HomeHealth & BehaviorBullying

The truth about cyberbullying

As the number of households with Web access and cell phones increases, so too do the ways kids can bully each other.

By Marian Wilde , GreatSchools Staff

New technologies — cell phones with cameras, social-networking sites, and instant messaging — have been speedily embraced by teens and pre-teens alike. While these technologies provide easy access to information and make communication among family and friends easier, they also provide new platforms for kids to tease and torment each other.

Cyberbullying has become such a concern in some states that laws have been introduced to address it and school districts are establishing policies to combat it.

Face-to-face bullying, defined as repeated, abusive behavior toward another person, can be both physical and psychological. Cyberbullying, however, is purely psychological, and the repertoire of tactics used in cyberspace has grown over time to include these methods:

  • Sending hate email messages
  • Creating Web sites meant to humiliate a victim
  • Forwarding private emails without permission
  • Taking an embarrassing photo with a camera phone and posting it on the Internet
  • Setting up polls on Web sites to vote on who's the fattest, ugliest, geekiest, or sluttiest kid in the school

Real-life cyberbullying looks like this:

  • One classic example of cyberbullying is the case of a Canadian boy, now known as the Star Wars kid . A video tape of him pretending to be a Star Wars character was posted on the Internet without his knowledge or permission. The video then took on a life of its own as it was downloaded and modified many times and ultimately spread around the world.
  • In a school district in New Jersey, a student posted a "hit list" of other students on a Web site. (The Daily Journal, New Jersey, Jan. 24, 2006)
  • A Massachusetts high school student was mocked on a popular teen blogging site when fellow students impersonated her and posted fictitious sexual journal entries. (The Boston Globe, June 30, 2005)

Face-to-face (F2F) bullying versus cyberbullying

The schoolyard bully has nothing on the cyberbully.

  • The cyberbully has a much wider audience, potentially the whole world. Through Web sites and the forwarding of email messages, the damage can be more far-reaching than most tweens and teens imagine or intend.
  • The victim of cyberbullying has less ability to escape the tormentor. Simply avoiding the bully doesn't solve the problem when a cyberbully can continue to email, text message and post abusive comments.
  • The cyberbully can remain anonymous or impersonate others, thereby escaping punishment.
  • The cyberbully, by not being physically present to see or experience the reactions of the victim, remains alienated from the consequences of his actions.
  • Any slanderous information sent out into cyberspace is difficult, if not impossible, to completely expunge from the Internet.

How common is it?

Cyberbullying is a new phenomenon, hence little scientific research exists to date on its true extent. However, a handful of survey results are starting to become available. For example, a 2005 survey of 1,500 adolescents, conducted by researchers Sameer Hinduja, Ph.D., and Justin Patchin, Ph.D., found that over one-third of those surveyed reported that they had been bullied online.

According to Hinduja, cyberbullying can occur among children as young as 9 or 10 years old, or as soon as they're comfortable typing on keyboard. "This is happening among all ages, to be honest," he says. "Kids are embracing technology at such an early age. Our online research indicates that middle-schoolers are just as likely to be cyberbullies or victims of cyberbullying as are high schoolers."

A 2005 survey of UK teens, found that 20% said that they had experienced some form of cyberbullying.

An Australian study, reports that cyberbullying incidents are occurring around the globe, in such places as Japan, Australia, Canada and Scandinavia.

Cyberbullying happens because there is little supervision of kids in the cyberworld and because the media provides anonymity for the bully. "There's no monitoring in cyberspace," says Hinduja, "plus parents do not — and I believe should not — always stand there looking over children's shoulders when they're on the computer, because there needs to be a level of trust there. It would certainly help for parents to regularly go online with their kids and discuss issues related to Internet safety with them. Nevertheless, just like offline behaviors, parents cannot supervise their kids 100% of the time and must establish appropriate Internet usage rules even when those parents aren't around. Also, there's the fact that when you're behind the keyboard and the computer monitor, it takes less fortitude to express really malicious comments, because of the anonymity and because they're physically distant from the victim. It's much easier to be cruel."

What can be done?

Law enforcement

There are many steps to take before bringing in the police, but parents should know that law enforcement can assist when, and if, necessary.

Sgt. John Geraty, of the San Francisco Police Internet Crimes Against Children unit, explains that while there are no laws specific to cyberbullying, there are times when a line is crossed and law enforcement can step in. "Cases that involve threats of death or injury to a person or their family, and which the recipient believes to be credible, should be reported to law enforcement immediately."

