Why Cyberbullying Hurts and How to Handle It

The internet has raised bullying to a new level. How can you cope?

Posted Nov 20, 2019

On September 22, 2010, 18-year-old Tyler Clementi jumped to his death from the George Washington Bridge. He had been a student at Rutgers, one of many hopeful young people starting a thrilling new phase of life at college. But only three days before his suicide, he had experienced an extreme case of cyberbullying.

Tyler's roommate and another classmate had used a webcam to spy on him kissing another male student. They posted about it on Twitter, even going as far as to invite others to tune in for a second viewing. It’s impossible to say what Tyler felt when he found out—all we know is that he took his own life within days.

Sadly, Tyler’s tragedy isn't an isolated event. In 2019, a large survey by the Cyberbullying Research Center in the U.S. found that 30 percent of teens had experienced some form of cyber aggression in the last month. The things they experienced included:

  • Being the target of rumors
  • Mean or prejudiced remarks
  • Being impersonated by someone
  • Threats and intimidation

Cyberbullying is more than a matter of hurt feelings. A 2018 study of over 31,000 teens found that cyberbullying was a strong predictor of emotional and behavioral problems and that this effect remained even when traditional bullying was accounted for. We also know that being a victim (and, interestingly, being a perpetrator) is linked to having more suicidal thoughts and attempts.

You might think it’s only teens who are affected, but adults also experience online aggression and provocation. A 2015 survey of young women, the majority in their 20s, found that one in five had repeatedly received unsolicited, sexually obscene messages and solicitations.

While this particular study focused on women and their experiences, it’s important to point out that men also experience cyber aggression. Curiously, one study on perceptions about cyberbullying found that men’s reports of these experiences aren’t taken as seriously, and people tend to blame the victim more if it’s a man. Regardless of age, gender, or other factors, we have to be conscientious not to overlook people’s experiences of cyberbullying.

What do we know about cyberbullying, and what can we do about it?

The vastness of the internet and the anonymity of social media make for unique modern challenges. The online world has only become mainstream in the past few decades, but teens and adults are dealing with a whole new type of bullying because of it. We have to understand what makes cyberbullying so damaging to help us prevent and cope with it.

1. The internet allows perpetrators to be more anonymous and removed, which amplifies the ferocity of aggression.

When you think of the classic playground bully, what comes to mind? They’re combative, cruel, and not exactly prone to empathy. This applies to cyberbullies, too—perpetrators tend to be less empathetic, less able to put themselves in someone else’s shoes. The problem is that the internet makes it much easier for a person to lean into this trait.

Looking someone in the eye as you humiliate and hurt them is much harder than doing so behind the screen. Most people aren't capable of inflicting emotional pain on another when they're up close and personal.

But online, we're physically removed from one another. We can't see the fear in someone's eyes. We don't even need to show our faces when we interact. That dynamic can make some people less guarded. And if someone already leans toward aggression, this anonymity and distance may be all they need to be drawn into bad behavior they wouldn't normally risk in person. 

Because so many more people are capable of casting nasty threats from behind a keyboard than face-to-face, this makes cyberbullying particularly difficult to combat. When we go into cyberspace, we step into a world of less inhibited, less accountable, and less empathetic people.

What to do about it:

  • Don’t friend strangers on Facebook. Even if the people you know are less inhibited on Facebook, they can’t hide behind total anonymity.
  • If you engage with someone on Twitter, Reddit, or another platform, immediately block them if they use threatening, harassing, or prejudiced comments.
  • You can make a choice not to engage. Cyberbullies aren't looking for a meaningful conversation with you, so no amount of reasonable arguments will persuade them. In fact, your discomfort could reinforce and feed their behavior. Silence is the least satisfying response they can get from you.
  • Get support from forum moderators, other participants in the conversation, and the people in your offline life. 

