The digital age has brought with it many modern wonders, including almost unlimited information access and unprecedented social connectivity. Social media, in particular, is one of the most popular ways in which the internet is utilized, both with adults and with young people like kids and teenagers.
But while social media brings with it many advantages and benefits, it also has a dark side. A new form of bullying called “cyberbullying” has risen to become just as (if not more) prevalent than face-to-face bullying. But while cyberbullying affects millions of kids every year, parents, and school administrators don’t have the knowledge they need to fight it effectively. Additionally, social workers are scrambling to deal with cyberbullying, as it’s a new type of challenge.
In this guide, we’ll go over what cyberbullying is and how social workers can help with its effects.
What is cyberbullying?
Cyberbullying is a type of bullying that occurs primarily over the internet, either through desktop or mobile device-based social media. Although the bullying itself begins or largely takes place over digital mediums, the effects of bullying often extend into the real world and may lead to physical bullying as well.
Just like bullying in person, cyberbullying happens when one student or young adult is deliberately cruel to another. Face-to-face bullying can cause long-lasting psychological harm to victims regardless of the exact manifestation of the bullying, and cyberbullying is no different.
Cyberbullying can manifest in a number of different ways, like:
- bullying through social media by spreading rumors or lying about a person to their friends or peers
- bullying a victim by calling them harmful names or using offensive language
- bullying a victim by constantly harassing them across all their social media accounts or online presences
- bullying a victim by sending them harmful imagery or messages that, if not constructed by the bully themselves, were still sent with the intent to cause harm
However, just because bullying of this nature occurs over the Internet doesn’t mean that it’s not harmful. Young adults (and anyone who engages with social media) extend their personality to their online accounts.
Facebook, Instagram, and other social media platforms provide avenues by which young adults can discover themselves, express themselves online, and interact with their peers. Bullying through these platforms is just as harmful as bullying someone in person.
Furthermore, the prevalence of social media and various messaging applications, many of which are installed on mobile devices by default, allows bullies to insult or reach out to their victims with much more regularity than they could before.
Cyberbullying is a direct and clear form of abuse. Nearly 50 percent of individuals aged between 14 and 24 have experienced some kind of digital abuse. These include:
- digital disrespect
- violation of trust
- intentional spreading of lies
- harmful speech or imagery
Furthermore, the Cyberbullying Research Center shows us that 35 percent of students aged between 11 and 14 experience at least one instance of cyberbullying within their lifetime. The manifestations of bullying include mean or hurtful comments or the spreading of rumors. Additionally, adolescent girls are much more likely to have experienced cyberbullying than adolescent boys, and ratios of 40.1 percent to 29.3 percent.
Why is it such a problem for today’s kids?
Cyberbullying is such a huge problem for many reasons.
For starters, today’s children and adolescents are online and engaging with social media at unprecedented rates. It’s not uncommon for children below the age of 10 to interact with mobile devices like tablets and smartphones on a regular basis, and children are receiving their own smartphones at younger and younger ages. These devices provide them with relatively unlimited access to the Internet and constant communication with their peers.
In prior generations, bullying could at least be expected to stop when the victim left school and returned home. This provided, in theory, at least a temporary enclave where they would not have to withstand a bully’s constant abuse. However, social media has made it more difficult than ever for everyone, including immature adolescents, to find peace or anonymity. Bullies can now receive the phone numbers or social media handles of their victims and constantly harass them even after the final school bell has rung.
Compounding the issue is the social pressure surrounding having social media accounts in the first place. While it may be tempting to suggest that a victim merely delete their social media and stop using their phone, this is actually quite difficult given how expected it is for adolescents to have their own social media presences.
To make matters worse, a poll conducted in 24 countries showed that the majority of parents are not aware of the dangers of cyberbullying or its prevalence in modern school or adolescent settings. Only one in 10 parents around the world say that their child has experienced cyberbullying, which stands in stark contrast to the prevalence of cyberbullying as found within other data sets described above.
There are other issues as well. For instance, cyberbullying can be much more difficult to prove and take seriously. If the victim doesn’t keep records of the cyberbullying, it can be hard to prove that any malicious actions took place. Even if they were to save chat logs or similar evidence of bullying in order to make the attacks stop, many school administrators and parents remain unconvinced of the potential harm that cyberbullying can inflict on the next generation.
In summary, cyberbullying:
- is extremely dangerous to kids’ psychological health
- occurs at a greater rate than most parents are aware of
- is arguably more dangerous than face-to-face bullying because it doesn’t have to stop with school
- is not taken seriously by school administers or parents as much as face-to-face bullying is
How cyberbullying impacts kids
Cyberbullying can lead to lasting negative effects for its victims, much like face-to-face bullying can.
