Cyberbullying and bullying share similar characteristics, such as harassment and abuse. The key difference is that cyberbullying involves technology, with it taking place on the internet and other digital spaces. The effects of cyberbullying on a person can include low self-esteem, mental health issues, and suicidal ideation.

Cyberbullying usually involves technology devices, such as a smartphone, laptop, tablet, or gaming system, to harass, embarrass, or threaten a person. A cyberbully has 24/7 access to the person they are bullying and can remain anonymous if they choose to.

Cyberbullying can take the form of trolling, mobbing — which can involve targeting by a group or gang — stalking, grooming, encouraging a person online to self-harm or commit a crime, or any other form of online abuse.

Around 37% of young adults in the United States between the ages of 12—17 have experienced some form of cyberbullying. Some research suggests that victims of cyberbullying are at a greater risk of self-harm and suicidal behaviors.

This article will explain what effects cyberbullying can have on a person and what support is available for those involved.

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Cyberbullying, and bullying in general, is an act of aggression against others, leading to an imbalance of power between the bully and the victim. It can involve various forms of abuse — such as stalking or trolling, or harassment — in an online setting.

Sometimes cyberbullying is obvious, such as texting or posting negative messages about a person. Other times it can be less obvious — for instance, posting a person’s private information or sharing a hurtful or private photo or video. Effects can vary on a person but may involve:

  • feeling humiliated
  • depression
  • anger
  • frustration
  • loss of confidence
  • feelings of worthlessness
  • low self-esteem
  • increase in family problems
  • academic difficulties
  • violence in school
  • suicidal thoughts

Suicide prevention

If you know someone at immediate risk of self-harm, suicide, or hurting another person:

  • Ask the tough question: “Are you considering suicide?”
  • Listen to the person without judgment.
  • Call 911 or the local emergency number, or text TALK to 741741 to communicate with a trained crisis counselor.
  • Stay with the person until professional help arrives.
  • Try to remove any weapons, medications, or other potentially harmful objects.

If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide, a prevention hotline can help. The 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline is available 24 hours a day at 988. During a crisis, people who are hard of hearing can use their preferred relay service or dial 711 then 988.

Click here for more links and local resources.

For a child with near-constant access to devices, cyberbullying may feel inescapable. With no respite from the bullying, the effects on children can be very strong.

Statistics from 2007-2019 found that just over 36% of middle and high schoolers have been victims of cyberbullying.

Cyberbullying may affect how well a child performs at school as they may find it difficult to concentrate. If cyberbullying is extreme, regular, or goes on for a long time, a child may develop:

  • anxiety
  • depression
  • severe stress

Additional effects on the bullies themselves include being:

  • suspended or expelled from school
  • removed from a sports team
  • in legal trouble

Cyberbullying can have similar negative effects on teenagers. A 2018 scientific literature review analyzed data from 18 studies to determine what triggers the effects of cyberbullying on victims and the effects on the bullies and their targets.

The authors found connections between cyberbullying and:

  • sleeping problems
  • bed-wetting
  • headaches
  • recurrent abdominal pain
  • stomach ache
  • social anxiety
  • emotional disturbances
  • problems with their peers

The cyberbullies themselves were more likely to:

  • drop out of school
  • demonstrate delinquent behavior
  • misuse substances
  • use substances such as alcohol and tobacco
  • have severe depression
  • feel unsafe in school

According to research, cyberbullying victims were also 11.5 times more likely to have suicidal thoughts than than those who had not experienced bullying.

For both cyberbullies and their targets, cyberbullying was strongly associated with psychiatric, psychosocial, and psychosomatic disorders.

Read more about suicidal ideation here.

Cyberbullying is a problem that can last into young adulthood. For instance, a 2022 study in BMC Psychiatry analyzed survey data from 16,292 people in India ages 10—19 years. The results showed that:

  • people with cyberbullying experience were 2.07 times more likely to have symptoms of depression than people who had not been cyberbullied
  • people who had a cyberbullying experience were also 2.5 times more likely to think about ending their life than those who had not experienced cyberbullying

Whereas in-person bullying may bring some respite once a person gets away from the bully, cyberbullying can be difficult to escape.

