What Are the Effects of Cyberbullying?

August 17, 2020

Clinical Contributors to this Story

Eric C. Alcera, M.D. contributes to topics such as Behavioral Health.

When you were a kid, you may have seen or experienced bullying in school or on the playground. Today, a digital form of bullying, known as cyberbullying, has allowed bullying behavior to extend its reach beyond these traditional venues.

Because most children, tweens and teens have smartphones and access to computers, they’re able to bully, or be bullied, through virtual means.

The principles of cyberbullying are similar to real-world bullying: Someone repeatedly picks on, harasses, intimidates, threatens or humiliates a particular child, with the intent to harm or isolate that child. But instead of happening face-to-face, cyberbullying is done via text messages, social media posts, gaming chatroom conversations and more.

Cyberbullying attacks are launched at any time of the day or night, and are delivered in a format that is challenging to defend oneself. When something toxic is posted on social media, hundreds or thousands of kids may see it within a short period of time, and there are no teachers or authority figures to intervene when someone is targeted. Sometimes, cyberbullying is anonymous, so your child may not even know who’s targeting them. And the anonymity of online bullying and the ability to inflict emotional harm on anyone, anywhere, at any time can be difficult if not impossible to prevent.

“In some ways, cyberbullying can be worse or more extreme than in-person bullying, because there’s no break from it when you go home from school. People will do and say hurtful or demeaning things online that they would never say in person,” says Eric Alcera, M.D., medical director for Hackensack Meridian Behavioral Health. “Also, if a cyberbully decides to spread rumors or share embarrassing photos on social media, the words or images can go viral, hitting the radar of many more kids within minutes than would be possible with in-person interactions.”

Effects of Cyberbullying on Targeted Kids

Being targeted by a cyberbully may increase your child’s risk of anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, or even feelings of worthlessness. If your child is being cyberbullied, their behavior may change in these possible ways:

  • Avoiding talking to friends or socializing
  • Seeming especially quiet or withdrawn at home, or isolating in their room
  • Losing interest in activities that previously gave them joy
  • Inability to concentrate on schoolwork or homework
  • Falling grades
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Desire to skip school or avoiding school related activities
  • Seeming angry or upset whenever they look at their phone
  • Exhibiting secretive behavior about what they’ve seen or done on their phone
  • Abruptly stop using their phone
  • Use of drugs or alcohol
  • Saying things about life being meaningless or talk about suicide

“Parents should keep an eye out for signs like these so that they can talk to their child about the situation and take steps to help improve things,” says Dr. Alcera. “Being bullied may be one of the hardest things for children to discuss with parents. The topic alone may be embarrassing for them or something they don’t want to admit.”

What Parents Can Do About Cyberbullying

Many kids who are targeted by cyberbullies don’t tell their parents about it. If you suspect a problem, have a gentle, open and honest conversation to figure out what’s happening. Some kids may worry that a parent’s involvement could make the situation worse, but there are steps that you can take to help. Try these approaches:

  • When your child talks about the problem, really listen, and be supportive of their feelings
  • Validate their worth and help them understand that bullying is not about them, it is about issues the person bullying them is having in their life
  • Figure out together what to do to help your child feel safe
  • Change the privacy controls on your child’s social media accounts, limiting who can contact them and blocking cyberbullies
  • Gather evidence of cyberbullying incidents, including screenshots, plus the times and dates of attacks
  • If the cyberbully goes to your child’s school, contact school administrators; schools have anti-bullying/cyberbullying policies
  • If cyberbullying takes place through an app or platform, report the content to the provider, which will be in violation of its terms of services
  • If cyberbullying includes threats of physical violence, contact your local police department
  • Help your child heal emotionally, with the help of a mental health professional, if needed
  • Consider using a parental control app that screens texts, apps and social media platforms for signs of cyberbullying

“Parents and children can work together to get through the situation,” says Dr. Alcera. “Listening and being supportive can help your child begin to heal emotionally, and other measures should help to stem the cyberbullying incidents. Young people in the formative years of life are especially susceptible to being influenced by what others think of them, even strangers. Just like a generation ago when a schoolyard bully was picking on others to cover up their own insecurities, helping your child understand that being the target of bullying does not reflect on them is a challenge, but helping your child build a strong sense of self and feel supported are important”.

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The material provided through HealthU is intended to be used as general information only and should not replace the advice of your physician. Always consult your physician for individual care.