In such cases, it's important to preserve the evidence. "A copy of the email with the full header information should be given to the police," says Geraty. "This will provide law enforcement with the information needed to trace the sender. The option for viewing the full header is often located in the Mail Preferences tab of your email service browser. If threats of injury or death occur via a chat session, the sender's screen name, the time and date the threats occurred, and the Internet Service Provider should be provided to the police."

Evidence should be given to the police as soon as possible, urges Gerity. "ISPs vary in terms of how long they save information. AOL, for example, will save information of chat users, such as their IP addresses, for seven days before purging. Other ISPs save information for only 30 days. The sooner incidents of crime are reported to law enforcement, the sooner information can be preserved for an investigation."

Some states, such as Washington, are introducing legislation that will specifically address cyberbullying in the schools. Currently, however, the only tool that many states have in their legal toolboxes are anti-stalking statutes that mention electronic communications.

Districts and schools

Cyberbullying often takes place outside of school, leaving the schools with limited ability to prevent it.

"I've had a kid come to me to say that she received abusive emails from an online chat room and that she felt scared about it," says Sara Spence, a middle and high school counselor in San Francisco. "From a school counselor's perspective, it's a relatively new phenomenon. I feel like my hands are tied. I mean, when you receive emails from an unknown person, I don't really know if there's a protocol in place for me to do anything."

A growing number of schools are starting to develop policies and procedures to address some of the behaviors associated with cyberbullying, such as blocking access to problematic Web sites and controlling usage of cell phones on campus, especially in locker rooms, restrooms or by pools.


The key to cyberbullying prevention just might be the parent. Children and teens are often unsupervised on the family computer, know more about technology than their parents or are not taught proper social skills regarding electronic media. As a parent you can help prevent cyberbullying by:

  • Supervising your child's use of the computer. If your child has a computer in her bedroom, it's difficult to supervise her. Many experts recommend moving the computer into a family room.
  • Learning about the sites that your child visits and what he's doing online
  • Encouraging your child to come to you if he is experiencing cyberbullying, or has witnessed it. According to a survey by, 58% of kids did not tell their parents when someone was abusive to them online.
  • Being concerned if your child spends excessive amounts of time online or hides the screen when you approach
  • Having your child fill out an agreement about safe Internet practices. A sample agreement can be found on (This form is courtesy of Parry Aftab, an Internet privacy and security lawyer and creator of the WiredKids Web site.)
  • Teaching your child empathy for others

Hinduja advises parents to take a measured approach when dealing with a child's access to the Internet. "The child needs to know that the parent is not going to take away their Internet privileges if they tell them about something bad that's happening. They need to know that the parent is going to respond very calmly and intelligently, and help them without taking away this privilege that is really important to them. Then, of course, the child has to agree that they're not going to do such things as talk to strangers online and so forth."

Children and teens

Students can protect themselves from cyberbullying by:

  • Being careful about giving out personal information, such as email addresses and phone numbers. Kids should never reveal an email password, even to a close friend. If a friendship suddenly goes sour, the former friend can use the password to get into the account and impersonate the owner.
  • Speaking to a trusted adult if something seems wrong
  • Walking away from the computer if harassment starts
  • Not replying to bullying emails or instant messages
  • Being aware that whatever happens online can be reproduced and spread very easily. Nothing online is ever really private

A few words about blocking abusive emails

Hinduja cautions against expecting too much from "blocking" email addresses or instant messenger names. "You could be on instant messenger being flooded with all kinds of hateful comments and you could block that one sender, but that person could just use another email address or screen name and continue the harassment."

Parents can always notify Internet service providers of abuse, which may or may not stop the perpetrator. Hinduja explains how that works: "When emails travel from sender to recipient, they hop across multiple computers on multiple networks. Each of those computers stamps information covertly on the emails, which we can use to tell the IP (Internet Protocol) address of each and track back to see which ISP owns the IP address of the computer where the message originated. This information is found in the header of the email, and is not usually displayed by default in email programs. If you enable the viewing of header information, you can identify whether the sender was connected to Earthlink or BellSouth or AOL or Adelphia or any other ISP. Once you identify the ISP, you can forward the email — including all header information — to the ISP's abuse mailboxes, which are typically abuse@ispdomainname. For example, Earthlink's abuse mailbox would be By doing this you're providing them with evidence of harassment and misuse of their network resources, which violates the ISP's Terms of Service and then they can terminate the account."

"But the perpetrator can always just sign up for another account."

Give us your feedback

If you have tips on how to prevent cyberbullying or if you've had experience with cyberbullying, please fill in the box below and we will post some of your comments.

