What you need to know about cyberbullying and teens

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When harassment and intimidation take place online, it’s called cyberbullying. This kind of bullying can be especially hard to deal with, since it can be difficult to control and visible to a large number of people. Chances are your child spends a lot of time online, so it’s important to make sure you know what to do if online behaviour gets nasty. Learn what cyberbullying is, how it impacts young people, and get some tips on how you and your child can deal with it.

This can help if you:

  • want to know what cyberbullying, or ‘internet bullying’, is

  • think your child could be experiencing or involved in cyberbullying in some way

  • want to find out how you can help.

What is cyberbullying?

We don't necessarily know why kids bully or cyberbully; what we do know is that cyberbullying is the deliberate, persistent and malicious use of words or pictures in an online environment intended to cause harm to someone’s wellbeing.

Research undertaken by Kids Helpline found that the most common age for cyberbullying is the transition period between primary and high school when young people are around 11 or 12, but it happens throughout the teenage years so it’s important to be aware. Unfortunately, cyberbullying is really common, with the eSafety Commissioner reporting that almost one in two young Australians have had a negative online experience in the last six months.

What does cyberbullying look like?

Cyberbullying amongst teens comes in many forms but the most common are:

  • receiving intentionally hurtful text messages, emails or direct messages on social media sites

  • people spreading rumours or lies about someone online

  • people sending images or videos intended to humiliate or embarrass someone

  • people sending threats to someone

  • people setting up and using fake online profiles to embarrass or intimidate someone.

Cyberbullying is most commonly done through social media. While social media is a great way to keep in touch with friends, how easy it is to use and access means that cyberbullying on social media can be common. Learn more about keeping your teen safe on social media.

How is it different to other forms of bullying?

Bullying is a kind of behaviour that is designed to cause intentional harm. Cyberbullying can be even more distressing because of its very public and uncontrollable nature. For example:

  • there’s no limit to who can view or take part in cyberbullying

  • it can be very difficult to remove content shared online

  • it can be anonymous

  • content can be accessed through search engines

It’s hard for people to escape bullying, especially if they use technology in their everyday lives. It’s suggested that young people can be more likely to bully someone online than they would in real-life, as they feel less accountable for their actions due to the nature of the online world.

What are the effects of cyberbullying?

The effects of cyberbullying on teenagers can range from:

  • lower school attendance and performance

  • increased stress and anxiety

  • feelings of isolation and fear

  • poor concentration

  • depression

  • decreased self-esteem and confidence

  • in extreme cases the cyberbullying can lead to suicide.

The effects of cyberbullying are similar to the effects of bullying, but the main difference is that it's much harder to avoid, because it can follow your teen home from school and make them feel like they'll never be able to escape it. Make sure your child knows it's not their fault, they're not alone, and that there are ways to deal with cyberbullying.

If you've noticed some warning signs in your teenager's behavior, you might be worried that they're thinking about suicide. Read more about how talk to your teen about suicide here.

Keep your teenager safe online

Research from the eSafety Commissioner reveals that teens are more likely to deal with negative experiences online themselves or by talking to friends and family. Around 43 per cent of teens confided in a family member or friend about their experience while only around 40 per cent reported being cyberbullied. Some reasons for this low number may include embarrassment, fear of not being believed, fear of having the issue trivialised, or losing access to technology. 

Taking proactive steps to educate your child about what they can do about cyberbullying can be a good way to ensure they approach you for support when they need it. In fact, one study shows that 38 per cent of teens want more online safety information from their parents and carers. Here’s what you can do to help them:

  • Ensure that your child’s social media accounts are set to private, and that they only accept friend requests from people they know in real life.

  • Chat with your teen about not sharing personal information online. For example, passwords, their full name, address, phone number and what school the go to.

  • Chat to your teenager about sharing photos online, especially risqué ones. Explain that once they’re online they can lose control of who sees them pretty quickly and that can lead to name-calling and shaming unfortunately.

  • Remind them to ignore messages from people they don’t know. The internet can be a great place to make new friends but it is still super important to be extra cautious due to fake accounts and trolls

  • Make sure they know that cyberbullying is wrong and they shouldn’t do it. If your teenager engages in this sort of behaviour online it may open doors for people to think they have an excuse to cyberbully your child.

  • Ensure that your child knows how to block, delete or report anyone who is upsetting them online.

As much as your teen might enjoy being online, it’s important to get them engaged in offline activities. That way if something does happen online they have other things to do that they enjoy and other friends to talk to.

LGBTQIA+ teens are almost twice as likely to experience cyberbullying according to research from Buffalo University. If this includes your teen, it’s important to encourage them to be safe online and know they have a range of support available to them. If you don’t know where to start, you can check out our list of LGBTQIA+ support services.

What to do if your child is being cyberbullied

If you know your child is being cyberbullied, the first thing to do is to be supportive and empathetic. Make sure that they know it’s not their fault. Cyberbullying is serious and upsetting, so try not to minimise or trivialise the situation in order to make your child ‘feel better’. Avoid the temptation to stop your child going online at all; this will more likely result in them not telling you if it occurs again.

Support your child with cyberbullying emotionally

  • Speak to your child and really listen to what they have to say. Thank them for opening up to you, and let them know that you want to put an end to the bullying.

  • Never blame your child for experiencing cyberbullying. The way young people interact online may seem excessive to adults, but bullying is never the fault of the person being bullied.

  • Acknowledge their feelings and don’t try to dismiss their experiences, even if it doesn’t seem like a big deal to you.

  • Reassure them that there are people who can offer support, whether this is you, their teachers or other professionals and services.

  • Help them understand and set boundaries with friends who may be responsible for cyberbullying them.

  • Learn more about communicating effectively with your teen here.

If you need cyberbullying material removed or want to report it

If there are any videos, photos or comments being used to harm your teen, the fastest way to get them removed is to report it. Most sites and apps allow you to report offensive content through settings, help or privacy. Individual posts and comments also have a ‘...’ feature that you click and use to report. If you’re having trouble finding where to report cyberbullying, check out the eSafety guide.

If you haven’t heard back within 48 hours and the cyberbullying is causing serious harm to your teen’s wellbeing, you can make a report to eSafety.

If you need more information on how to address cyberbullying situations and for general cyberbullying safety tips, learn how to deal with online bullying here.

What to do if your child feels unsafe

If your child feels unsafe, for example if someone is threatening them or your family, call the police on 000 to get help.

If your child is distressed about the bullying, encourage them to speak to a mental health professional, or direct them to services that can help. This may be a school counsellor, or a service like Kids Helpline.