5 Signs of Cyberbullying: How to Know if a Student is a Victim

Editor’s Note: This blog post was originally published in December 2019 and titled “5 Signs of Cyberbullying.” It was updated in October 2023 to reflect the most current information.

Tens of thousands of children are victims of cyberbullying each year. The Boys & Girls Club of America’s 2023 Youth Right Now survey, which gathered responses from more than 130,000 kids between the ages of 9 and 18, found that 18% of them had been cyberbullied in the past year. Cyberbullying.org data from 2021 suggests teenagers between the ages of 13 and 17 may be at even greater risk, with 23.7% of girls and 21.9% of boys reporting they’d been cyberbullied.

What is Cyberbullying?

As the name implies, cyberbullying is a form of bullying that typically happens in cyberspace (aka on the internet). As digital technologies have advanced, however, cyberbullying is generally agreed to be bullying that is perpetrated via any form of technology or digital device. 

StopBullying.gov defines cyberbullying as:

“Bullying that takes place over digital devices like cell phones, computers, and tablets. Cyberbullying includes sending, posting, or sharing negative, harmful, false, or mean content about someone else. It can include sharing personal or private information about someone else causing embarrassment or humiliation. Some cyberbullying crosses the line into unlawful or criminal behavior.”

Where Cyberbullying Occurs

Before device usage became pervasive among young people, students who were being bullied at school were able to get some relief at the end of the school day by returning to the safety of home. Today, though, students can’t escape the harassment and abuse when it’s being conducted on devices and online platforms that are accessible anytime and anywhere. The sad reality is that cyberbullying happens 24/7 and on a variety of digital platforms. 

Cyberbullying can occur anywhere people can view, participate in, or share content, according to StopBullying.gov. A study conducted by the cybersecurity comparison site Comparitech found the most popular places where cyberbullying among kids occurs are:

  • Social media platforms
  • Text messages
  • Online video game sites
  • Non-social media Internet sites

The most popular apps or sites in use among teens in 2022 were YouTube, TikTok, Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook, Twitter, Twitch, WhatsApp, Reddit, and Tumblr. Not surprisingly, incidents of cyberbullying can –  and do – occur on each of them.

5 Signs of Cyberbullying to Look Out for

1. Social or School Avoidance

Ditch the Label, a global non-profit that supports adolescents and young adults with challenges like bullying and mental health, found that 37% of people develop social anxiety and exhibit social avoidance behaviors as a result of bullying. They do this to avoid their bully as well as other students who might know about the bullying. 

Cyberbullied students might withdraw from in-person events or situations they previously enjoyed, like parties, sports games, and school events. They might also skip class or fake an illness to avoid going to school altogether. These events are often ones that typically have brought the student joy in the past.

2. Changes in Device Usage

Some students who are cyberbullied exhibit an increase in device use. You might notice them sneaking devices to their bedroom or bathroom for privacy, staying online for long periods of time, being evasive about their online activity or seeming distracted from the physical world. 

Other students go the other direction, drastically reducing their time spent online to avoid bullying attacks. They may stop communicating via text, using social media sites, and gaming online.

3. Symptoms and Signs of Depression

Signs of depression in kids that include sadness, being withdrawn, quietness, appetite changes, sleep issues, and new anxiety can be warning signs that cyberbullying is occurring. These can also be indicators of other problems, so you should investigate thoroughly. 

Educators and parents should also communicate with each other when these types of concerns or changes in behavior occur to get additional context to help determine if cyberbullying could be involved.

4. Drop in Grades or Academic Performance

A study conducted at UCLA several years ago found that bullying and low academic achievement are linked. It’s suspected that students who are bullied participate less in class for fear of being singled out. This lack of participation can cause students to be labeled as low achievers, which in turn begins a chain reaction that causes their academic performance to decline. 

If a student demonstrates a sharp or unexpected drop in grades or performance at school, cyberbullying should certainly not be ruled out as its root cause.

5. Feeling of Anxiety or Distress After Being Online

Cyberbullying, like traditional bullying, is a way of exerting power and control over others who appear to be vulnerable or weak. The victims of this type of emotional and social manipulation are often left feeling humiliated, ashamed, or worse, and these emotions are often difficult to hide.

It may seem obvious, but if you notice that a student appears distraught during or after they’re on their computer, laptop, or phone, use it as an opportunity to offer support and check in.

Why Cyberbullying Prevention is Critical

The supposed link between cyberbullying and suicide has been widely studied and validated. Cyberbullying victims are also three times as likely to engage in delinquent behavior. Because of the risks and negative implications involved, the need for cyberbullying prevention is more critical now than ever. 

Source: Association of Cyberbullying Experiences and Perpetration With Suicidality in Early Adolescence, JAMA Network Open, June 27, 2022.

Equally important is the ability to detect cyberbullying when it’s occurring. Of those students who experienced bullying of any kind, 38% did not tell an adult what they experienced. This puts even more of the onus on school leaders, teachers, parents, and caregivers to understand and recognize the signs of cyberbullying.

How to Prevent Cyberbullying

Parents surveyed in the previously mentioned Comparitech study shared that they’re taking measures to address cyberbullying head on, including educating their kids about safe internet practices, documenting evidence of the bullying, helping their kids block perpetrators, and talking directly to the bullies’ parents.

More than six in 10 (65.8%) of the parents interviewed also believe that schools should hold students accountable for cyberbullying. While making students take responsibility for their actions is certainly necessary, the better goal for schools may be earlier identification. 

New Tools to Detect Cyberbullying

Heartbreaking stories about children who’ve died by suicide after experiencing cyberbullying reinforce the urgency to prioritize bullying prevention, including specific cyberbullying prevention measures. However, while the signs of in-person bullying are often visible, cyberbullying can be much harder to detect.

It’s not impossible, though.

Student wellness monitoring is relied upon by thousands of districts and schools to help them detect and quickly respond to this and other threats to student safety and wellness. If you’re a K-12 school administrator, counselor, or mental health professional, get the guide to learn more about student wellness monitoring

If you or someone you know is a victim of bullying, help is available. Visit StopBullying.gov for a comprehensive set of resources.

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