Cyberbullying 101: What is it, and how can we stop it?

by Elizabeth Jenike (Parsons), IT Services

With the focus this month on cybersecurity, we would be remiss if we didn’t spend some of our time talking about cyberbullying. The internet is a marvelous place full of new information and social interactions; however, negativities of the physical realm have followed us into the digital world in the form of cyberbullying.

“Cyberbullying” is a term that describes a range of activities that take place online which are aimed at scaring, shaming, or angering the target -- often through intimidating or threatening messages. Victims of cyberbullying can experience anxiety, depression, and even physical issues like stomachaches and headaches.

Depiction of someone in a cyberbullying situation, with digital words superimposed over her face so she is almost obscured

Of teens who use social media, 88 percent of them say that they have seen cruel messages aimed at another person through social media -- and 36 percent of students say they themselves have been cyberbullied. While these statistics largely apply to high school students, it’s still an ongoing issue in the higher education space, as well, and no one is left out of this equation; a study from 2013 found that even instructors have been bullied in the digital realm.

So what can we, as educators and professionals in the higher education community, do to pinpoint and prevent cyberbullying?

Signs of cyberbullying

To put it bluntly, if someone is messaging you online, won’t stop when asked, and their words make you feel bad, that’s bullying. Full stop.

If you are watching your friends, colleagues, or students for telltale signs they are being bullied online, these may include:

  • They stop using social media partly or even entirely.
  • They appear uneasy when using their devices.
  • They seem regularly depressed or distracted.

These do seem like generic depression and anxiety issues -- and it’s because this is a complex problem that can intersect with many people’s lives.

How to stop cyberbullying

Sometimes, folks don’t want to report cyberbullying because they may be worried about embarrassment or that nothing will be done about the problem. For those who have experienced cyberbullying, please consider reporting the incident to University officials. Words have the potential to be harmful, and reporting it will show the bully that their behavior is unacceptable.

Of course, we also run into issues where our bullies are anonymous. Social media apps have built-in reporting features that can help you block these kinds of attackers, but the emotional toll can still be hefty. It can help to talk to someone about your experiences -- someone you trust. And, as someone who wants to support your students and friends, the most important thing you can do is remind a bullied person that things will eventually improve.

If you are being bullied, here are some specific things you can do to respond:

  • Disengage immediately.
  • Print out or save evidence immediately, screenshots, etc.
  • Block, delete, or ban the harasser if the social media application or service allows.
  • Be wary of any new person attempting to contact you; bullies can create new personas easily, especially online, maybe even acting like a benign friend at first.
  • Report bullying to the site or network on which it occurs. They may deactivate the bully’s account.
  • Don’t overshare.
  • Report to law or legal authorities.
  • Take proof to the school or police if necessary.
  • Help a bullied person get involved in the real world and see real friends.
  • Help the bullied person join a support group for kids or adults who have been cyberbullied.
  • Do not sleep with your phone in your room.

It’s up to us

The regular platitudes about bullying apply to its digital cousin, as well. It’s up to everyone -- as individuals and as members of the same online community -- to come together and agree that cyberbullying needs to stop. Reporting known incidents of cyberbullying should be the first thing you do, and reach out to others in our community if you suspect they are experiencing these problems. Show you care, and offer support.

We’re all in this together!