One 2016 research review noted some distinct qualities of cyberbullying, which can make it harder to identify and more damaging. Cyberbullying can be:

  • inescapable, unending, and quickly reach large audiences
  • crueler than in-person bullying as the bully can remain anonymous and removed from the person they are bullying
  • an act by somebody perceived as a friend with intimate knowledge of the person they are bullying, the sharing of which can devastate the bullied person

In 2022, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) reported that cyberbullying is rising among adolescents and young adults in the U.S. The organization noted that more time spent online during the COVID-19 pandemic had boosted the problem.

The researchers found that adolescents who had experienced cyberbullying were at increased risk of thinking about and attempting suicide.

This increase in cyberbullying does not just exist in the U.S. For instance, a 2022 study using data from two of the most densely populated states in India found that cyberbullying had increased from 3.8% to 6.4% among females and 1.9% to 5.6% among males over a three-year period.

Internet safety not-for-profit Enough Is Enough also says that around 50% of children experience some form of cyberbullying during their life. Additionally, 44% of children who had experienced cyberbullying prior to the pandemic lockdown reported that it happened more frequently during the lockdown.

Going viral

Another element that may mean cyberbullying can be more harmful than in-person bullying is the viral element. If something is put online, it can grow virally, meaning the pool of those who see it is limitless, along with the potential for more online abuse.

Cyberbullying is a serious problem with potentially fatal consequences, but there are things people can do to reduce the chances of it happening.

Limits on social media

Although it is hurtful, checking social media to see if there are new messages from the bully can be irresistible. Limiting the use of devices, including computers, cellphones, and game consoles, can break the cycle of what may feel like 24/7 bullying. A person can also block the bully from contacting them on their apps.

Parental involvement

Parents can help their children and teenagers by keeping computers and laptops in shared spaces at home. They may also be able to switch off the child’s messaging services during certain hours and talk with them about how they use the internet and social media.

Apps and smartphones usually come with parental controls that give parents access to their children’s online communications.

What can schools do?

Teachers also spend a lot of the day with children and teenagers, so there are methods they can use in the classroom or other group settings to help reduce cyberbullying.

For instance, if a teacher suspects cyberbullying, they should speak in private with the child being cyberbullied, who may have proof on a device such as a smartphone. The teacher can also speak to the child’s parent and facilitate discussions between the child, parent, and school.

Teachers can also increase their awareness of the digital world to better understand how children’s online behavior relates to cyberbullying. In the classroom, they can run sessions that encourage the children to identify and talk about what they think and feel.

A person may benefit from using strategies to distract themselves from self-harming during difficult times.

Techniques a person can try include:

  • talking about their feelings with a friend, family member, trained volunteer, or health professional
  • going out for a walk, listening to music, or doing something to distract themselves, as the need to self-harm may pass if they wait
  • doing calming breathing exercises or relaxing activities to reduce anxiety
  • writing down their feelings
  • reading about support for feelings like stress, anxiety, and depression
  • making a safety plan in case they have suicidal thoughts

Speaking to a qualified counselor can give a person the support they need to make changes that help them to reduce or stop self-harming.

Several organizations help people to access bullying support groups. The National Association of People against Bullying (NAPAB) can intervene and mediate for children who experience bullying. They also help and provide ongoing support for students, parents, and teachers to start their own anti-bullying club.

The STOMP Out Bullying™ and StopBullying.gov websites also feature various information and resources to help reduce and prevent all kinds of bullying, cyberbullying, and other digital abuse.

Cyberbullying involves using a digital device to harass, embarrass, or threaten another person. The effects can be hurtful, cause physical health problems, and, in the most severe cases, can result in suicide.

Cyberbullying can be worse than in-person bullying because it is difficult to walk away from the situation. Parents and teachers have roles to play in understanding children’s online behavior, so they can help to reduce cyberbullying.