When It Doesn’t End at the Screen: Teens and Cyberbullying

CyberbullyingI used to love to write. I’d write anything. Songs, stories, poems, sometimes even comics. I’m 20 now and the idea of writing gives me discomfort. By discomfort, I mean, it makes me feel vulnerable, naked, exposed and self-conscious. 

It started like this. In middle school, I won my first poetry contest. Actually, I submitted a poem anonymously and it turned out my step-mom also had submitted a poem on my behalf. The day the winners were announced, I had won and so had an anonymous writer. 

I was also the anonymous writer. It was incredible and I felt so validated. One poem was about the natural beauty of a rainbow and the other was more personal about nightmares. But… they were both recognized and appreciated. 

A short time later, I was introduced to an online site that was dedicated to poetry and poetry postings. Naturally, I joined. Thrilled to be able to share my work, I got immersed in the site and how I could start posting. My first posts got so much love and praise. It was a community I felt at home with. 

Fast-forward a few years: I had started writing comments on other writers’ work and had critiqued the punctuation in a work. It seemed harmless and I meant it to be constructive, not destructive. They replied with hateful names, slurs, and cuss words. Again and again.

 Then they followed my account. They left comments on everything I ever posted. 

The comments shook me to the core. This went on for months. I left the site and then they found my Instagram. It never stops. It will never stop.

I don’t write anymore and I don’t know that I ever will.

Cyberbullying can take a lot away from someone, especially at such a young age. It doesn’t stop at the screen and it is not solved by simply giving up social media, websites, or other things.

It can—and often does—run much deeper. Often one of the best things for a child or teen experiencing cyberbullying is to seek teen mental health services.

Sometimes, that seems easier said than done.

Breaking Down Cyberbullying

Let’s start by looking at the facts and stats. They say numbers don’t lie, after all.

First off, did you know that almost everyone has some way to access the internet nowadays? Of course, you did. But, did you know that a recent study found that over 98% of teens aged 14 that live in Spain have a smartphone?

Breaking Down Cyberbullying33.6% of teens in the U.S., during 2018, reported that they were victims of online conflict.

Another tie-in to this point is that most young adults and teens won’t actually recognize what they experience as cyberbullying at all. Instead, the majority of them associate it with online conflict and consider it to be a part of a spectrum of violence that extends well past their phone or laptop screens.

Studies also show that when it comes to online bullying and cyber conflicts, children, teens, and young adults are considerably more likely to experience it than anyone over the age of 26. That isn’t to say it doesn’t happen, but it much more likely that your teen or child has been impacted by bullying via online presence than others. Also, when it comes to online bullying, boys and girls are impacted equally.

It’s also critical to recognize that there is a clear link between bullying that happens on the screen and bullying that happens off the screen. Many times, those who experience cyberbullying end up knowing their bullies offline, and that means that they may also be seeing them at school, on sports fields, or in clubs.

And yet, despite the increasing impact of cyberbullying and the victimization rates of teens, most of them actually wish to learn more about it, support those impacted, and admonish those involved in cyberbullying. This is in stark contrast to how most parents tend to view the concept of cyberbullying or any online conflicts.

A Parent’s Perspective on Cyberbullying

The consequences of cyberbullying are usually the first stop that our brains, as parents, make. We know that there are consequences for the one experiencing cyberbullying and also for the bully. And, interestingly, a lot of the time there can be some confusion on what cyberbullying actually is.

What Is Cyberbullying, Really?

If we want to be technical about it, cyberbullying is a noun that means (quoting The Oxford Dictionary here) “the use of electronic communication to bully a person, typically by sending messages of an intimidating or threatening nature.”

Realistically though, cyberbullying is any instance of sending insulting, rude, violent, or threatening messages. It is also spreading rumors, revealing personal information (sometimes known as doxing), publishing embarrassing photos (this includes posting intimate photos without consent, more on this below), and even intentional exclusion from online conversations.

