Cyberbullying – What is it and how do we manage it?

By Sakuni Weerasinghe

Let’s be honest, the first thing most of us do as soon as we open our eyes in the morning is check our phones; often scrolling our social media pages for a good hour or two before we even remember to have breakfast – we are constantly engaged with the world around us. It’s great to feel so connected and it is wonderful to feel remembered through a message or a comment by another person – be it family, friends, or a stranger. Yet, sometimes we experience the dark side of electronic media in the form of nasty comments, unwarranted images via private messages, and constant harassment, to name a few.

Cyberbullying can be defined as the intentional and repeated harm inflicted on others through the use of electronic media. Cyberbullying can take various forms. Harassment, using messages and email to threaten or embarrass the target, can be considered as one form. This includes posting rumours, threats, or embarrassing information on various social media sites. Another form is impersonating someone. This includes assuming the online identity of the victim for example by developing a screen name that is similar to that of the victim and then posting rude or hurtful remarks, and chatting with others including close friends and family while pretending to be the victim. A common presentation of this is in the form of catfishing, wherein another person who is unsuspecting is lured into a relationship under false pretences.

Cyberbullying also includes taking nude or degrading pictures of the victim, threatening to share those embarrassing photos as a way of controlling or blackmailing the victim. Recording and sharing videos of acts of bullying intended to further humiliate and embarrass the victim is yet another form of cyberbullying. The perpetrators may also post humiliating, embarrassing, or insulting content on gossip sites or create a website altogether to post them.

The main demarcation between cyberbullying or online bullying and offline bullying is that the bully is shielded by anonymity so the victim does not know who the perpetrator is or why they are being targeted in the first place. Owing to the trends in social media and the propensity for content posted online to be shared across multiple platforms, there is an increased chance for bullying actions to go viral. Furthermore, the victim’s response to the act of bullying is not always visible to the perpetrator, which can result in him/her not seeing the harm inflicted. In that case, we could see how many readily defend their behaviour by saying things such as “it was just a comment”.

One may even wonder if the perpetrators would pause to reflect on their actions had they realised the feelings evoked in the victim by the acts of bullying. Feeling vulnerable and powerless is a key marker in the victims of bullying. Primarily, they may not feel safe. While victims may avoid people and places associated with offline bullying, the same cannot be done when it comes to cyberbullying, owing to its nature since it occurs irrespective of a location. The anonymity of online bullies means they could be anywhere, which in itself escalates the fear of them being anywhere and everywhere. The situations can often leave the victim feeling overwhelmed, feeling like they are unable to handle the situation.

With social media and the possibility of the mass sharing of humiliating or degrading material, the fear is further exacerbated. Once the content is posted online, it usually remains available in some form to many others, which leads to heightened feelings of embarrassment, humiliation, and the feeling of being exposed. Often enough, cyberbullies attack where we feel most vulnerable. This is evident from the numerous comments left particularly on women’s profiles with relation to weight and perceived beauty. The danger in doing so is that the victim may start believing in such commentary and become dissatisfied with who they are, which would lead them to alter things about themselves in hopes that they would be better liked. Tearing apart the victim’s self-confidence and self-esteem results in the person developing many stress-related conditions whether it is physical illnesses or mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression and associated self-harm behaviours.

Recent statistics surrounding cyberbullying are quite alarming. According to statistics from a study conducted by the Cyberbullying Research Centre using a sample from the US, about 37% of young people between the ages of 12 and 17 have been found to be bullied online and 30% have had it happen more than once. While about half of young people have experienced some form of cyberbullying, 10-20% experience it regularly. Special populations are more vulnerable to becoming targets of bullying; for example, it has been found that about half of LGBTQ+ students experience online harassment which is a rate higher than the average. While 60% of young people have witnessed online bullying, most do not intervene.

In recent studies, four out of five students (81%) have stated that they would be more likely to intervene in instances of cyberbullying if it can be done anonymously. Furthermore, The Harford County Examiner reported that only one in 10 teen victims will inform a parent or trusted adult of their abuse. As for adults, in Australia, around 10% of adults admit to having been victims of cyberbullying, whereas in the US, 75% of adults have seen cyberbullying taking place around them.

Ways to manage cyberbullying

  • While reading nasty comments can be angering, try not to retaliate and react with a harmful comment of your own. It will only keep you trapped in the bully-victim cycle
  • Keep a record, for example screenshots, of the material linked to the acts of cyberbullying
  • Block and report offending users on social media platforms
  • When you know the perpetrator, report them to the appropriate authorities
  • Share your experience with a trusted person, such as a family member, friend, colleague, or professional. It is okay to talk! The experience of being cyberbullied can be very isolating, and talking can enable you to realise that you are loved and supported
  • Join a support group to help you understand how to manage it better and share your experience that could help someone else feel less alone 
  • Remind yourself that the comments of the cyberbullies are more of a reflection of themselves, rather than of you. Try to remind yourself of your values and qualities and try not to trust the beliefs they seem to be conveying
  • Before you post something, pause and reflect on how what you are sharing might affect the other person. If there is any harm conceivable, do not post it