2. Bystanders to cyberbullying are less likely to step in and help.

The distance and anonymity the internet creates also makes us worse bystanders. If one person witnesses a physical assault, the victim has a potential ally, or at least someone to call for help. If a hundred people witness an assault, nobody feels like it’s their responsibility or their place to step in—someone else will do it. And sometimes they might even think that what’s happening must be normal. This is called the Bystander Effect, and it happens online to an even greater extent.

This dispersion of responsibility leaves victims feeling more isolated and makes perpetrators more emboldened.

What to do about it:

  • You can make a change! If you're a bystander, step in and call out bad behavior, and reach out to the victim to offer your support.
  • Invite others by name to also add their support.
  • Focus on the act of the behavior itself, not the person perpetrating it. Aim your response at calling out bad behavior and supporting the victim rather than shaming the perpetrator. Fighting bullying with more bullying isn't the answer.
Antonio Guillem/Shutterstock
Source: Antonio Guillem/Shutterstock

3. Cyberbullying can be hard to escape.

The internet exists 24/7 all around the world, and we use it every day. There isn’t a physically safe location, such as home, the workplace, or even out of town during a vacation, where a victim can be totally out of reach. Sometimes, you can’t even pursue a geographic restraining order to escape the harassment.

In 2008, Melissa Anelli started getting threatening messages from someone in New Zealand. These sexual and violent messages became more and more graphic and upsetting, and eventually, she and her family members were receiving postcards and phone calls from the stalker.

Melissa is an author and webmaster of The Leaky Cauldron, a Harry Potter fansite. Her experience of cyberstalking was a perfect case study of how difficult it can be to escape. Because the stalker, who was a fan Melissa had banned from a Leaky Cauldron forum for offensive comments, did not live in the U.S. as Melissa did, the police had no authority.

The offender was eventually arrested in New Zealand, but Melissa has reported that the harassment never fully ended. 

What to do about it:

Through perseverance, Melissa Anelli was able to get some help from international law enforcement, but she has also talked publicly about how traumatizing this experience has been. Cyberbullying incidents don't have to be as extreme as Melissa's to be a frustrating and upsetting experience.

  • Give yourself breaks from the internet and social media so you can create safe spaces and times for yourself IRL.
  • Engage with your resources to protect yourself. Keep records of the harassment, report incidents to webmasters or forum moderators, report stalking and hate crimes to law enforcement, and safeguard personal information, like your address and social security number.
  • Try your best to let go of what you can't control and focus on what you can. Instead of rereading offensive messages, spend your time and mental space on other areas of your life that are fulfilling and give you a sense of mastery. Remember that in this case, “letting go” is not resignation or defeat, but rather an empowering choice you can make.

4. Cyberbullying is incredibly isolating.

We can’t see the bruises and scars left by cyber aggression, but the emotional damage can be just as bad as physical marks. Ironically, while the abuse can be invisible, it can also be very exposing.

When something makes its way to the internet, it tends to spread and stay. Even years after the initial cyberbullying, there may be permanent records of demeaning videos, sexually intimate pictures, and vicious rumors that follow a victim. This can affect every relationship, or hopeful relationship, this person has for the rest of their life.

These factors make cyberbullying a particularly isolating type of trauma. It may be hard to reach out for social support, because you may feel intimidated or embarrassed about what's going on. I can imagine, for example, that if someone’s ex-partner spread nude pictures of them on the internet, the last thing they would want is to share the experience with their family and friends and ask for emotional support.

Even when there's no embarrassing material present, being the recipient of repeated harassment, it can be difficult to share. Remember the statistic I talked about earlier that said 20 percent of young women in one study had received repeated, unwanted sexual messages? That study also found that a large number of women internalized the harassment. Keeping the harassment to themselves affected not only their mood but even their appetite and sleep.

What to do about it:

  • Get social support. It’s important to find and lean on people you can trust, people who will want to help you instead of judging you.
  • If you don’t feel comfortable sharing with family or friends, you can also reach out to a mental health professional, who will not only be nonjudgmental but also bound by confidentiality.
  • Remember that you are not alone. It’s possible that the stress of isolation will cause you more grief than the stress of sharing your embarrassing experience with someone who cares.