Types of Cyberbullying

In fact, there are a lot of types of cyberbullying and there are distinct forms these types can take. These types include:

  • Harassment: This involves the person sending malicious and offensive content to another person and involves routine threatening and rude messages that may even lead to physical harassment.
  • Flaming: This is like harassment, but it refers more to online fighting and arguing. This usually occurs on messaging, email and chat. Sometimes it can be public bullying online that goes far beyond harsh language and images.
  • Exclusion: This happens when a group singles out a person and begins leaving that person out of online sites and chats. Usually, the group then makes rude or mean comments about the person that has been excluded and sometimes goes as far as making sure that person knows about the exclusion and the bullying taking place.
  • Outing or Doxxing: This is when the cyberbully shares very personal and private information about a person like images and videos.
  • Masquerading or Catfishing: This is where the cyberbully creates a false identity to harass the person in an anonymous fashion; this gives the bully a stronger sense of anonymity that can fuel the imbalance of power.

So, cyberbullying covers a large variety of actions that take place online and that plays into why many teens and young adults recognize it as online conflicts that fall on a spectrum of violent behaviors.

One thing often overlooked is the tie between traditional bullying and cyberbullying. As said above, there is a clear link that has been found, studied, and verified by research between online and offline bullying.

Recognizing this overlap is important because if someone you know—or even yourself—is currently experiencing cyberbullying, you may not have recognized the sign of traditional bullying also taking place.

Students in Crisis: How is Cyberbullying Different from “Normal” Bullying?

Now, that being said, there is one key part of cyberbullying that makes it so vastly different from other types of bullying. This is that age-old adage of “once its on the internet, it is there forever” rings true for those experiencing cyberbullying. Even if they log off, the bullying can continue whether they are an active participant or if they leave the situation entirely.

Some other things that can make cyberbullying unique are:

  • How Persistent It Can Be: Smartphones, computers, and tablets offer us the ability to communicate 24/7. It may be challenging for young people to escape cyberbullying.
  • Also, the ability to repeat, reshare, repost, or retweet these instances of bullying without so much as a second thought leads it to be a more recurring and ongoing disturbance in teen’s lives than other forms of bullying.
  • It Really Can Be Permanent: The vast majority of information that is sent and received electronically is public and permanent, unless it is reported and removed, which can be difficult. It can impact social life and professional life later down the road.
  • Sometimes it Can Be Hard to notice: Teachers and parents may not be aware that cyberbullying is occurring because it largely occurs in cyberspace and not in person. Some parents may recognize changes in their teens attitude but even that can sometimes be mistakenly attributed to growing up and “being a teen”.

Step Into Their Shoes and Lace Them Up

what is cyberbullyingImagine that you are a teen, thrown back into the halls of the high school. You are being bullied at school, particularly in history class. The bully follows you to your locker at the end of the day. Then usually, they leave. They have to go home, or to practice, or a club, and you finally get a much-needed respite from their name-calling, pushing, and laughing.

Now, imagine that the bully follows you to the bus, then follows you to your seat. They sit next to you for the ride, they get off at your stop, they follow you inside your house, up to your room, and even into your bed at night.

Teens being cyberbullied often feel that. It never goes away and it is always with them. It takes over their life.

This may seem silly or drastic or extreme, but how often have you taken your smartphone with you to bed, the bathroom, or the dinner table? How often do you use it to distract yourself while waiting for a meeting,an appointment, or a bus?

Teens are not invincible to the temptation of using a smartphone or social media to get that slight endorphin boost when they are idle. But, sometimes, when they open their phone it’s not a casual distraction. Instead, it is a reminder that buzzes, beeps, bings, and lights up each time someone mentions them in a nasty comment, or reshares their photo with a hateful caption, or makes them into a meme to share around the school.

So, we recognize that our perspective may not be all-encompassing of the realities of cyberbullying but… can’t they just log off or leave social media to get away from the bully?

Just Turn Off The Dang Computer Already

If you step away from the computer, leave the phone alone, or block the people, then they can’t bully you anymore and the problem is solved—right?

