What is cyberbullying?

Cyberbullying can be a persistent, hard to spot form of bullying that feels like it knows no boundaries. Unlike other types of bullying, it can happen anytime, anywhere - even in the safety of your own home. We share more information on what cyberbullying is, which signs you should look out for, and how you can help support someone through cyberbullying.

In this modern, digital age, we are spending more and more time online. Whether it’s using a smartphone to scroll through social media, catching up with our favourite YouTube channels on a tablet, or chatting with friends through Facebook groups on our PCs. But we’re not the only ones spending more time than ever before living our lives digitally - our children are too.

Is your child or teen being cyberbullied?

YoungMinds’ Safety Net Report looked into the impact of cyberbullying on children’s mental health. Through speaking to young people, they discovered almost 30% spend more than four hours each day browsing social media, with 44% admitting to three or more hours per day. When asked, 61% admitted to creating their first social media account before the age of 12 (despite guidelines requiring users to be 13 or older).

Children and teens are not only spending more time living their lives online than any previous generation, but they are also finding their digital lives affect their relationships and sense of self-worth in real life. 62% of young people reported that social media had impacted their friendships, with a further 38% saying it had a negative impact on how they feel about themselves.

For young women and girls, almost one in two (46%) found that social media had and continued to negatively impact their self-esteem.

Social media alone can have a huge impact on the well-being and sense of self-worth for younger users. When cyberbullying comes into play, it can have an even more damaging impact. Those who took part in the YoungMinds report spoke of a perceived lack of consequences for those who they saw as engaging in bullying behaviour online. 

Many expressed concerns that the responsibility fell to those who were being bullied to act first, rather than the platforms or communities as a whole standing up to protect and defend users. From the perspective of many young people, those who they saw bullying others online faced few (if any) consequences from their actions. 

What is cyberbullying?

Also known as digital bullying, cyberbullying encompasses any form of bullying behaviour that takes place online, through smartphones, tablets, or computers. It can be through mean private or public messages, posts, photographs or groups, via social media, networking apps, gaming sites, chat rooms, or video sharing platforms. Unlike bullying in-person, online bullying can happen anytime, anywhere. This can leave the victims feeling on edge and under attack at all times, as they never know when or where the next message will come.

YoungMinds and The Children’s Society spoke to over 1,000 young people aged 11-25 to get a greater idea of the scope of cyberbullying. Almost half (47%) reported an experience with threatening, intimidating, or nasty messages through social media, email or text, with 32% saying that their personal, private, or embarrassing information was shared publicly by their bullies. 39% felt they had been personally bullied online, with 27% saying it had happened within the last year. 60% had seen others being harassed or bullied online. Over half (56%) had been deliberately excluded from conversations, groups, games, and activities online by peers. When asked what had happened with their cyberbullying experience, 30% experienced persistent messages despite asking their bully to stop.

While offline bullying still remains more prominent (with 49% of young people reporting experiences with bullying), the relentless nature of cyberbullying, combined with the potential to reach a larger audience the long-lasting and far-reaching effects mean that digital bullying can escalate more quickly than we may realise.

For young people who are already experiencing mental ill health, research has found that they are three times more likely to have been bullied online within the past year.

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 encompass digital stalking, exclusion, blackmail, abusive comments, inappropriate tagging or hashtags, flaming, impersonation, and many other behaviours.

It is vital to make sure that all young people understand that, just as with in-person experiences, there is no such thing as an innocent bystander when it comes to bullying. If they see someone being bullied or see something that makes them feel uncomfortable, reporting it to the site or app is important. Ignoring it or scrolling past may seem easier, but the person who is being bullied may need help and support to stop what is happening and reinforce the idea that it’s never OK to bully someone.

No form of bullying should be seen as less damaging or ‘not as bad’ as another. Each can have a lasting, negative impact on the person’s mental, physical, and/or emotional well-being. Making sure that young people understand this and feel able to seek help and support is crucial.

The signs of cyberbullying

Experiencing bullying can feel overwhelming, distressing and embarrassing. Many young people may not feel comfortable and confident in seeking support or may be unsure of where they can go to find help. Cyberbullying can have a serious impact on those who are targeted. 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 many warning signs 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?

Young people who initially seek help through the online platforms where they are experiencing (or witnessing) cyberbullying may become disillusioned and reluctant to speak out.

When surveyed, 83% of young people felt social media companies should be doing more to tackle cyberbullying, with many expressing concerns that the current systems in place have:

  • unclear reporting systems
  • delayed or no responses
  • an overall lack of support for those who report online bullying
  • unclear communication about rights, responsibilities, guidelines and safety features

Letting your child or teen know that you are there for them, 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 are able to 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 record. 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. By bottling things up and not expressing how the experience is making them feel, it 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 what they will think or how they may react.

Seek further support

If you 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 to process their feelings, deal with any anger, frustration or low self-esteem that may stem from being bullied. They may also be able to help them to process what has happened, and gain an 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.

Learn more about the different types of counselling.

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. With more than 15,000 counsellors listed on our directory, you will find someone to help you or your child.

Childline offer 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 on 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 or call 0808 800 2222 Monday to Friday between 9am and 9pm, or at weekends between 10am and 3pm. 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. Their helpline is available on 0808 808 4994 between 11am and 11pm daily.

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.

What is cyberbullying?

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