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How to recognize, prevent, and respond to cyberbullying

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by Jennifer Bridges  @JenBridgesRD

Young girl looks pensively at her phone with other girls in the background. Yellow thought bubble with an exclaimation point and a question mark.

This post has been modified to reflect new information since its original publication.

The dinner table, once a place of laughter and shared stories, now bore witness to a struggle, an eerie silence. As the young adult played with his food, it was clear he was scared to make eye contact with his parents.

As the parents grappled with their own emotions not sure of what was going on, the silence was shattered by the older sister barging in, furious at what she saw on her phone about her little brother.

This is a fictional interpretation of real moments that go on in thousands of homes around the world. And here is another real and horrific truth.

One of the first cases of cyberbullying (online harassment) was that of Ryan Halligan, a 13-year-old autistic boy from New Jersey, who hung himself in 2003 after receiving an onslaught of cruel and humiliating online messages from his classmates. Sadly, stories like his—once unimaginable—are now increasingly common.

According to a Pew Research Center study, nearly half of American teens have experienced cyberbullying. Further, a 2023 study by the Cyberbullying Research Center found that over a quarter of middle school and high school students who reported experiencing cyber bullying said “they had been cyberbullied in the most recent 30 days”.

And it doesn’t just happen to kids; a 2023 study done by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) reveals online harassment is up 12% from 2022 for adults. Now 52% of adults confirm being harassed online in their lifetime.

Given these statistics, it’s very possible that cyberbullying will eventually touch your child’s life in some way. Therefore, it’s essential you learn:

  • How to recognize it
  • What you can do to prevent it
  • The best ways to respond to it

What is cyberbullying or cyber harassment?

Cyberbullying is the act of repeated posting, sending, or otherwise intentionally spreading untrue or mean content online with the goal of harming or humiliating another person. Sometimes, this behavior can be criminal.

In many cases, cyberbullying is an extension of the traditional bullying that already exists—but not always.

Individuals are at risk for cyberbullying anywhere people gather online to share information.

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Some of the most common platforms for cyberbullying include:

  • In-app messaging
  • Text messages
  • Social media posts
  • Forum discussions
  • Gaming messaging/chats
  • Email

Like conventional bullying, online bullying typically involves an aggressor preying on another individual to feel better about his or her own insecurities.

However, the anonymity of the internet makes it much easier for people to attack others without fearing any consequences.

Cyberbullying has certain qualities that can make it particularly brutal for its targets. For example:

  • It’s continuous: Unlike offline bullying, it doesn’t stop at the end of the school day, when students can retreat to the physical safety of their homes. Because most children have 24/7 access to a phone, tablet, or computer at home, there is often no relief from online harassment.
  • It’s easy to overlook: Unlike conventional bullying, cyberbullying is often more difficult to identify and prevent. By the time many parents realize their child is being bullied, the psychological trauma the child has sustained can be overwhelming.

As children are growing into young adults and dealing with so many changes, having this added weight of anxiety can be very difficult to manage without the right help.

Remember the angst of your teenage years? Picture that feeling magnified—with technology being used as a weapon.

What are the effects of cyberbullying?

People who experience cyberbullying undergo emotional, psychological, and physical stress. This can affect many aspects of their lives, especially these areas:

  • Education: Targets can see their grades slipping because they don’t want to go to school and have trouble concentrating when they do go.
  • Mental health: People experiencing cyberbullying might feel depressed, anxious, and frustrated. Sometimes, the pain caused by cyberbullying can become so severe that it can lead to suicide. One case that brought national attention to the issue is that of 13-year-old Megan Meier, who was targeted by an adult cyberbully pretending to be a teenage boy.

This is the reality some children are living in. If you’re not prepared as a parent to look for the signs of cyberbullying, then you might not be equipped to help your child if or when he or she needs it most.

That’s why we’re going to talk about how to recognize when something is going on.

How to tell if your child is cyberbullying or being cyberbullied

It can be hard for parents of middle school and high school children to know what’s going on in their child’s life.

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However, there are some things to look for that might indicate cyberbullying.

If your child is displaying these symptoms, then he or she might be a target of cyberbullying:

  • Suddenly stops using his/her device
  • Appears uneasy when on the device
  • Doesn’t want to leave the house or go to school
  • Avoids talking about his/her online activities
  • Wants to be with family members more than his/her peers

Your child might be harassing others online if he or she does the following:

  • Takes pains to hide his/her screen from you
  • Appears to have multiple accounts or be using someone else’s account
  • Is acting out at school
  • Starts associating with a “bad” group of friends
  • Is overly concerned with his/her social status or popularity

Of course, these behaviors could also point to a number of other concerns, such as depression and social anxiety, which are common among adolescents.