The truth is: not really.

Research has started to make waves in specific regards to this thought. Going as far as to say that cyberbullying in today’s age is no longer restrained by “time and space”.

Again, this is something that may sound silly but is actually really serious. The imbalance of power that exists between the bully and victim has been recognized in traditional bullying for years. Whether it is social status, grade level, age, size, or any other facet, there is usually an explicitly noticeable difference in the power the bully holds over the victim. Cyberbullying is the same here with different factors playing into the imbalance.

It can be easy for a bully to hold influence over someone online via: better knowledge of technology, anonymity, and an easy “escape route” to avoid negative consequences, among other things. So, the bully can extend their hold over the victim far past that LED screen.

Sometimes this comes in the form of:

  • Threats of violence
  • Threats of exposure (in the form of doxxing, sharing intimate photos, spreading rumors, etc.)
  • Threats to family or loved ones
  • Threats of self-harm by the bully to guilt the victim into coming back

Not to mention the effects last a lot longer than most of us realize even after the phone is turned off. Just how far these effects really go is something that research has been focused on in recent years and something we will discuss a little later.

But, why is it a common expectation that the teen give up pieces of their life because someone online decided that they were a perfect target? 

Why should they miss out on things their friends get to love and do because another person has dedicated their time to picking on them?

Teen Rebuttal: Why Should I Give Up My Social Media for a Bully? Doesn’t That Mean They Win?

Many teens have this thought process when they start to recognize that they are bullied. However, a lot of them also feel things like:

  • Grief
  • Depression
  • Worthlessness
  • Self-consciousness
  • A loss of confidence
  • Anger or rage
  • Frustration
  • Loneliness

So, they may not have the emotional capacity or bandwidth to process the bullying nor stand up to the bully. Yet, they may still feel like that if they give up their social media then they let that bully win. This can lead to recurrent patterns of bullying that last for months and sometimes even years. 

Compound that with some serious FOMO (fear of missing out), and it shouldn’t be a surprise that teens and young adults are reluctant to give up their social media or technology even if they are experiencing bullying. This can lead to some serious issues.

For example, those experiencing cyberbullying are actually more likely to experience depressive symptoms than those who have experienced traditional bullying. They are also likely to experience other physical and psychological, sometimes called psychosomatic, symptoms like:

  • Headaches
  • Stomach aches
  • Insomnia

Sometimes teens will also lash out or seek other methods of coping with the trauma and emotions associated with cyberbullying. These behaviors can include:

  • Drinking Alcohol
  • Smoking
  • Giving up on school
  • Picking fights

This is a clear show that it’s more than just logging off for a teen and sometimes it can feel like giving up a piece of them, a piece of their persona or their freedom when they simply log off and never come back.

Bullying is not isolated to a single medium anymore and the story is becoming more commonplace.

Yet, as parents, what can we do? How do we support our teen and how do we find a better answer than “turn off the phone”, “log off from the game”, or “block the user”?

A Common Parent Story: From Frustration to Understanding

As a parent, our natural disposition is to protect. Protect our children and often the children of others. As a mom, most of us like to think that we are protective but not in the helicopter parent territory. This can make it a shock when our teens come to us with their story.

A lot of families come to us with stories like this and stories that end with tears.

Our story starts with a teen girl who was the victim of cyberbullying, we will call her Katie. It started off with her lashing out online when she found out that she couldn’t go to a local party. She sent off a mean subtweet about the others going to the party. This means that she tweeted about these other students and didn’t actually tag them in the post itself. Usually, most people can “read between the lines” and understand who these types of tweets are about. 

In response, the kids she had tweeted about decided to fire back a month later when the subtweet was found and shared around her class. Katie then heard others at school talking behind her back and even being directly mean to her. She tried to make amends for the mean tweet but it was too late. The others continued to gang up on her and exclude her from activities in and outside of school.

