Michele Ybarra MPH, Ph.D.


Four Ways that Online Harassment Can Be Upsetting for Youth

Not all online harassment results in distress, so when does it happen?

Posted Apr 21, 2015

We are all interconnected through the Internet—particularly today’s youth, the vast majority of whom are now online.[1] The Internet has countless benefits, including increased access to health care information, more consumer choices of products and vendors, and connection with friends and family. With the good comes the bad, however: While most youth think social media and other online spaces have more pros than cons, almost 90% of teens have witnessed someone their age being mean to someone else online. Indeed, one in six social media-using teens is at the receiving end of online harassment. [1]

Of this fraction of youth who have experienced online meanness, most do not find it to be particularly upsetting.[2] Certainly, however, some exchanges are more upsetting than others, and there is an important minority of youth who are really distressed by the experience. Because some victims who are upset by the online harassment may not speak out about their feelings[3], it is important that we try to recognize when someone might be having a hard time. As adults, knowing what to look out for can help us reach struggling youth and get them the help and support they need.

Based upon studies on online harassment, youth are more likely to feel distress if, as part of the online harassment:

More than one harasser or bully is involved.
Multiple harassers can leave victims feeling more vulnerable and less able to defend themselves.[4] The presence of bystanders who neither directly participate in the online harassment nor stand up to protect the victim can also have a negative impact.[5]

The harasser attempts to contact the victim offline.
Many online harassers also know their victims offline.[6] Whether this is true or not for a particular victim, situations when the harasser tries to contact the victim through the telephone, face-to-face, or by sending items to him/her can increase the likelihood that the victim will feel upset.[7]

The harasser is more “powerful” than the victim.
Power can be lots of things, including having more friends, being more popular, being physically stronger, or something else that makes one person ‘above’ the other. Many studies have found that being harassed by someone who has more power can increase the likelihood of distress.[8]

The harassment happens repeatedly.
Repeated harassment—along with power imbalance between the victim and harasser—can be a sign that the victim might not just be getting harassed, but also bullied.[8] Bullying is a more intense form of harassment and, as such, can have a greater impact on the victim. This might include depression and anxiety, losing sleep, and lower grades at school.[3]

Youth who experience more than one of the above are even more likely to be upset.[8]

As adults, we want to protect our kids. It can be hard to think about our kids being harassed or bullied online. Online experiences might be even more stressful for us to think about than in-person ones because we might feel like we have less control over what happens online. However, just like other in-person places (think about the mall, parties on the weekend, etc.), a conversation with kids about where they go and who they spend time with online can help you get a better sense of what they are experiencing. Sometimes, just starting the conversation can be really helpful for both of you.

In addition to talking with kids about their technology use, there are some concrete things that anyone can do if they are being harassed. If your child shares that she’s being victimized, here are some potential ways to deal with the harassment that you can think about together [3, 9]:

  • Log off, and avoid reading hurtful comments. Do not respond to the person, as this can encourage them to continue their behavior.
  • Block the person from email, instant messengers, social networking sites, chat rooms, and other online channels.
  • Change your passwords to online accounts. Consider changing your usernames and email address if the harasser or bully keeps trying to contact you through them.
  • Contact tech support or the webmaster to delete any fake accounts created to impersonate you.
  • Talk to someone you trust! This might be a friend, a parent, teacher, or school counselor. Victimization does not need to be faced alone. Many states are increasing the penalty for online harassment, which can help in prosecuting bullies if legal action is needed to make them stop.

Remember too, that experiencing online meanness does not happen to everyone: Five in six youth have not been targeted. Instead of thinking about online harassment as something that is bound to happen, think about it as something that you can help your child manage if it does.

Each person and each situation is different. What may work for one person may not work for another. What is important is that your child feels not only supported by you, but also empowered to address the situation with a solution that you choose together.

Learn more about our research at Center for Innovative Public Health Research.

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This article is based on “What features make online harassment incidents upsetting to youth?” as part of the Third Youth Internet Safety Survey conducted by the Crimes against Children Research Center at University of New Hampshire. This 2010 cross-sectional telephone survey examined 1,560 youth, aged 10-17, who had reported using the Internet.

Thank you to Emilie Chen for her contributions to this blog.

Photo preview courtesy of Miguel Angel (CC BY-NC-DC 2.0)


[1] Lenhart A, Madden M, Smith A, Purcell K, Zickuhr K, Rainie L. Teens, kindness and cruelty on social network sites. 2011; Available at: http://www.pewinternet.org/2011/11/09/teens-kindness-and-cruelty-on-social-network-sites/

[2] Mitchell KJ, Ybarra ML, Jones LM, Espelage D. What features make online harassment incidents upsetting to youth? J Sch Violence. 2014. [published online ahead of print]

[3] American Osteopathic Association. “Cyber-Bullying and its Effect on our Youth.” Available at: http://www.osteopathic.org/osteopathic-health/about-your-health/health-conditions-library/general-health/Pages/cyber-bullying.aspx

[4] Salmivalli C. Bullying and the peer group: A review. Aggress Violent Behav. 2010;15(2):112-120.

[5] Salmivalli C, Voeten M. Connections between attitudes, group norms, and behavior in bullying situations. Int J Behav Dev. 2004; 28(3):246-258.

[6] Jones LM, Mitchell KJ, Finkelhor D. Online harassment in context: Trends from three youth Internet safety surveys (2000, 2005, 2010). Psychology of Violence. 2013;3(1):53-69.

[7] Ybarra ML, Mitchell KJ, Wolak J, Finkelhor D. Examining characteristics and associated distress related to harassment: Findings from the Second Youth Internet Safety Survey. Pediatrics. 2006; 118:1169-1177.

[8] Ybarra M, Espelage D, Mitchell KJ. Differentiating youth who are bullied from other victims of peer-aggression: the importance of differential power and repetition. J Adolesc Health. 2014; 55(2):293-300.

[9] Cyberbully411. Available at: http://www.cyberbully411.com.