Cyberbullying: When Meanness Goes Online

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The scourge of bullying is an ever-present danger, and has spread to the social media. Society needs to acknowledge this and address it.

We hear a lot these days about bullying and the negative impact it has on those unfortunate enough to be subjected to it. And because bullying has so often occurred in the school setting, many schools have tackled the issue head-on, implementing strict policies aimed at deterring such behavior. As a result, reported incidents of bullying on many school campuses have dramatically decreased in recent years. But bullies are a resourceful lot and by their very nature they respect few boundaries. That’s why in this digital age it should really come as no surprise that bullies have gone online.

Not too long ago, a 12-year-old girl from Florida leaped from a building to her death on the pavement below. And as investigators struggled to find a reason for her desperate act, they uncovered evidence that the girl might have been driven to the brink by relentless bullying by some of her classmates. But the bullying wasn’t done out in the open at school, where it might have been more easily observed and possibly reported and dealt with by authorities. Rather, the bullies spewed their hateful taunts over various social media.

Conflicts between classmates, even between friends and close acquaintances, are nothing unusual. And it’s also not unusual for conflicts to become heated from time to time. It’s also not uncommon for conflicts between girls to center around relationships with boys (there’s evidence that the bullying of the Florida teen began in response to conflicts between a group of girls, which involved the victim’s relationship with a boy). But bullying is different from everyday squabbling. Taunts like: “You’re worthless” or “You’re really ugly” or, as in the case of the young Florida girl: “You should die” and “Why don’t you go kill yourself?” go far beyond the character of a relatively harmless spat. And when such messages are relentlessly sent, and under the cover of social media instead of out in the open, it’s less likely to come to the immediate attention of supervising adults. But whether bullying occurs out in the open or through cell phone texts and social media posts, the emotional impact is still the same. And it’s a most unfortunate and all-too-frequent circumstance that someone who’s been relentlessly subjected to verbal and emotional abuse and who feels powerless to stop it or escape it sees no other solution than to take their own life.

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Certain groups are at higher risk for bullying. Persons with various developmental delays impairing their social coping ability are at high risk (for more on this see “Here’s Why Autistic Teens are a Prime Target for Bullies”), as are various minority groups such as gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender individuals. Younger persons, especially teens, are at higher risk than adults. And teens are also among the groups at highest risk for suicide. Evidence has also been accumulating for some time now that a disproportionate number of teens who take their own lives may in fact have been victims of bullying. That said, no groups are immune to being targeted by bullies (bullying can even occur in the workplace), and regardless of the setting in which it occurs, bullying has the same negative impact on its victims (see, for example, “Sibling Bullying: Just as Damaging as Peer Bullying”).

A bully’s principal aim is to make the victim feel badly about him/herself. And, contrary to some popular beliefs, bullies are not generally ‘cowards’ or persons suffering from low self-esteem. Some might even have some sadistic character traits, simply relishing the torment of others (for more on this, see the chapter on aggressive personalities in Character Disturbance). One of the prime ways bullies bring pain into their victims’ lives is through socially ostracizing them. That might be one of the reasons cyberbullying has become such an effective weapon in their arsenal of emotional torment. Using social media and other forms of digital communication to emotionally harass someone not only has the potential to increase the degree of social isolation the victim might already feel, but also affords the bullies a certain degree of ‘cover’ for their actions, thus making the victim feel powerless to do anything about their situation. Hate messages can not only be sent frequently, but also anonymously or under fictitious names. The digital age also makes it possible for embarrassing information about the bullying target to be easily, quickly, and widely disseminated to others. Cyberbullies use text messages, emails, chat room conversations, social networking sites, etc. to harass and intimidate. They’ve even been known to set up phony websites solely for the purpose of ridiculing a target of their animosity. In such environments, it’s easy for victims to feel like there’s no escape from their social nightmare. And when victims feel powerless to change their circumstances by reasonable means, the risk increases that they might opt for an all-too-fatal way out.

Bullies have always depended on the silence and tacit support of others to achieve their nefarious ends, and one online anti-cyberbullying resource emphasizes the point that cyberbullies rarely succeed in their hate campaigns without the complacency or deliberate or inadvertent cooperation of others. Bullies also do their best to make their victims feel like there’s no way to escape their plight and nowhere to turn for help or support. That’s why it’s not only important for anti-bullying programs to create an atmosphere in which bullies will be exposed and consequented for their behaviors, but also to make potential victims clearly aware of the support and protection available to them.

It’s crucial that everyone take a stand against bullying, in all its forms. And just as schools have come to recognize the importance of campus policies that inform, educate, and protect the children on their campuses, it’s important for parents to provide the level of supervision and support that can help make the time their children spend online or communicating via other digital means safe. Computers, cell phones, tablets, etc. can be invaluable as sources of information and tools of effective social networking. But, as the reality of cyberbullying attests, they can also be instruments of emotional torture. Our children need to know not only how to use social media safely, but also where to turn when their ventures into cyberspace become toxic.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Pat Orner Oliver on .

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