loss.
- Insomnia or hypersomnia, is unable to sleep or tending to sleep for too long.
- Psychomotor retardation, which is a deterioration in the speed of your physical and mental functioning.
- Fatigue and loss of energy.
- Prone to having regular suicidal thoughts.
- Suffer a serious decline in their self-esteem and confidence.
- Turn to substances to cope with their mood and anxiety.
- Lose concentration and motivation for school and work/career, resulting in a decline in performance.
- Lose interest in pleasurable leisure activities that they previously enjoyed which formed an important part of their overall well-being.
- May withdraw socially, and not go to school or work as a result of being bullied particularly if sensitive and embarrassing information about them was revealed that people in their wider circle are now aware of.
- Self-harm, including cutting, banging your head against objects, and hitting yourself.
- In extreme cases have thoughts about suicide.
The severity of the consequences will depend on how long the cyberbullying carries on, the nature of the cyberbullying, and whether are they well supported and have people around them that they can talk to, including friends, family and professional therapists. (2,3,4,6)
Why do perpetrators of cyberbullying behave this way?
Many reasons have been put forward by researchers who have investigated the profile of people who become cyberbullies and their research has revealed that:
Many cyberbullies have been found to have negative traits and behaviours associated with poor mental health and developmental disorders, examples of these traits include aggression, hyperactivity and impulsivity. (2,4,6)
Perpetrators of cyberbullying have also been found to possess traits that feature in what psychologists refer to as the “dark triad” which is indicative of narcissistic, Machiavellianism (cold and manipulative behaviour), and psychopathic behaviour.
People who fall into this category tend to have very little empathy so will not care about how the consequences that their behaviour has on their victims.
Research has revealed that the perpetrators of cyberbullying may fall into the following categories:
- Are prone to hyperactivity and impulsivity.
- Have problems expressing any aggressive tendencies outwardly.
- They may struggle with mental health/substance abuse issues.
- They are usually non-confrontational and lack the potential to be assertive. (4,5)
Research has indicated that many people who engage in cyberbullying:
1. Are lonely and/or isolated.
Some people who are lonely and depressed may target others to make themselves feel better, and they may encourage others to join in with them as well to strengthen their bonds with a group of people at the expense of the victim.
2. They may have been victims of bullying/cyberbullying in the past.
It is not uncommon for cyber bullies to have experienced cyberbullying or face-to-face bullying in their own lives. They may find this stressful and not know how to deal with it, so in order to gain some sort of control (which they lacked when they were bullied) they target another person and take their frustrations and resentments out on them.
This transfers their feelings onto another person who gets to experience how they were feeling but for some reason were unable to express. (4)
3. Suffer from boredom/ low self-esteem.
Targeting others provides cyberbullies with a sense of power and control when their non-virtual life might be sadly lacking in fulfilling activities and meaningful relationships. They, therefore, need something to do to occupy them where they can exercise some control over at least one aspect of their lives.
4. They like being anonymous.
The internet allows people to remain anonymous and still feel good about themselves by persecuting other people. This fits in with their inability to outwardly express how they are feeling as the anonymity provided by the ease of setting up social media accounts enables them to avoid face-to-face encounters with the victim and bully them from afar.
The fact that they are unable to assert themselves in real life away from their online persona will strengthen the likelihood that they will seek a means to exert their power on a platform where they can remain anonymous, the so-called “keyboard warrior”. (1,2)
5. Start a bullying campaign after a conflict or break-up.
Many cyberbullies will have at some stage been in a relationship with their victim and their relationship, whether it be close friends or of a romantic nature would have turned sour after a miscommunication or breach of trust.
If the wronged party possesses a psychological profile that includes narcissism, and psychopathy and shows tendencies towards passive-aggressive behaviour then it is strongly likely that they will react negatively to the break-up and engage in a campaign of cyberbullying against the person they feel (in their eyes) has wronged them. (2)
What should I do if I am a victim of cyberbullying?
There are some things that you can do if you become a victim of cyberbullying. This includes the following:
- Do not respond to the cyberbullying, if the perpetrator(s) can see you are upset they will only be motivated to carry on.
- Do not blame yourself or think that any of this is your fault, the problem is with the perpetrator.
- If you are being cyberbullied by school or college peers then contact the relevant educational institution and inform them of what is happening.
- Keep a record of all the cyberbullying you have experienced, for example, take screenshots and save audio and video files if they have been used to cause you harm.
- If you have been physically threatened online then contact the police and let them know what has happened.
- If you feel you are being bullied online by work colleagues inform the human resource department of the organisation you are employed by and ask them to investigate your claims.
- Report the perpetrators to the social media companies’ administrative department or safety centre if they have one. Do this as early as possible when you suspect you are the target of cyber bullies so that it can be dealt with immediately before it causes you further duress and affects your physical and mental health.
- Taking control and investigating your options to deal with the situation will boost your self-esteem and confidence. Taking decisive action can be very empowering and by taking control you can limit the harm to your mental health.
- Keep personal information that could be exposed online confidential and well protected, and seek advice from social media sites on how to adjust your privacy settings so you can control who can view your account.
