Online Safety and Wisdom: Cyberbullying Part 1
What Is Cyberbullying, Really?
Chances are, you’ve heard this term, which refers to sending or posting harmful material or being socially aggressive using the Internet or other digital technology. This can include slurs, mean comments, jokes, innuendos, unwelcome comments, pranks, and more. In other words, cyberbullying is just bullying, but in an online format.
More Common than You Think
In a 2019 study by the Cyberbullying Research Center, 37 percent of students between the ages of 12 and 17 reported having been cyberbullied. The same study found that males and females were at similar risk for cyberbullying, with 38.7 percent of female participants and 34.5 percent of male participants reporting that they’d been bullied online, though the types of cyberbullying they’re likely to experience differs. Females report higher rates of someone spreading rumors about them online, while males report higher rates of someone threatening to hurt them online. Bottom line? Cyberbullying is a significant problem for today’s middle and high school students, with both males and females at significant risk.
At this point you might be thinking, “All right, so some kids are saying mean things about some other kids online. What’s the big deal? Isn’t bullying just part of growing up?” I remember hearing this line of reasoning from my homeroom teacher when I was in public high school. All students were required to participate in a facilitated discussion on bullying and cyberbullying in an effort to quell some issues in the school, but my teacher scoffed at the material and told us that we just had to “toughen up.” While encouraging kids to be strong may be well intended, research suggests that adults should be taking cyberbullying much more seriously than this.
No Laughing Matter
According to a research paper published in the Canadian Journal of Psychiatry, “being the victim of bullying, including cyberbullying, is associated with significant short- and long-term mental and physical health issues and academic achievement problems.” The researchers found that cyberbullied youth report higher levels of depression and anxiety, emotional distress, suicidal ideation and attempts, somatic complaints, poorer physical health, along with increased delinquency and substance abuse when compared with their non-bullied peers. One 2018 study estimates that students who experience cyberbullying are twice as likely to attempt suicide, which has become the second leading cause of death for people between the ages of 10 and 24 in the U.S., having increased 56 percent over the last ten years. If your child is not on the receiving end, it may be worth considering whether he or she is leaving unkind comments. Statistically speaking, many students are, and they may be unaware of how serious the impacts could be on the other end of the screen.
“I think parents are aware that their children are online and using social media,” Trinity counselor Nancy Linton said. “But I think many parents are not as aware of how nonstop that is and how many people it includes. Because they’re still maturing, students often make comments about other students, and unfortunately, it’s not uncommon that they say hurtful things. And since COVID isolation has caused an increase in social media usage, I fear that it may also have increased the amount of cyberbullying taking place.”
Put simply, whether or not parents are aware of it, cyberbullying is an all-too-common reality among students—a reality that can have serious and sometimes fatal impacts for its victims. And while bullying has always been around, studies suggest that an online format increases the severity of its impacts.
Hiding Behind a Screen
According to the same paper in the Canadian Journal of Psychiatry, when cyberbullying is compared to traditional bullying, negative outcomes appear to be worse for the victims of cyberbullying.
“You see these hurtful comments on social media and know that no kid would ever say that to someone’s face in school,” Schnuda said. “But because they’re behind a screen and nobody knows who they are, they feel like they can get away with it with no accountability. At its core, it’s cowardice.”
Cyberbullying can be more pernicious than traditional bullying for several reasons: the attack can be viewed by a broader audience and shared, cyberbullies can access their victims more readily, and adolescents are less likely to report or seek help for cyberattacks.
Additionally, the targets of cyberattacks don’t necessarily know who the perpetrators are. A physical bully in school is easily recognizable, but cyberbullies hide behind anonymous social media accounts to attack. This not only causes distrust and fear for the victim of the attacks, but it empowers and emboldens the attacker.
Peter Schnuda, Dean of Campus Life at TCS, stated that anonymity is one of the biggest problems with regard to cyberbullying among young people. “You see these hurtful comments on social media and know that no kid would ever say that to someone’s face in school,” Schnuda said. “But because they’re behind a screen and nobody knows who they are, they feel like they can get away with it with no accountability. At its core, it’s cowardice.”
Even in cases where the attacker’s identity is disclosed, attackers still seem to be less inhibited online than in person. Some refer to this phenomenon as the “online disinhibition effect.” Trinity psychology teacher Chelsea Hugel explained this phenomenon using driving as an example. “The degree of separation impacts our ability to exhibit self-control. For example, we’re probably more likely to respond compassionately to someone who cuts us off in the grocery store line than when someone accidentally cuts us off on the road. There’s more separation when we’re in our own car, so we become more aggressive. That’s where road rage comes from.”
The Bottom Line
Now we understand a little bit about what cyberbullying is and how pervasive and dangerous it can be. But where do we go from here? What can we do? Stay tuned for next week’s blog post as we explore how parents and educators can help prevent and mitigate the threat of cyberbullying. Together, we can move forward to create positive change.
About the Author
Jo Wilbur is a Communications Specialist at TCS and proud JMU grad who loves writing, shopping, and making new friends. She and her husband live in Purcellville and spend time together cooking plant-based meals, singing worship songs, and volunteering as Young Life leaders in their community.