3.3.1 How does cyberbullying begin?

A big part of cyberbullying does not start out with an intention to deeply hurt someone. Young people post or text something they think is a joke or a random comment, but it may not be all that funny for the receiver. In fact, it could easily cross the line to cyberbullying.

In a recent online pilot study, young people who engage in cyberbullying behaviour reported the following reasons for their actions: posting without thinking they could hurt anyone (72%), to get back at someone (58%), the target deserved it (58%), for fun or entertainment (28%), to embarrass the target (21%), to be mean (14%), to show off to friends (11%) and other reasons (16%).

We will be exploring who is especially at-risk of becoming a cyberbully or a target in one of the following sections. For now, it is important to know that cyberbullying can happen to anyone. Relatively little can be said about a typical cyber target or a typical cyberbully: they can be rich kids or poor kids, left-out kids or popular ones, A-students or struggling students, majority or minority students, someone who has been bullied before or someone who has never experienced violence, someone who is online much too much or someone who rarely uses technology, it can be someone who uses technology to pass their free time by browsing and chatting, but also someone who mostly uses it for online learning, research, time management or school.

Nevertheless, there are some things young people can do to protect themselves online: 3

  • Keep privacy settings on. Secure all online information.
  • Protect their usernames and passwords. Do not share them with friends.
  • Choose friends wisely, including virtual contacts.
  • Only accept close friends on social networking sites.
  • Do not share personal information online.
  • Do not open anything from someone they don’t know.

3.3.2 What happens next?

After the hurtful messages, comments or pictures have been posted recipients are likely to respond inwardly with feelings of fear, sadness, and anxiety. Even if cyberbullying is done jokingly or unintentionally, it does not change the fact that this action can deeply hurt the targeted individual.

Signs that someone is being cyberbullied are similar to signs of being victimized in other ways. Some emotional, academic, social and behavioural indicators to look out for are listed in the chart below12.

Outward responses of cyberbullying recipients can also vary. Some recipients may just ‘shake it off’ and not let it bother them; others may react aggressively or retaliate. Some might respond, but be assertive but polite and others may stay passive and not do anything about the problem.  Some might plan steps and actions to take. Some might respond emotionally. They might tell someone or hide what is happening from others or do a range of other things.

In prevention work with young people, it is important to teach them how different kinds of responses are likely to impact the outcome of cyberbullying. For example, retaliation or aggressive response has been shown to make the situation worse, whereas passive avoidance could lead to serious psychological consequences for the targeted individual.

Some basic tips for young people who encounter cyberbullying are:

  • Tell a trusted adult if they are being cyberbullied.
  • If they know someone who is being a cyberbully tell them to stop or report it.
  • Contact host/site providers if inappropriate material is being posted on their site.
  • Save all evidence if they are being bullied online. Do not delete anything without keeping a copy for yourself.
  • Do not respond to rude messages. Rude comebacks only make things worse.
  • Do not post anything online that they would mind their parents and friends seeing.
  • Most importantly, treat others as they want to be treated. Consider what they are posting or uploading and ask themselves: “Would I want someone saying or putting that about me online?”

3.3.3 How does cyberbullying end?

Cyberbullying might die out on its own in time. However, if not stopped, cyberbullying can go on for a long time, and due to its public and viral nature, it can be especially damaging. Prolonged exposure can lead to serious consequences, so it is not advisable to wait. Cyberbullying often stops only through the involvement of outside support, either by contacting the social media used that takes down the offending content and informs the cyberbully of the consequences or through parental and teacher involvement.

Prevention and intervention work for combating cyberbullying should include some simple strategies An example of a useful, simple four-step strategy for dealing with cyberbullying is presented in this video and this worksheet.

After the cyberbullying has stopped, follow-up work needs to be done with targets of cyberbullying as well as the bullies. Targeted young people need support to work through feelings of embarrassment, shame, guilt, fear, isolation, sadness and anxiety. Counselling is often useful.

Cyberbullies, on the other hand, need to be shown the impact of their action and strengthen their social and communication skills, moral reasoning, empathy and conflict resolution skills. Non-judgemental and restorative approaches have been shown effective to stop cyberbullies repeat their behaviour.