This went on for a long time before Katie hit her breaking point and told her mom the story. She showed her mom the comments: “you deserve this”, “if you weren’t so ugly maybe someone would be your friend”, “maybe you should hang yourself”… and so many more.

Her mom’s heart broke. Then was filled with frustration, frustration that it went this far. That she didn’t know sooner. That Katie never felt she could share this with her until now. She told Katie to delete the account, or the comments, and ignore it. After all, that’s what she would have done. It was just some kids on the internet with nothing better to do.

Then, she tried to help Katie’s ever-shrinking self-esteem; she took her out shopping, to get her hair and nails done. Things that usually made her feel good and confident. But, this time was different. Katie had lost some of the spring from her step

She seemed a bit hollow and distracted. Her mom noticed this.

 A week later, the change was becoming more and more distinct. Katie wasn’t Katie anymore. The bullies took over her life.

Her mom recognized that now was the time to act—to really act. It was determined that she would let her “momma bear” flag fly. She started by calling the school advisor. 

It turns out that Katie’s school required students to sign a code of conduct and in that code were clear directives about cyberbullying and bullying. Her mom felt reassured, it would be handled and the school would take care of the repercussions for the kids who had dulled her Katie’s bright shine. 

types of cyberbullyingShortly after reporting this to the school, it was time for summer vacation and that meant that Katie and her family were heading to the mountains with bad cell service and great hiking trails.

Three relaxing, tech-free, blissful weeks went by and it was time to come back home. Katie and her family returned to find that some action was taken in regard to the incident but also that her subtweet came back from what was thought to be a deep, deep twitter grave buried under retweets, pics and more. Ultimately, both Katie and the bullies received punishment. 

Katie’s mom felt this wasn’t the victory she had hoped and it seemed to wear on Katie as well. She decided it was time to seek real help for Katie and how she was feeling

They found a therapist that specialized in teens and young adults. The therapist worked with Katie and her family in order to learn better methods of coping, how to deal with conflict in healthy ways, and how to process the emotional trauma that she felt after months of being tormented day and night

Katie ended up diagnosed with mild depression and began regular therapy. 

Katie’s mom learned how to better support Katie during the process of therapy. 

Three years later, Katie is graduated, off to college, and her sparkle is back. Her mom is proud of her daughter, more understanding about how deep the effects of cyberbullying run, and more aware of her own presence on social media than ever before.

What Can Parents Do To Help Prevent and Fight Cyberbullying?

One of the leading experts on cyberbullying and a cyber safety advocate, Dr. Martyn Wild says that “parents are the missing piece in the cyber safety puzzle,” and that a large portion of parents aren’t sure what they should do to prevent or stop cyberbullying.

As we discussed before, as parents, our knee-jerk reaction is to remove the problem.

Remove the account, keep them off the internet, and hope that solves the problem.

Experts, like Dr. Wild, suggest that this is actually one of the biggest mistakes when it comes to trying to handle cyberbullying when it happens to our teens.

Part of the reason for this is that, as we saw before, teens don’t want to lose that part of their lives or personas. Some teens see it as an outlet for creativity, nervous energy, or a lifeline to their friends. When we remove this, even when we feel it is for their own good, it can create a dynamic that makes the parent the enemy.

It can undermine any trust your child has in you and can make them reluctant to come forward with future problems in fear that you may take the “nuclear option” to help them.

So, what can we do?

Our experts at Bricolage Behavioral Health suggest that you start by listening. Listening is the first step to understanding, and understanding is what your teen is truly seeking. Dr. Wild also suggests that we start by becoming “internet parents”.