Those who suffer from cyberbullying often feel exceptionally lonely or isolated. Ostracization is, in many cases, actually the intended result on the part of the bully. The victim can lose their friends, become unable to make new ones, or may be purposefully isolated because of false rumors spread on their behalf. This can make it much more difficult for a victim to stand up for themselves.
Such victims can also become disinterested in school. It’s hard to focus on academics or the future when a victim is constantly on guard and might feel too anxious or humiliated to care about school. Additionally, cyberbullying victims may not want to go to school because of embarrassment when they imagine facing their peers. This can lead to significant negative outcomes down the road, especially if these effects persist.
Furthermore, victims of cyberbullying can experience significant physical symptoms. Stomachaches, sleep disturbances, and other physical ailments are common for those suffering from extreme stress and anxiety. Additionally, victims of cyberbullying can develop stress-related diseases like stomach ulcers, skin conditions, or disorders like depression and anxiety. Certain students may even suffer from insomnia or night terrors.
One of the most damaging ways that cyberbully and can impact adolescents is through the spreading of inappropriate pictures, particularly among young girls. Social media has led to a trend where young people might send partially or fully nude pictures of themselves to others. These photos can then be leaked as a form of cyberbullying, which can lead to shame, guilt, and many other negative emotions and effects. This, as well, disproportionately affects girls over boys.
Finally, cyberbullying can lead to suicidal ideation in extreme cases. Some students may even make attempts at suicide because they want escape their current situation. This possibility is especially worrying for students that are constantly harassed by their peers and who are isolated, particularly if they don’t have a strong support network at home.
As anyone can see, the potential effects of cyberbullying are widespread and impossible to ignore.
How to prevent cyberbullying
At this moment, there aren’t many cyberbullying-specific preventative measures in place or being enacted by social workers. But more and more social workers are taking up the fight against cyberbullying, which involves coming up with new tactics and strategies that all social workers can use to better the lives of cyberbullying victims.
Social worker initiatives/tactics
Social workers are increasingly developing new tactics or evolving their understanding of cyberbullying in order to better treat those who suffer from their effects. Many social worker techniques and ideas are applicable here as well as they are with face-to-face bullying. But the truth is that some techniques will need to be adapted for this challenge.
Learning about cyberbullying and educating others, including parents
First off, all social workers need to educate themselves about cyberbullying as much as possible. Particularly because many social workers are older adults instead of recent graduates or just out of high school and college, it can be easy to dismiss cyberbullying since most mature adults haven’t experienced it themselves. This is largely a youthful phenomenon, whereas regular bullying can still occur in the adult workplace.
Social workers should learn all they can about cyberbullying and how prevalent it is in modern academic institutions, both during and before college. Furthermore, they can spread this knowledge to parents and school administrators who might struggle with the same empathy issues. Knowledge is the first step toward effecting a good resolution to cyberbullying. It also breaks down barriers that might prevent more drastic initiatives from being passed.
Developing school guidelines
Similarly, social workers can help schools develop specific guidelines regarding cyberbullying. In most cases, social workers will want to work with school administrators to set up structures that can prevent cyberbullying from happening in the first place, instead of dealing with the effects after the bullying has already taken place. Proactive measures are always better than reactive measures.
As an example, social workers can help schools set up firm guidelines about student conduct, particularly when students are at school. This also involves setting up consequences for any violators who might break these rules. The reasons for this are easily explainable, but social workers can also show that student learning is disrupted when bullies take their tactics to the Internet.
Social workers can also help students learn where and when cyberbullying occurs so they can better protect themselves from being put into vulnerable situations. All social workers should understand that blaming students for cyberbullying is not the solution, of course.
But setting up workshops or different presentations for the benefit of student information can help them better understand how they must be responsible with their social media and technology use. Kids that don’t share passwords, for instance, are immediately less susceptible to cyberbullying of many kinds.
Teach coping skills
When cyberbullying still inevitably occurs (just because of its widespread prevalence and the truth that all bullying will never fully be eliminated), social workers can still play a valuable role by teaching coping skills and offering counseling to victims. Coping skills can help adolescents who experience cyberbullying to fight back against the negative effects that such bullying brings to the surface.
Some schools and social workers are even using “resilience training”, which is a style of coping mechanism that is also used by military veterans to fight PTSD. In essence, resilience training can teach adolescents to compartmentalize negative events in their lives and develop a long-lasting resiliency that enables them to continue their studies and enjoy school even if cyberbullying persists.
Different students may require different coping mechanisms, of course. But social workers have the training to handle most of these cases and can provide a valuable role in helping cyberbullying victims recover from their incidents.
