What is cyberbullying?

Written by Bonnie Gifford
Bonnie Gifford
Counselling Directory Content Team

Cyberbullying happens when someone uses technology to target another person online. This could be using threats, harassment, or trying to embarrass or target someone. It can happen at any age, through any digital device including through your phone, computer, tablet, or games console. Because this type of bullying can happen anytime, anywhere, it can feel like you can’t escape from it. We share more about cyberbullying,  signs you should look out for, and how you can support someone who is being cyberbullied. 

What is Cyberbullying?

Also known as digital bullying, cyberbullying includes any form of bullying that happens online. If someone tries to bully you using their phone, tablet, computer, or games console, this is cyberbullying. 

This kind of bullying can happen publically (through message boards or social media posts) or in private (direct messages, emails, texts). It can involve posts about you, photographs, group chats, chatrooms, videos or livestreams. 

Unlike bullying in person, online bullying can happen anytime, anywhere. This can leave victims of cyberbulling feeling on edge or under attack at all times, as you never know when or where the next message will come.

Cyberbullying is one of four main types of bullying: psychological, verbal, physical, and cyber. It can happen to anyone, from children and teens through to adults, at work or school. 

According to the Office for National Statistics (ONS) 2023 report, one in five children between the ages of 10-15 have experienced some form of cyberbullying in the last year. Of the school children surveyed, 70% said that bullying came from someone in their school, while 5% reported receiving abusive messages or seeing offensive posts about them by people they didn’t know online. 

Over half (57%) of young people have experienced bullying while playing online video games, and 56% experienced abusive messages via messaging apps or text. 43% have experienced cyberbullying through social media. 

Learn more about child-related issues and what support is available. 

Cyberbullies may directly harass their target online or may do so by spreading fake or damaging information, gossip or rumours publically or amongst shared friends and acquaintances online. Cyberbullying can also include digital stalking, exclusion, blackmail, abusive comments, inappropriate tagging or hashtags, flaming, impersonation, and many other behaviours.

It’s important to help young people understand that if they see someone being bullied online or a post that makes them uncomfortable, reporting it to the website or app, and speaking with an adult is important. It may be tempting to ignore or scroll past worrying messages, but reporting them can be one of the quickest ways to help get them removed and to help the person being bullied find support. It is never ok to bully someone. 

How can cyberbullying affect someone?

Over time, bullying can seriously affect your mental and physical health. Bullying in any form can cause stress and social and emotional problems. According to the National Bullying Helpline, in serious cases, it can lead to self-harm or death.  

If you are worried that you or someone you know may be being cyberbullied, it’s important to reach out and ask for help. 

The signs of cyberbullying

Bullying can leave you feeling overwhelmed, embarrassed, or distressed. Someone experiencing cyberbullying may not feel comfortable finding help, or know where to turn to. It can be a constant source of worry, feeling relentless. When victims feel cornered or unable to find vital help and support, there can be extreme consequences, including an increase in self-harming behaviours or suicide.

If you are concerned about a child, young person or loved one, there are a number of signs of bullying you can look out for. These can include:

  • low or changing levels of self-esteem or confidence
  • a sudden withdrawal from family, friends or loved ones
  • increased time or desire to be left alone
  • a new or increased reluctance to leave family or friends near their mobile or laptop etc.
  • an increased desire and range of excuses to stay home from school, college or clubs
  • decreased time spent with friends or being excluded from social events/activities
  • a change in their personality (increased anger, appearing withdrawn, anxious or depressed)
  • weight loss, gain, or an increased desire to change their appearance to ‘fit in’
  • changes in what they wear that are unusual or out of season
  • self-harming behaviours

How can you help?

If you are worried someone may be experiencing any form of bullying, let them know you are there to help. Knowing that they have someone they can reach out to and talk with can be a big help. It can help remind them that they aren’t alone.

People who experience cyberbullying may feel unheard or unable to access help, due to issues with reporting content through online platforms, delayed or lack of responses from platforms, or not knowing how to access help. Encouraging them to talk and reach out to others in person may be able to help them get support more quickly. 

Letting them know that you are there for them and that people love, care and want to support them is the first step. Reinforce the idea that no one deserves to be treated this way, and they have done nothing wrong. It’s important to make sure that they understand that help is available, and people are available to listen.

Talk to them

Encourage them to talk with you, or if they may feel more comfortable, with a teacher, another loved one, or a close family friend. Speaking to a teacher can be a good way to set up a safe place they can go to at school if things get too much for them, as well as to keep an eye out for any further signs that bullying may be taking place on school grounds.

Record evidence

Take screenshots of the cyberbullying and save them for your records. This can help when reporting incidents to the relevant social media networks, apps or platforms, as you will have a collection of proof if the bully or bullies attempt to remove or delete any of their messages or photographs. 

Write thoughts and worries

Encourage the young person to keep a journal. This can provide a private, safe space to write down their thoughts and feelings. Bottling things up and not expressing how the experience is making them feel can risk them feeling worse or cause them to constantly dwell on their negative thoughts. Through writing things down, they may be better able to articulate themselves, understand their emotions, and even feel more able to speak to someone.

Speak to the school

Get (and keep) the school involved. Whether things are taking place on school grounds or not, they may be able to help. Make sure to put everything down in writing, where possible, so you can have a formal record of what happens and ensure that everybody is on the same page. Ask if the school or college has a counselling service or any further support your child or teen can access. Speaking to an impartial, outside expert can be easier for some young people as they may not be as worried about what they will think or how they may react.

Seek further support

If they are unable to access counselling through their school or college, many charities offer free one-to-one services online and in person. Seeing a counsellor privately can also be another option. Counselling can provide a safe space for young people to discuss their worries and concerns. While a counsellor won’t be able to stop bullies' behaviour, they may be able to help the young person process their feelings and deal with any anger, frustration or low self-esteem that may stem from being bullied. They may also be able to help them process what has happened and gain insight into why bullies act the way they do.

If you're concerned about their safety or any other signs, seek advice from your GP. They may be able to refer you to specialist CAMHS services in your local area.

Cyberbullying support and information

Find more help and advice on childhood bullying. Learn how you can support your child if they are being bullied, or use our advanced search to find a counsellor who specialises in supporting young people. 

Childline offers online and phone support all day, every day for children and young people. Trained counsellors are available to talk in one-to-one sessions online, or children can call to talk to someone anytime at 0800 1111.

Family Lives (previously known as Parentline) offers free, confidential information, emotional support, advice and guidance for parents and families. Find out more at Family Lives. Their sister site Bullying UK offers help and advice for parents and young people.

The Mix provides essential support for under 25s, including a crisis messenger, one-to-one online chat, email and by phone.

If you are struggling and need somebody to talk to, the Samaritans offer free, confidential support around the clock. Whatever you are going through, they are there to listen all day, every day on 116 123, by email or at branches across the UK.

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