Other important things to do and consider are:

  • Learn about the internet and how your teen uses it
  • Use appropriate restrictions without “going nuclear” and banning the internet outright
  • Recognize and minimize online dangers to your teens

It can be a challenge to minimize the potential dangers of online trolls, who are people who post or share things that are mean or controversial just to get a rise out of others. Some strategies for this are:

  • Make sure your teen is keeping their profiles private while online
  • Teach your child how to handle adversity and what the appropriate steps are to handle bullying (this can include reaching out to trusted adults like you or other family members)
  • Use passcodes on websites and phones; this can protect your child in the event they lose or forget their phone. (Pro-tip: keep a list of your child’s codes until they come of an age where they can responsibly use the internet and technology, and make sure to respect their privacy as this can be important to development for a teen.)
  • Be real and provide positive reinforcement

It’s critical that as parents, we step up and find healthy ways of helping our teens traverse the cyber world and handle the dangers it can bring to their fingertips. Part of this is because the effects of cyberbullying can lead to more than just the ones we discussed earlier.

After Logging Off: The Lasting Offline Effects of Cyberbullying on Youth

You’ve heard it before and now it’s time to hear it again: there are long-lasting effects related to cyberbullying. Don’t just take our word for it though.

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC), one of the leading public health entities in the United States, recognizes cyberbullying and bullying as “adverse childhood events”. This means that bullying is “a potentially traumatic event that can have negative, lasting effects on a person.”

They also cite that “Cyberbullying brings added injury and stress due its immediate, indefinite,

viral, and permanent nature. The emotional injury can affect children’s view of the world, how they related to people, and where they feel safe and understood.”

This can have massive implications and effects on our kids. It can lead to things like a change in their development if they are at crucial development ages, social impairment, the adoption of high-risk behaviors, and potentially the development of mental illnesses.

These are all very serious things. Lately, teens and young adults have been recognizing the seriousness of cyberbullying, and they are taking steps to be the change they want to see.

How Teens Are Making the Internet & Technology Better For People, One Generation at a Time

cyberbullying is not a spectator sportTeens and young adults are seeing now that cyberbullying is not a spectator sport, as journalist Germany Kent once said. From teaching students about “netiquette” to holding events in support of their peers, students are actively looking for ways to bring the focus on to cyberbullying now more than before.

Eighty-three percent of teens believe that social media organizations should do more to focus on cyberbullying, and 60% of young people have witnessed cyberbullying. However, most teens would like to find ways to intervene anonymously for fear of also being bullied. In fact, 81% say they’d intervene if it could be done anonymously.

Some teens are even taking big actions against cyberbullying like Trisha Prabhu. Trisha developed an app at the age of 13, just six years ago, that is called ReThink. It helps prevent hurtful messages from being sent and helps us to be just a little more aware. But, she isn’t the only one speaking up.

Who Else Is Talking About Cyberbullying?

From celebrities to teens in your own community, more people are speaking up today than before. Here are some of the people talking about cyberbullying right now:

  • “People say sticks and stones may break your bones, but names can never hurt you, but that’s not true. Words can hurt. They hurt me. Things were said to me that I still haven’t forgotten.” -Demi Lovato, singer, songwriter, actress.
  • “I’ve realized that you become a bully if you are just watching someone get bullied and you don’t say anything. Speak up!” -Emma Roberts, actress
  • “I realized that bullying never has to do with you. It’s the bully who’s insecure.” – Shay Mitchell, actress, model, entrepreneur, author.
  • “I got made fun of constantly in high school. That’s what built my character. That’s what makes you who you are. When you get made fun of, when people point out your weakness, that’s just another opportunity for you to rise above (them).” – Zac Efron, actor.

Getting Help for Cyberbullying Online

The staff here at Bricolage Behavioral Health does not want teen mental health to continue being swept under the rug, and we want to help you and your family.

If you don’t know where to start or how to help your child who is experiencing cyberbullying, you can read some of our other blog posts that may be useful to you and learn about the mental health aspect related to bullying:

We believe the whole family gets stronger when their kids and adolescents live both functionally and happily. We offer services like: partial hospitalization (PHP) and intensive outpatient care, and even aftercare plans for a wide range of services including therapy, addiction treatment and more! 

We encourage you to talk with your kids and then reach out and talk to us. Call us for a mental health assessment for your teen today: 469-968-5700.

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