Effects of cyberbullying are pernicious, serious, and long-lasting. Half of all teens with Internet access report to researchers that they’ve been cyberbullied, but 90 percent of those say they never reported it to parents or school authorities. There are many consequences of this new problem facing youth, but with concerted efforts the worst outcomes – self-harm and suicide – can be minimized.
Imagine you’re a teen, say around 14 years old. You’re near the end of middle school or maybe just starting high school. You want to fit in and make new friends – who doesn’t? Perhaps you have a crush on a fellow student, someone you want to get to know.
Then you start to get attention, but it’s not the kind of attention you want. You start to read harsh comments about yourself on Instagram and Snapchat, and your incoming texts tell you you’re ugly and no one wants to be your friend. Some of the messages even verge on violence, telling you to stay away from your crush or there will be problems. Some even tell you everything would be better if you weren’t around.
You’re being cyberbullied.
Cyberbullying hits hard and fast. It can rob you of your closest connections and leave you isolated and facing a loss of control over your life. It can catapult you into overwhelming feelings of anxiety and depression. And it can do worse damage. It can traumatize you, make you physically ill, cause you to miss school and perform poorly in class. It can make you feel hurt and angry. And sometimes you may be tempted to turn this anger inward, blaming yourself for being cyberbullied, even taking out it out on yourself through self-harm.
Even worse, every year 4,400 U.S. high school students take their lives. Cyberbullying, often linked with its volatile big brother, “traditional bullying,” contributes to attempted and successful suicides by subjecting its recipients to reactions such as loneliness and isolation, panic and anxiety, sadness and depression. The No.1 factor contributing to teenage suicides is depression.
While traditional bullying has been around forever, cyberbullying is a relatively new phenomenon. It is specifically defined as harassing communications from one minor (under 18 years) to another minor. (Similar behavior when at least one party is over 18 is called cyberstalking or cyber harassment.) Prior to the era of online communications, of course, the means did not exist for bullying to take this form.
Now it’s much different, as teens can be cyberbullied using cellphone cameras, text messages, social media sites, email, IMs, voicemail, and chat rooms. Often cyberbullying takes several forms in a concerted campaign of threats and harassment, leading to feelings that overwhelm targeted kids. They tend to internalize these attacks, which serves to multiply the hurt and leads to loss of secure personal boundaries and isolation from peers.
Cyberbullying victims can often feel terrified. Their distress can escalate into full-scale mental health problems as depression morphs into combined feelings of anger, hopelessness, and loneliness. As the cycle of abuse and harassment continues, some victims lash out, and some even become cyberbullies themselves. But most blame themselves for their predicaments and internalize their growing psychological issues.
Cyberbullying is often silent and hard to notice by parents and teachers, and often the psychological stress goes unreported. That can make it all the more terrifying for its victims, since it can be persistent, often relentless, and can quietly harm students psychologically in ways that, without intervention, might be permanent.
The National Institutes for Health states that cyberbullied young people are at increased risk for mental health problems, physical ailments, problems adjusting to school socially, substance use, academic problems, and violence directed at themselves and others.
By its very nature, cyberbullying hurls negative, false, and/or simply mean comments at its victims, and its intention is to cause social humiliation and embarrassment. In addition to the tactics I’ve already mentioned, this behavior can include threats, ranging from ostracism to physical violence, and even taunts that encourage self-harm or suicide.
Yet another tactic of cyberbullies is the use of false online identities to gain personal information about victims; they then spread this information publicly to intensify the humiliation. There are also many reports of cyberbullies stealing targets’ online identities and creating fake social media profiles to do more damage to the victims’ public reputation.
Some cyberbullies go so far as to create “Hate” sites to amplify the torment and harassment directed at targeted individuals.
Since cyberbullying is so often linked with direct, in-your-face bullying, it’s easy to overlook some of the distinctions between cyber- and traditional bullying. First, and prime among these distinctions is that a victim of cyberbullying may not know – may never know – who their online bully is, or whether it’s just one person or a coordinated effort.
Second, this form of behavior can happen at any time. It’s not just between classes and after school anymore; cyberbullying can happen around the clock, in school and away. It’s not uncommon for traumatized teens to feel that everywhere they turn online there’s more harassment and humiliation.
Finally, it is disturbingly likely that victims may not even know why they are being cyberbullied. They may feel there’s nothing they can do to address or relieve the targeting, because it can start for no stated reason and still develop into multi-platformed personal attacks that do nothing but fling filth at the recipients.
As problematic as cyberbullying is, traditional bullying often has a worse effect on young people. The public humiliation and acts of personal violence associated with traditional bullying behavior are more uniquely associated with negative psychological outcomes than cyberbullying.
Bullies of both the old-fashioned and cyber types thrive on the imbalance of power created by their deeds. They control the levers of offensive behavior and intensity. As their victims respond to, react to, or fight against being bullied, the perpetrator stays in control, manipulating victims’ responses. The more isolated and out of control their targets are, the stronger the bully becomes. Bullies are also intentional about causing harm; they know they’re having a negative impact on their victims’ lives. And that leads to repetition of the attacks. As long as they can, they will keep the pressure on.
One of the sad facts about the phenomenon is that some cyberbullies have been on the other side of the bullying equation. The cyberbullying problem is so large, and seemingly so intractable, that sometimes even the victims have victims. Rather than seek help for their problems, some targeted teens learn from the aggressive behavior of cyberbullies how it’s done. Then, rather than contribute to a process of healing from bullying behavior, they replicate it on others, and feed the cycle. This is similar to what we’ve learned about childhood sexual abuse: Many abusers were themselves abused at a younger age.
I realize this has been quite a downbeat assessment of the cyberbullying crisis, but it’s important not to throw up our hands in defeat. There are solutions to the problems associated with cyberbullying – with help for the victims, and help for the perpetrators, too. All it takes is . . . well, honestly, a lot.
Solving the problems requires sincere, determined, and continuous interventions into the lives of teens, and setting of community standards that discourage both traditional bullying and cyberbullying. And since some tactics of cyberbullying – threats, intimidation, chronic harassment – are illegal, there is a role for legislative bodies to step in and target those of any age whose behavior steps over into criminality.
In New Jersey, for example, a tough anti-bullying law was passed in 2011. This law does a number of things to address problems arising from all kinds of bullying. It mandates:
Online social media platforms also have a responsibility. Many teens report that Instagram, for example, has made public stands against cyberbullying, but users have found ways to subvert the system. They spread hatred and intimidation to parts of the site – like DMs (direct messages) and comments on friends’ posts – that Instagram “bullying monitors” are less likely to watch. Sites like these must respond more effectively to complaints and take a more proactive role in deleting so-called “hate pages” that quickly crop up on such platforms.
On a more personal level, experts highly recommend therapy for all those involved in bullying. Victims need assistance to recover from the terrible damage done to their feelings of self-worth and self-esteem, and to relieve the depression, long-term anxiety, and emotional isolation they suffer. Untreated, the effects of this traumatic behavior will follow teens into their adult lives.
Also, families of both victims and perpetrators often need assistance in keeping open lines of communication among family members. And the bullies themselves require psychological assessment and treatment, as well.
Schools, more than any other institution, must encourage and devote resources to building networks of support to keep cyberbullying under control. It’s their job to set the tone for a healthy community by providing effective means for traumatized teens to report problems in a safe, supportive environment.
Only then can we begin to get a handle on this pervasive threat to community health and safety.
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