Cyberbullying has become more prevalent than ever, and happens frequently, often in subtle ways. It follows teenagers around in their hands, their pockets, and every other part of their mobile lifestyle. Teens can feel stress from constantly maintaining their social media presence. Hurtful comments can escalate quickly into abuse, especially when others join in.

Cyberbullying takes place when people use digital-communications tools such as the Internet and cell phones, to make another person feel angry, sad, and scared, time and time again. They do this through hurtful texts or instant messages that spread rumors, or by posting embarrassing photos or videos on social media.

“Bullying behavior isn’t new, but being connected online means that what used to happen at school can now continue around the clock, and the voice of one bully can quickly escalate into chorus of taunts on social media — even from peers who wouldn’t bully someone face-to-face,” said Neil Giacobbi, AT&T’s Associate Vice President for Corporate Social Responsibility and Executive Producer of AT&T’s educational film for parents with children using social media, There’s a Soul Behind That Screen.

According to No Bully, an organization working for bully-free schools, each year approximately one third of kids worldwide are the target of bullying.  Bottom of FormCyberbullying often takes place between acquaintances or even friends, who don’t realize they’re taking a “joke” too far. Often kids don’t even realize they’re being bullies themselves. It’s important to take any signs that kids are being intentionally and repeatedly hurt very seriously.

“Cyberbullying is a word generally used by adults to describe bad behavior online, but for teens, tweens and older kids, their experience with messaging and social media is nuanced and not categorized as just good and bad behavior,” said Giacobbi.

“For instance, a kid may poke fun at a classmate over social media using humor and wit, or what’s referred to as “roasting,” but the tone can change quickly into meanness as other students join in to what adults think of as ‘cyberbullying.’ So, it’s important for parents to understand the ambiguous communications their children experience online and to help them identify boundaries. AT&T provides advice for parents from experts on its website Digital You that helps parents see the online world from their children’s perspectives.”

The Damage Cyberbullying Can Do

Those who are victims of cyberbullying can experience significant emotional and psychological distress. They may feel anxious, fearful, depressed, and develop low self-esteem. They may struggle academically as they wrestle with negative feelings. They often feel overwhelmed, vulnerable, and powerless because it feels like the entire world knows what’s going on with them, as nasty posts, messages, or texts can be shared with many people simultaneously. Victims often feel their safety is threatened.

“The way kids treat each other online is just as impactful as the way they interact in real-life, because for kids there’s little distinguishing life online and real life,” added Giacobbi. “Social media and messaging is central to a student’s academics, athletics, extracurricular activities and social life, and mean behavior can infect any of these areas whether a student is present or not logged in.”

Cyberbullies often remain anonymous, making the victims fearful, exposed, and humiliated. When kids are bullied, they begin to doubt their self-worth and value and may respond to these feelings by harming themselves in some way. It may anger them and cause them to plot revenge which keeps them locked into a bully-victim cycle.

Even worse, kids who feel hopeless as a result of cyberbullying may spend less time with friends and family, become isolated, become disinterested in school, or feel like their only escape is suicide.

What Can Kids Do?

“The experts we have teamed up with say the best thing a child can do to stop bullying is to reach out to the person being abused, and to get a trusted adult involved,” said Giacobbi. “If the person who’s experiencing taunting and abuse is a friend, they can listen and see how to help, including whether to report the bullying. If they are not already friends, a kind word can help reduce the pain. Often, depriving the bully of attention and focusing positive energy at the target of the abuse can help prevent him or her from spiraling into a bad place.”

Giacobbi also believes that regardless of the platform, kids can use help identifying online conversations as mean or abusive before a situation goes too far. Online bullying often happens between classmates or even between friends who may not realize they have crossed a line and are being hurtful.

“That’s what makes it easy for kids to slip into this kind of behavior without recognizing that they’re engaging in bullying,” he said.

What Can Parents Do?

According to Giacobbi, online behavior starts with parents’ role-modeling good behavior to very young children, and that means balancing a family’s use of technology with other parenting activities that don’t involve technology. So, when a parent introduces a child’s first mobile device, that child has already accepted norms and behaviors at home for what it means to use that device.

“For instance, what’s permitted at the dinner table, or when family and friends visit?” said Giacobbi. “Then, parents can inquire about what a child experiences outside the home, when that child may be exposed to more permissive online behaviors, and how those may be different from what they do at home. That continuous dialogue, just like any other parenting subject, is what leads children to reflect and draw their own conclusions.” 

When parents suspect their child is being bullied online, an open dialogue will discourage the child from retaliating, and in turn, make better choices, such as defusing the situation.

“Don’t rely on one “big talk” with your child about cyberbullying—instead, look for frequent, smaller opportunities to ask about their online activity and check in about what they are seeing and hearing from peers,” added Giacobbi. “If you suspect that your child is experiencing abuse online, help them understand that if they feel threatened or scared, they must get you or another trusted adult involved. It’s also important to instill in your kids that they should never participate in singling out or victimizing someone online.”

Parents can take steps to put a stop to bullying:

  • Reassure your children that you love and support them.
  • Help children step away from the computer or device and take a break.
  • If you can identify the bully, consider speaking with the parents.
  • Consider contacting the children’s school as bullying may be happening offline, too.
  • Empower children with the knowledge they need to prevent online bullying.
  • Be careful what you post. Keep private behavior private.
  • Treat people online the way you want to be treated.
  • Get an adult involved as soon as there are any signs of bullying.
  • Never participate in singling out or victimizing someone online.

AT&T empowers its customers to use its products and services in a safe and secure manner.  That includes working with family experts to support a candid dialogue about social cyberbullying, and providing resources through LaterHaters to help make a difference.