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Hidden in Plain Sight: The Impact of Cyberbullying on Children

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One of the hallmarks of a bully is the tendency to hide their behaviors from authority figures. That’s one reason why the anonymity of hiding behind a screen has exacerbated the problem of cyberbullying in this digital age, making it difficult for victims of bullying to escape their abusers.

In cyberbullying, no physical evidence such as bruises, scratches or bloody knees will be found. Still, the psychological effects of the emotional abuse endured can be just as damaging as physical harm or worse.

The detrimental effects of bullying of any kind on children can follow them well into adulthood. As we see increasing mental health struggles in young people, it’s more important than ever to keep an open line of communication with your kids and watch for red flags that they might be victimized by bullies.

Read on to learn more about cyberbullying and its impact on one of our most vulnerable populations — our children — as we work together as a community to keep them happy, healthy and safe.

What is Cyberbullying?

Cyberbullying is using digital technology to hurt others, typically involving the internet, but cell phones are also used, and the victims are harassed via text messages. Social media is one of the main channels through which cyberbullying happens, including platforms such as Instagram, Tik Tok, Snapchat, Facebook and more.

Along with social media, cyberbullies can appear in online forums, inside of apps, during gaming and more. More personal cyberbullies, where the perpetrator knows the victim, operate through email, text, or direct messaging. Cyberbullying can vary from insults, name-calling, threats and spreading false rumors — to impersonation, outing, trickery (gaining trust and then using victim’s information against them), sharing private photos, exclusion from social activities and much more.

When Has Cyberbullying Taken Place?

Cyberbullying typically occurs under the following five conditions, or through a combination of some of them:

  1. Intention 

Cyberbullies usually intend to cause harm when they engage in online bullying. It can still be considered bullying without intention if a victim perceives actions as harmful and is hurt by the perpetrators' behaviors.

  1. Repetition 

Repetition is a characteristic of cyberbullying. Repeated actions on the bully’s part and sharing information online that lasts much longer than the original bullying behaviors prolong victims’ suffering. Examples include sharing personal information or photos as a form of cyberbullying.

  1. Power Imbalance 

Another common element of cyberbullying is that victims are typically in a power imbalance situation with their bully, especially if bullying occurs in a public forum.

  1. Anonymity 

Many cyberbullies use anonymity to hide behind their computer screen when they victimize. In this case, there is no need for a power imbalance in the relationship between the bully and the victim. Also, cyberbullies experience less fear of accountability with the non-confrontational nature of sitting behind a screen to cause harm.

  1. Publicity 

Cyberbullying can also involve publicity, such as using social media to publicly humiliate or shame someone as their form of bullying in front of many people.

What are the Side Effects of Cyberbullying?

Bullied children and teens can exhibit many symptoms, including physical, emotional and behavioral side effects. Even if they haven't yet spoken of any experience with cyberbullying, be sure to talk to them if they're showing any of the following signs, as they may be frightened to bring up the bullying at first:

  • Academic struggles that are out of character
  • Anger
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Exclusion from peers
  • Fear
  • Feelings of isolation
  • Headaches
  • Hopelessness/powerlessness
  • Low self-esteem
  • New behavioral issues
  • Sadness
  • Self-harm
  • Stomach issues
  • Substance abuse (seen more in teenagers)
  • Suicidal ideation or behaviors

Cyberbullying Mental Health Harm and the Increased Risk of Suicide

There is evidence that cyberbullying may be especially damaging to kids’ mental health compared to traditional bullying (which is still a serious issue). Cyberbullying can occur at any time of day (or night) and infiltrate a child's home, or any place considered their safe space, making it near impossible to escape.

In contrast, traditional bullying is typically confined to one place or time, such as school or the playground. Cyberbullying can be unrelenting, with no break in between or a sanctuary where the victim can retreat.

Remember that to kids, cyberbullying feels permanent. They understand that once something is online, it will always be. They can feel exposed, humiliated and overwhelmed.

When cyberbullying occurs, the sheer number of people witnessing the bullying can lead to intense feelings of shame. Children may feel there is no way out, which is why cyberbullying has been linked to suicide attempts and suicides in young people in recent years.

The feelings of hopelessness endured because of the constant torment of cyberbullying may lead to the untrue thought that their only escape is ending their life, which leads to suicidal ideation (fantasizing about death as a means of escape) and, in the worst-case scenario, suicide.

Ways to Help Your Child Cope with Cyberbullying

Now that you know what cyberbullying is and what red flags to look for, you're more equipped to join our community in combatting it.

If your child is bullied online, tell them not to respond to the cyberbully. Instruct them to document each instance of cyberbullying by saving or taking screenshots of text messages, photos, emails, social media posts and any other means used to cyberbully. Ask your child to forward anything to you so that you have records too.

If the cyberbullying originated from a school contact, report it to your child’s teacher, principal and administrative staff at your school. In the case of extreme bullying or threats, report the incident to the police.

It's vital to validate and rebuild your child’s support system. Reassure your child that the cyberbullying is not their fault and that they have your unconditional love and support.

Your Child’s Mental Well-Being Matters

At AdventHealth for Children, we care about every child’s whole health. And mental well-being matters when it comes to overall health.

Together with Heart of Florida United Way, we've launched the Be a Mindleader campaign to spark more conversations around mental health. This effort highlights expert information and helps facilitate life-changing discussions about mental health between kids and the adults in their lives. By destigmatizing mental health challenges, we can work together to create more Mindleaders in our community.

Learn more about supporting our children’s mental health by visiting BeAMindleader.com.

If your child has suicidal thoughts or behaviors, seek immediate help. Connect with the Suicide Prevention Lifeline for free and confidential support 24/7. Dial or text 988.

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