The Psychological Effects of Cyberbullying
Cyberbullying has become a growing concern for many parents, especially when news stories reveal the tragic consequences of cyberbullying. There have been dozens of incidences just within the past few years of teenagers committing suicide or engaging in acts of violence as a result of being harassed or subjected to other forms of mistreatment by their peers.
From an outsider’s perspective, it might be difficult to understand how a young person can take words exchanged online quite so seriously, to the point that they will act to end their own life or retaliate against others. After all, cyberbullying occurs on the Internet; it’s not physical in any way. However, the issue is so much more complicated than words simply being exchanged and then leading to horrible and even lethal outcomes. There are many more variables involved and events that transpire from the moment a teenager gets cyberbullied to the instance where they either consider suicide or act to retaliate against the perpetrator(s) and even towards innocent people. It’s essential for parents, teachers, coaches, mentors, counselors, and everyone involved in the lives of teens to understand the severe effects of cyberbullying and the harm it can do to teens, to our communities, and to society as a whole.
What is cyberbullying?
Cyberbullying has many of the same characteristics as ‘traditional’ or in-person bullying that we have all either witnessed or maybe even experienced at some point in our lives. The difference is that cyberbullying among teens is a form of emotional abuse that is likely far more difficult for adults to target, control, and stop or prevent entirely. This is one of the factors that makes cyberbullying so dangerous: The fact that it can occur covertly for an extended period of time.
Cyberbullying occurs in the virtual world of text messages, social media posts, online comments, video uploads, live stories, chats…the list goes on and on. Unless your child tells you that he/she is being cyberbullied and/or shows you specific online content where the abuse is occurring, it could be challenging for you to find the sources of abuse and harassment on your own.
In-person bullying and cyberbullying elicit the same emotional consequences, which includes the victim being targeted by one or more perpetrators (i.e., the bully or bullies) and teased, made fun of, harassed, threatened, embarrassed, ridiculed, or otherwise targeted in a public manner where they feel exposed, fearful, and vulnerable. The victim is often unable to defend themselves in order to stop the abuse either because they are outnumbered, are developmentally not mature enough to cope with or handle the situation, or the bully/bullies are engaging in victimization that is severe and persistent.
Bullying and cyberbullying psychologically wear down the victim’s sense of self and self-esteem and contributes to feelings of hopelessness, helplessness, and worthlessness. This is primarily if the bullying occurs over a long period and if the victim is not provided with any support or protection. A key feature to keep in mind when considering the psychological effects of bullying is that it is a form of emotional trauma and like any trauma, the victim has a chance at a better outcome, as far as their mental health, if he/she can defend themselves and stop the abuse from continuing.
The notion that cyberbullying is ‘safer’ than in-person bullying because after all, your child is not at risk of being physically harmed, is false. Emotional abuse can have severe effects on a teen’s emotional health, consequences that can be just as harmful or even more severe than physical abuse from a bully in the schoolyard. These effects include depression, anxiety, poor academic performance, isolation, low self-esteem, alcohol/drug use/abuse, and behavioral problems. An interesting fact is that research has shown that these emotional effects of bullying and cyberbullying are not just seen in the victim. The bully him/herself also displays these severe consequences.
Cyberbullying & Adolescent Development
The adolescent years are a period of development where your teen’s social world means everything to them. At this stage, peer relationships become your child’s primary focus. They begin to show greater interest in romantic relationships, going out on dates or with groups of male and female friends, and in many cases, things like physical appearance and their clothing and personal style become a top priority.
Due to the general chemical changes going on during child development, your child may feel more insecure. The fact that your child is in this socially sensitive period of development makes them more vulnerable to the consequences of cyberbullying. Cyberbullies will not just post mean or nasty comments; they can also post and spread photos or video content of the victim or digitally alter a photo with the intention of humiliating the victim. The goal of the cyberbully is to publicly expose the victim and draw negative attention to the victim and in the teen years, this is exponentially more humiliating.
Being made fun of, threatened, or shamed in an online forum where hundreds or thousands of people can potentially view the content is equivalent to your teen’s worst nightmare. The truth is that cyberbullying is harmful to anyone, adults or teenagers alike. The difference is that teenagers do not yet have the developmental maturity to cope with this form of harassment. Their self-esteem is just beginning to develop and strengthen; therefore, they may internalize and believe the comments and criticisms spread by the cyberbully. Your teen’s nightmare can turn into reality once they feel that everyone is looking at them, thinking and believing whatever the cyberbully is trying to project. What’s worse is that cyberbullying sometimes doesn’t simply remain an online problem; it can lead to continued bullying that occurs in-person, such as during school hours or after school activities and in other social settings where your teen may interact with the online bully/bullies. Cyberbullying can even shift from teasing, humiliation, and harassment to actual threats to the victim’s safety.
Some teens might share with their parents, school personnel, and/or other adult figures that they are being bullied online while others may suffer in silence due to fear of consequences, shame/embarrassment, or lack of support, among many other reasons. There are even cases where bullying is reported, but not taken seriously until the abuse escalates to a more severe or even tragic extent. We can’t prevent cyberbullying entirely, but a primary must be on ensuring that the abuse is caught early and stopped before your teen suffers more serious consequences. The cyberbully must also receive immediate intervention. Communication, awareness, and a no-cyberbullying tolerance stance are critical to addressing and targeting cyberbullying.
Together we can make a stronger digital future for younger generations.