Online bullies have a target audience—most often their friends and acquaintances.

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Whether by Android, iPhone, Snapchat or Instagram, researchers say that a hurtful word or picture can impact children as much as a physical blow – and with a lasting impact. 

However, the cyberbully is usually able to act quietly, anonymously, frequently and sometimes even without visual evidence of trauma.

About 43% of kids have been victims of an online bully, with some kids experiencing it more than once. 

Parents and educators are left wondering what motivates the bully, what keeps the victim silent and what they can collectively do to stop the violence.

About 43% of kids have been victims of an online bully, with some kids experiencing it more than once.

The Bully

Online bullies have a target audience—most often their friends and acquaintances. Most victims are known to the perpetrator and many perpetrators will shrug off an attack as “just a joke.” However, the “jokes” continue and often become more abusive over time. There are some interesting characteristics about the bully that parents should know:

  1. The bully may target others online because it can be anonymous. They can avoid facing the victim and believe they will not get caught.
  2. However, the bully often sabotages their anonymity as they seek attention, hoping that others will find the teasing as “funny” as they do. The bully may be looking to find rank within a group of others who may encourage their behavior.
  3. Bullies often have difficulty empathizing with those on the other side of the “joke,” which may stem from their own difficulty fitting in. Many of these kids have less involved parents or their parents may not see much wrong with a “silly online joke” which is interpreted as harmless juvenile behavior.
  4. Bullies fall on both ends of the social spectrum—the kids on the fringe and the “cool kids” who are popular among their peers. Each end of the spectrum finds kids who are vulnerable—those who lack “status” and those who are afraid to lose the status they believe they have. Taking advantage of another gives these vulnerable bullies social currency as they jockey for position.

The Bullied

The victim of online bullying often suffers in silence. Researchers estimate that only one in 10 kids will inform a parent when they’re suffering from online harassment. And when parents don’t know, they can’t intervene. Here are some common characteristics of a child who may be experiencing bullying— either online or in person:

  • Increased School Phobia or Anxiety  Kids who are experiencing social stress or trauma, whether online or in the school hallways, may resist going to school. Additionally, their grades and attendance may begin to drop and behavior that’s out of the ordinary may begin to show.
  • Changes in Mood or Attitude  Students who experience pervasive bullying can experience depression, hopelessness and suicidal thoughts.
  • Changes in Appearance  Kids who have been subject to ongoing trauma may stop eating, change their dress and habits, stop taking care of their hygiene, or isolate themselves as they opt out of regular activities.

The Parents

Parents are often left in the dark when their kids are experiencing cyberbullying. Staying aware of the symptoms is important and asking good questions about your child’s day-to-day activities is key.  Here are some preventions and interventions you can begin to adopt:

  1. Have regular conversations with your child about what constitutes a truly funny joke and what kinds of “jokes” are actually acts of teasing or harassment.
  2. Pay attention to your child’s nonverbal cues that things may not be well with them. Find ways to ask about their social and emotional well-being, and be prepared to understand their actions as more than just an adolescent mood that could compound their feelings of alienation.
  3. Find a village of parents and educators who can offer guidance or advice and take action regarding your concerns. Bullying is not a phase and it may persist unless addressed in an intentional manner.

While the technologies which kids use to bully may change, the human impulse to harass has long been with us. The shame and embarrassment of bullying continues today in many of same hallways we attended school in, but the behaviors, bullies, and victims may be unseen when their actions take place via text or online. 

Today’s parents and educators need to combine an awareness of teenagers’ technologies with a strong commitment to good old-fashioned parenting.

About Charlene Underhill Miller, PhD

Charlene Underhill Miller, PhD is a psychotherapist in Southern California with private practices in Santa Monica and Malibu. She helps parents, children, couples and individuals. A graduate of UCLA and Fuller School of Psychology, Dr. Miller also is involved in school-based education and consultation, an adjunct faculty member of the Pepperdine University Graduate School of Psychology, a wife, mother, and stepmother. 

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