For a full list of signs that might indicate that your child is being cyberbullied or is a cyberbullier, see this handout from the Cyberbullying Research Center (PDF).

What can you do to prevent cyberbullying?

Parenting in America today has changed.

American parents now concern themselves more with bullying/cyberbullying and the mental health of their children over the problems of gun violence and teen pregnancy according to research released in January 2023 from the Pew Research Center.

Below, we do our best to help with the cyberbullying part and provide you with a few ideas you can try that might lessen the chances of your child becoming a target.

1. Talk early and often about cyberbullying

Help your kids understand how to recognize when they’re being cyberbullied by teaching them what is and isn’t acceptable online behavior.

Usually, this is common sense. For example, your kids should already know that telling lies about people is wrong.

Make sure they understand it’s not right to tell lies about people online either.

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Conversely, if someone is spreading lies or rumors about them online, teach them that it’s OK to tell someone.

Often, cyberbullying incidents escalate because a victim seeks to defend him or herself, rather than reporting the attack.

“Talk to kids BEFORE it happens and let them know that if they ever come to you with an issue that they will not be punished for being bullied nor will they lose their device/access to networks.” — Cat Coode, digital privacy expert and founder of Binary Tattoo

You should also introduce the concept of what it means to be an upstander (someone who stands up to bullies).

Explain to your children why it’s important to report and flag any online behavior that seems harsh or cruel.

“Teens who witness cyberbullying of others are often afraid of reporting it to adults fearing that they will become the target.” — Social Assurity, social media strategy firm

2. Join the social network yourself, but in “lurk-only” mode

One of the best ways to understand what goes on inside the social networking world is to join a social networking website yourself.

Your children may bristle at accepting your friend request, but they might accept you if you promise to only be a “lurker” and not a contributor.

Being in “lurk-only” mode means being a completely silent observer.

If you constantly force yourself into your child’s conversations, you might drive him or her to create a new secret account you can’t monitor as easily.

So, avoid the temptation if you want them to trust you. Chances are good that after a few weeks, they won’t even remember you’re there.

3. Monitor your child’s online reputation

One way to prevent cyberbullying from gaining traction is to keep tabs on what people online are saying about your child.

This can help you identify and report abusive behavior before cyberbullies get the chance to spread negative messages across the web.

Luckily, there are several good tools out there to help you:

  • Google Alerts: If you set up an alert for your child’s name, then Google will send you an email whenever someone mentions his or her name online.
  • Talkwalker: An easy-to-use tool, Talkwalker lets you see where your child’s name is appearing across the web and X (Twitter) by simply typing it into the search field.
  • BuzzSumo: A cross between Google Alerts and Social Mention, BuzzSumo lets you search for keywords or sign up for alerts, which you can receive in real time or via a daily digest.

4. Teach your kids about data privacy

One of the cruelest forms of cyberbullying occurs when a bully hijacks another student’s social account, locks them out and then pretends to be the victim.

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By the time your child has regained control of his or her account, his or her name and reputation may be smeared across the internet.

To help ensure that your child’s account doesn’t get hijacked, teach your child the importance of keeping personal information private.

Additionally, work with your child to create a strong password that his or her classmates would be unable to guess.

Some specific tips include using a combination of uppercase and lowercase letters, symbols, and numbers. Another good option is to make a mnemonic phrase into a password (for example: “I, John T. Brown, was born at 5:00 in the AM” becomes “IJTBwb@5itAM”).

How should kids respond to cyberbullying?

The more information your child has, the better equipped he or she will be to respond correctly. Make sure your child knows these smart tips:

1. Don’t respond

Getting into a fight with the person harassing you will only make the problem worse. Not only will it make the cyberbully mad, but it will also give him or her more ammunition to use against you.

“Never respond. This may escalate the issue or provide info the “bully” didn’t have (e.g., other avenues of contact.” — Richard Guerry, digital safety speaker and director of IROC@.org.

It’s best to just disengage completely. However, this can leave you in the dark about what the person is doing. Cybersafety advocate Sue Scheff suggests “If you block, have a friend monitor.” This way, you can know if the person is still spreading hate about you.

2. Save, copy, and print the evidence

Make sure you thoroughly document any cyberbullying behavior so that you can show it to authorities if the need arises.

“Not all documentation is created equal. When documenting online incidents, take screen captures that include the full URL. This can be very helpful for investigative purposes and may even shorten the amount of time to receive information about the perpetrator.” — Lisa-Michelle Kucharz, anti cyberbullying advocate

3. Report the incident on the platform

If you don’t stop the person who is harassing you, then he or she might go on to harass others. However, the instructions for reporting bad behavior are different for each platform. A good resource for finding the correct steps for your particular issue is Internet Trolls – How To Report A Cyberbully.