Teach non-victims not to ignore
Furthermore, social workers can be critical when it comes to teaching those who are to victims of cyberbullying not to ignore these events when they inevitably occur. The bystander effect is a real thing that must be actively fought against and educated about. Cyberbullies are only able to be so effective and dangerous because they are largely unopposed. Most students who don’t experience cyberbullying don’t do much to stop it even if they see it happening right in front of them.
Social workers taking steps to deliberately counteract this attitude can inspire positive change in their adolescent communities. Teaching kids to support victims instead of standing by or, even worse, supporting a bully by thinking that their actions are “cool”, can have hugely positive impacts on a school and a victim’s life.
Treating cyberbullying victims
Social workers are also developing strategies to help treat cyberbullying victims when they arise. This focus is especially critical, as students or adolescents who are regularly bullied online have much higher risks for negative experiences or disorders like depression, anxiety, or even suicide in extreme cases.
There are multiple types of treatment that social workers can pursue:
- transactional analysis helps students to connect past trauma to current issues. Social workers can help children overcome past bullying issues and face the future with confidence by helping them overcome the demons of the past
- assertiveness training is a tactic that social workers can use to help victims build up their confidence and stand up to their bullies. Such training will often encompass several assertiveness techniques, but it has the potential for long-term positive effects
- cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT, may be used by social workers to retrain a person’s behavior to help them make positive changes in their daily routines. This is important because many routine cyberbullying victims develop safety behaviors or bad habits that help them deal with depression and anxiety. CBT can help them overcome these side effects.
While helping the victim is critically important, many social workers also recognize the need for treatment for the bully themselves. Cyberbullies, just like regular bullies, most often lash out because of misplaced anger or other negative conditioning. In most cases, cyberbullies suffer from another form of abuse, either from another bully or from one of their family members.
Social workers can help bullies by:
- teaching anger management. The majority of bullies cannot express their anger in healthy ways and lash out against their victims. Social workers can end the cycle by helping bullies reach the root of their anger and by teaching them relaxation techniques or healthy coping mechanisms.
- Using psychotherapy to help bullies deal with past or current trauma. Also called “talk therapy”, this technique can help bullies figure out why they are so angry or why they are lashing out in the first place.
- By intervening in a bully’s behavior. This may be the most effective way to show a bully the harm they are causing to another person. This technique may require the involvement of a bully’s family or their victims, so it’s usually a tactic only reserved for experienced social workers.
Actively dealing with cyberbullying requires drawing from a number of resources.
For kids suffering from cyberbullying
The Look Both Ways Foundation has lesson plans available for students that contain key guides to help students protect their identities on social media sites, which can prevent cyberbullies from getting power in the first place.
For younger kids that might not understand the full extent of their actions, Media Awareness Network has games they can play. These will teach them about cyberbullying.
Besides educating themselves on cyberbullying and its possible effects, the best thing that parents can do if they believe their child is suffering from cyberbullying or is a bully themselves is to go to school administrators and demand a response. School administrators are most often in a position to contact social workers or enact immediate change in the daily routine of their kids. Furthermore, school administrators are those who can come up with new guidelines concerning the use of mobile devices while at school, or can take direct action against bullies.
Parents may also want to contact a local counselor or find another mental health service in their area. Therapy can be a viable pathway to recovery for students that have experienced significant cyberbullying, particularly if they’re experiencing suicidal ideation.
Parents can also contact a school counselor or social worker directly and explain the situation. Immediate, active intervention is often an effective tool at counteracting the effects of cyberbullying, at least in the short term.
Digizen is an online resource that parents can use to learn about the Internet in general. It may help them understand how cyberbullying works if they’re not particularly digitally literate.
Teachers have a wealth of resources to draw upon when it comes to fighting cyberbullying and helping victims.
For starters, the Center for Safe and Responsible Internet Use has classroom resources in several articles that teachers can take advantage of to make their students aware of cyberbullying. It’s a great place to start if you want to educate your students on this digital phenomenon and help them prevent bullies from having power.
Common Sense Media is another great place to look for lesson plans and worksheets for students of all ages. These can help you teach her students to create secure passwords and learn about identity theft and online privacy.
School administrators may want to look into CyberBullyHelp, which was created by three school psychologists. It has several professional development resources designed to help school staff rise to this modern challenge.
Ultimately, cyberbullying is unlikely to go away anytime soon. The digital age is only going to become more complex and young people are only going to get more access to the wider web and all of the rich information and potential dangers that it represents. Cyberbullying is something that everyone needs to become more educated about as soon as possible, particularly when it comes to kids. Cyberbullying victims don’t have all the time in the world.
Through smart social work initiatives and strategies and through cooperation with parents and school administrators, social workers can lead the fight against cyberbullying and help enact change for the better. While cyberbullying is a new and unprecedented form of social ill, it can be beaten.