“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” That was a popular saying for kids of generations past, but thanks to cyber bullies on the internet, today that maxim doesn’t exactly ring true. Offensive, threatening, or just plain mean comments and messages can have harmful consequences, ranging from isolation to depression.
Although cyberbullying—the use of technology to repeatedly target another person via text message, email, or a social media network—is a relatively new problem, its impact is growing rapidly. According to stopbullying.gov, roughly one in six high school students have been electronically bullied within the past year. If you’re being harassed this way, you probably feel angry, hurt, and confused why it’s happening and how to stop it. Follow these five steps to help fix the problem.
Call It What It Is
It might be tempting to brush off insulting text messages from a so-called friend as moodiness or unnecessary drama, but the truth is that this type of behavior is often a form of harassment and can develop into cyberbullying if left unchecked, says Jonathan B. Singer, Ph.D., LCSW, associate professor at Loyola University Chicago’s School of Social Work. Here’s where you should draw the line:
- When someone continues to send threatening or offensive messages or stalks you online after you’ve made it clear you don’t think it’s funny.
- When someone picks a fight with you using technology—whether in an online chat room or via text message—and refuses to let it go.
- When someone purposefully leaves you out of a group chat, and then posts rude or mean messages about you to that chat group.
- When someone you trusted with your private information— such as embarrassing photos or your home address—shares it with others publicly online.
- When someone harasses you on Facebook or other social media using a fake identity so you can’t respond.
Still not sure whether you’re being cyberbullied? Here’s a general rule to follow: If the harassment makes you feel sad, hurt, fearful, or unable to concentrate on school work, then you’re probably experiencing cyberbullying, explains Justin W. Patchin, Ph.D., co-director of the Cyberbullying Research Center.
It’s human nature to want to stick up for yourself when someone says something nasty, but the best way to shut down a cyberbully is to disengage. Not only can this help end the harassment, but it also prevents you from getting in trouble. “If someone tags you in an offensive post on Instagram and then you do the same thing to get back at them, the line between perpetrator and victim is muddied,” says Dr. Singer. Resist the urge to respond, and if you can, block the person or change your privacy settings so that they can’t continue to contact you.
Document the Evidence
If you’re being cyberbullied, keep a record of the activity—taking screenshots of messages, for example. In very extreme cases (let’s say that someone from school gets ahold of nude photos of you and shares them with other students), this evidence may help if you decide to take legal action, says Robin Kowalski, Ph.D., professor of psychology at Clemson University’s College of Behavioral, Social, and Health Sciences.
Tell an Adult
Being cyberbullied can be really upsetting and exhausting, so it’s important to let a responsible adult such as a teacher, parent, or youth group advisor know what’s going on. They’ll be able to help address the problem, and they can help you gain a little perspective on this type of behavior so you can see it’s the bully, not the victim of these attacks, that has the real problem.
Even though being bullied is not your fault, certain online practices can help protect you from becoming a target. First, be careful about what you post and think twice before sharing photos or videos that could potentially be used against you. It’s also smart to keep passwords secret and to log out of social media accounts when using a public computer or a friend’s phone. If a peer tries to include you in a cyberbullying attack on someone else, stick up for the person being targeted. You could say something like, “That’s not really funny,” or “If someone said that to you, you might be upset,” or “Let it go, already!” A few choice words help other teens see their comments might hurt more than they think and helps those being targeted know that they are not alone.
Special thanks to our experts:
Robin Kowalski, Ph.D., professor of psychology, College of Behavioral, Social and Health Sciences, Clemson University
Justin W. Patchin, Ph.D., co-director, Cyberbullying Research Center
Jonathan B. Singer, Ph.D., LCSW, associate professor, School of Social Work, Loyola University Chicago and founder and host of the Social Work Podcast