“cyberbullying = a network contagion” — Romses Rogers, anti-bullying advocate

4. Tell a trusted adult

You don’t necessarily have to talk to your parents, but you need to tell an adult if you are being cyberbullied. This problem can often be too big for a kid to handle without grownup intervention.

“Telling someone offline is as important as reporting online.” — Sue Scheff

How should adults respond to cyberbullying?

When your child tells you he or she is being cyberbullied, you need to act—to stop the bullying and to protect your child’s emotional wellbeing:

1. Take your child’s cyberbullying complaints seriously

Cyberbullies are experts at making their targets feel insecure. Don’t add to your child’s self-doubt by belittling his or her concerns. Instead, reward your child for doing the right thing by coming to you.

2. Tell your child that the cyberbullying is not his or her fault

Often, cyberbullies harm others because it makes them feel more powerful. Make sure your child understands that the problem is with the bully, not with your child. No one deserves to be bullied.

“It is consoling for those being #cyberbullied to know that the attack is much more a reflection on the bullier than the bullied.” — Steve Brock, online interaction authority

3. Learn about your local cyberbullying laws

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You need to know what your child’s legal rights are as a victim of cyberbullying. Not all states have specific laws governing acts of cyberbullying, so you should check with your local police department for more information. You can also check out this state-by-state guide on cyberbullying laws.

If there’s no criminal law protecting cyberbullying in your jurisdiction, there may be a general law covering bullying. In some situations, it’s also possible to sue cyberbullies or their parents in civil court.

4. Tell the school

If your child’s bully attends your child’s school, you can tell school administrators, and they can arrange an intercession. At the very least, they can monitor your child more closely to make sure the bullying doesn’t happen during school hours.

5. Let the police know, if appropriate

In some cases, especially when cyberbullying involves physical threats of violence, pornography, or severe harassment, contacting the police may be an option.

6. Don’t force your child to confront his or her cyberbully at school

Forcing your child to personally engage with his or her cyberbully might make your child feel like a victim all over again.

7. Help your child practice what to say when others ask about the incident

One of the terrible aspects of cyberbullying is how quickly news of an incident can spread. To stop the rumor mill in its tracks, you and your child should prepare a statement that will make the gossip less exciting.

“If the cyberbullying involved a humiliating rumor, help the targeted child come up with a dry, boring story they can repeat to the first 15 people who ask what happened.” — Phyllis Fagell, LCPC‏, education columnist for the Washington Post.

8. Get the parents involved

If you know who the cyberbully is, don’t be afraid to contact his or her parents to try to resolve the issue. However, if you don’t have any substantial proof that a particular child is responsible, it may be a bad idea to confront the parents directly. Consider instead calling or emailing them and respectfully asking for their assistance.

What to do if your child is a cyberbully

It’s hard to not overreact when you discover that your child is harassing others. But the best way to move forward is to stay calm and make a plan of action that includes:

  • The people involved: Obviously, you and your child are on this list. Other people might include a lawyer (if the police have charged him/her with a crime), school administrators, and a counselor or therapist.
  • The consequences: While you might have some ideas for consequences, you’ll also need to take into account any consequences imposed by your child’s school or the courts.
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  • How your child will “fix” it: This involves your child doing his or her best to remove the negative content that he or she posted. The next step is for your child to post messages stating that the malicious content was untrue and apologize for posting it. You might want your child to also perform some kind of community service work if the courts do not assign it.

“Don’t overreact, either as the parent of the bully or the target. Keep a level head to avoid things getting out of hand.” — Joseph Yeager, cyber safety advocate and founder of Safety Net of PA

Cyberbullying resources

If you or your child is dealing with cyberbullying, there are several resources you can turn to for information. These websites are among the most popular:

  • StopBullying.gov: This website from the US Department of Health and Human Services contains helpful information about bullying and cyberbullying and explains your legal rights.
  • Cyberbullying.org: The Cyberbullying Research Center, run by Dr. Sameer Hinduja and Dr. Justin W. Patchin, offers parents, teens, educators, as well as anyone else who works with young people, a multitude of resources to help them identify, prevent, and respond to cyberbullying.
  • Stompoutbullying.org: Founded in 2005, Stomp Out Bullying aims to change the culture to reduce and prevent cyberbullying, bullying, and other digital misbehavior.

For even more laser-focused help, you can have us comb the internet for you, and provide you with a free online reputation report card—a resource many people don’t know about.

This report card can show you how others view your child on the internet right now, giving you a glimpse into what everyone else who searches for your child online sees.

It is a valuable resource (at no cost!) that is perfect for helping you understand your child’s online identity.