A 2011 PEW Internet American Life Survey found that while 33% of teenagers claim to have been victims of cyberbullying at some point in their lives, only 7% of U.S. parents are worried about it.2 That’s a significant parental disconnect. Other studies suggest that the number of teenagers who have been victims of cyberbullying is closer to 50%, with a similar percentage of teenagers who have bullied others. There is, of course, a significant overlap between these two groups of teens.
Cyberbullying includes behaviors such as these:
- Posting mean or hurtful comments about someone online
- Spreading rumors about someone online through text messages or emails
- Threatening to hurt someone through a text or chat message
- Pretending to be someone else online in order to hurt another person
- Posting an unflattering or embarrassing picture or video of someone
- Creating a mean or hurtful web page about someone
Cyberbullies and their victims typically have a real-world relationship. Victims are most commonly an acquaintance from school that is not close (26.5%), but may also include friends (21.1%), ex-friends (20.0%), and ex-boyfriends/girlfriends (14.1%). Sometimes there is no relationship at all between the offender and the victim (6.5%), and even less commonly the victim and offender have a relationship that only exists online (less than 2%).3
In many respects, one of the most dangerous sources of cyberbullying comes from ex-friends and ex-boyfriends/girlfriends, primarily because of the level of access during the time of the friendship. Remember that for most teens, the future is an elusive concept—whatever is happening right now in their lives is forever. So my BFF will never betray me (until she’s no longer your BFF and does in fact betray you). For a teen, it may be perfectly logical to give your best friend access to all your accounts, let them borrow your phone, login to your Facebook account, check your email, etc. But when the relationship goes south, the former BFF now has a great deal of access into your online life. Teen relationships being what they are, that’s a lot of power to put into the hands of an individual whose frontal lobes are still woefully underdeveloped.
Interestingly, girls are more likely than boys to engage in cyberbullying behaviors (21.2% vs. 17.5% lifetime), and are also more likely than boys to be the victim of cyberbullying (25.1% vs. 16.6%).4 Girls tend to be more verbal than boys, so maybe that’s not too surprising. Boys are somewhat more likely than girls to post mean or hurtful pictures and videos online while girls are twice as likely than boys to post mean or hurtful comments.
When faced with cyberbullying, victims respond in a variety of ways. Passive behaviors include logging off (22.7%) and leaving the site (6.5%). Active behaviors include blocking the bully (25.4%), changing their screen name or email (9.7%), or calling the police (2.7%). A significant percentage of victims do nothing at all (9.7%).5 In one study, less than half of the teens surveyed said they would tell an adult if they were the victim of cyberbullying.
Part of the trauma that victims of cyberbullying experience is that the bullying can be incessant, leading individuals to feel that there is no escape. Cyberbullying can occur any time, day or night. “This leaves many victims feeling trapped when they know they may receive a harassing message every time they turn on their cell phone or go online. This is unlike targets of ofﬂine bullying who can often ﬁnd a safe haven at home or away from school.”6
Sadly, research suggests a cyclic nature to cyberbullying, such that those “who have been bullied online are more likely to turn into cyberbullies themselves.”7 A 15 year-old boy reported, “Well the only reason I bullied is because the same person I was doing it to, did it to me like a week before. It wasn’t the right thing to do but at the time it felt like I was getting revenge.”8