- You can also adjust your settings to ensure certain people are blocked from viewing certain posts and information you share.
- Block or report people who behave in a way you don’t like, several social media sites now offer this option.
- Refuse requests and ignore messages and communications from people whom you do not know well or trust.
- It is imperative that you do not try and deal with this alone, you should tell someone close to you what is happening and draw on as strong a social support network as possible. (2,3,7)
Seeking support can be very beneficial
Recent research has revealed that certain protective factors can play a vital role in supporting victims of cyberbullying which can act as a buffer against any negative psychological consequences.
Being brave enough to ask for support from parents or significant adults and teachers can make the victims feel supported which means that they are less likely to suffer severe mental health difficulties. However difficult it is for young people to admit they are being bullied the support they will receive from their parents and teachers will ensure a more positive outcome overall compared with if they kept it to themselves. (3,7)
Teachers can play a key supportive role
Teachers have an important role to play in supporting adolescent victims of cyberbullying as in a large percentage of cases the victim and offender are in the same school or college even though the bullying took place in the virtual world outside of school. (6)
It is also possible that victims with strong peer friendship groups can also draw support and courage from their close friends if they can confide in them. What is very clear is that keeping the fact that you are being cyberbullied to yourself and not telling anyone can be very harmful which will only exacerbate any mental health difficulties the victim is experiencing. (3,7)
What can parents do?
- Many parents are unable to match their children’s knowledge and expertise in using technology and so may not be aware of how dangerous and harmful it can be. It may be useful for parents to familiarise themselves with the latest technologies to see what kind of information is posted online and whether they feel it will place their child and the family as a whole in a vulnerable position. (2,7)
- It is best to advise your child not to accept requests from someone they do not know, or only know partially well. It may make children feel good if they receive a request from someone they perceive as popular or attractive, but their intentions may not be so friendly.
- Ensure you or your children check with friends (or friends’ parents) if you have received a request to connect as many cyberbullies use fake accounts to access their targets.
- Talk to them and work with them to help them manage their privacy settings, most technology companies are starting to offer clear advice and guidance on this, but it can be difficult to find this information. It’s a good idea to ask any of your friends or work colleagues if they can offer any advice to you. Schools, colleges and Universities are also recognising this as a mental health issue and have started to draft policies and advice to protect students in their online world.
- Have a conversation with your child about the nature of the content they post online and consider the possible consequences in the future.
- Advise your child to be wary of how the camera and audio can be used against them when they interact with other people online, and to be aware of how they behave while the camera is live. The sessions may be recorded and used against them so it’s important to be alert at all times. (7)
Organisations that offer support for victims of cyberbullying
Unfortunately, the growth of the internet and social media technology means that more people are susceptible to online bullying but because this unacceptable behaviour is rapidly increasing more is being done to bring the crime into public awareness due to several high-profile cases that draw attention to the behaviour.
There are now organisations and charities that offer support, information and guidance to people who have fallen victim to cyberbullies, including:
(1) Cassidy, W., Faucher, C., Jackson, M. (2013) Cyberbullying among youth: A comprehensive review of current international research and its implications and application to policy and practice. School Psychology International. Vol 34. Issue 6 available@Cyberbullying among youth: A comprehensive review of current international research and its implications and application to policy and practice – Wanda Cassidy, Chantal Faucher, Margaret Jackson, 2013 (sagepub.com)
(2) Dehue, F, Bolman, C., Völlink, T. (2008) Cyberbullying: Youngsters’ Experiences and Parental Perception. Cyber Psychology and Behaviour Vol 11 no 2. available@Cyberbullying: Youngsters’ Experiences and Parental Perception | CyberPsychology & Behavior (liebertpub.com)
(3) Hellfeldt, K. Lopez-Romero, L., Andershed, H. (2020) Cyberbullying and Psychological Well-being in Young Adolescence: The Potential Protective Mediation Effects of Social Support from Family, Friends, and Teachers. Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. 17(1). Available@Cyberbullying and Psychological Well-being in Young Adolescence: The Potential Protective Mediation Effects of Social Support from Family, Friends, and Teachers – PMC (nih.gov)
(4) Foody, M., Samara, M., Carlbring, P. (2015) A review of cyberbullying and suggestions for online psychological therapy. Internet Interventions. Vol 2 Issue 3 (September). available@A review of cyberbullying and suggestions for online psychological therapy – ScienceDirect
(5) Mitchell K.J., Ybarra M., Finkelhor D. The relative importance of online victimization in understanding depression, delinquency, and substance use. Child Maltreat. 2007;12:314–324. doi: 10.1177/1077559507305996
(6) Tokunaga, R. (2010) Following you home from school: A critical review and synthesis of research on cyberbullying victimization. Computers in Human Behaviour. Volume 26 Issue 3 available@Following you home from school: A critical review and synthesis of research on cyberbullying victimization – ScienceDirect
(7) UNICEF (2022) Cyberbullying: What is it and how to stop it. available@Cyberbullying: What is it and how to stop it | UNICEF