Comments from readers

"i think that it is important to not be a bully or be bullied it takes courage to stop being a bully and stand up to a bully. Never keep bulling a secret whether its about a friend or you. never be a bully or be on a side of a bully it will just get you in trouble "
"My 15 year old daughter has been very depressed for the last 4 monthes.She crys alot,barley eats and shuts herself in her room.After many failed attempts of me(a single dad) trying to reach her,I took her to a therpist and found out the culprit of her depression: cyberbulling she had been reciving harrassing text messages from the guy she liked after asking him to the dance I will remember these words,"Dad,I wanted to tell you and knew I could but I am scared.This is new,All I did was ask him out and he did so much more to me.Why Dad,why?I grabbed her into a hug and wiped away her tears.With the theripist and the vice principal we conquered the cyberbully.She is still upset but has good news! She came home from school estatic and said,"Dad, I have a date with Ian on friday to the dance!what a moment she is happy and has her first date.I ofcouse am going to read up about teen dating,give her an extra "talk" and take her to the dance.(she is going to her best friends house after) "
"Face-to-face bullying, defined as repeated, abusive behavior toward another person, can be both physical and psychological. Cyberbullying, however, is purely psychological, and the repertoire of tactics used in cyberspace has grown over time to include these methods: Great post, do you mind if I re-blog this (with full attribution and linking)? I really want to share it with my readers, they would find it very useful. "
"My best friend's 12yr old little girl is being bullied by cell phone. It comes from a former best friend is who they're thinking it is. No proof, because they block the no. But, it started out as racial comments, because she is biracial and now it has progressed into horrible sexual comments. We were just wondering what could be done to stop this and get the evidence that it is indeed this other little girl and her new friends doing it. It is really taking a tow on my friend's daughter to the point that it is worrying us. So, any further feedback you can give would be great. Your article has helped a lot though."
"I really liked this information on cyber-bullying and it will help me a lot."
" We can never make bullies and sexual predators go away. We need to create laws to address this and then we have to enforce them. Until then, it is up to all of us to do all we can to protect our children while they are online. When I became aware of everything my son was subjected to online, I did some research and found an age appropriate socially responsible website for children ages 5-18. This site requires a child's school verify his or her identification before they can become a member. This site is content monitored, cyber bullying controlled, even has tutoring available. All the employees must have a level 2 background check. Both sites are free to its users. The site for parents, teachers, law enforcement is and the site for children is "
"I have been cyber bullied many times! I have gotten very hurt, and I don't wanna go to school anymore because of it!"
"This if a very informative website, and right now I needed something like this, because my granddaughter is been cyberbully by school mates. Thank you."
"Unbeknownst to me, my 11 yr old daughter provided a password and email address to another student at her middle school when he offered to set up a MySpace page for her. After he set it up for her, he began posing as her in suggestive emails to another boy at the school. He revealed personal information about her on the public page and wrote a blog about how she liked two boys at the school. He identified the school and location. When I found out from my daughter's therapist, I changed the password on my daughter's account and made the page private. Unfortunately, I did not delete the account (MySpace makes it difficult) and I thought I was protecting things until I did that. My daughter then clicked on 'forgot password' and obtained the new password. She gave it to the boy and he set up another page, this time public. Again, he wrote a public blog, but this time he said inappropriate and somewhat racist things about another girl at the school. He then began to pose ! as my daughter in threatening emails to the girl. The girl responded with extremely profane and threatening emails, telling my daughter she was a prostitute, that she should perform oral sex on boys at the school, and that she was going to beat her up at school (and I am being nice in this description). When I found out, this time because my daughter showed me, I reported all of them, including my daughter, to MySpace as underage users and for cyberbullying and creating an imposter profile. They deleted all of the pages and accounts within 24 hours. I also reported them to the school and I provided the principal with the offensive emails. The school did a peer mediation with my daughter and the girl and spoke to the students' parents. Unfortunately, there was little else they could do since the students did everything on their computers at home. I am now working on organizing a parent ed workshop on cyberbullying and what we should all know about social networking sit! es like MySpace. That site, as is others, is completely unreg! ulated a nd it is up to us as parents to monitor our children. My daughter is banned from using the computer indefinitely."
"My daughter and a friend (both 10) created an email account in the name of my daughter's arch enemy and used it to tease and harrass a mutual friend. What seemed like a harmless prank has turned into a nightmare. I trusted my daughter to use email and the internet wisely, she has been such a good kid but obviously had some mean spirited things to say to her 'enemy' (a new girl who hasn't done anything wrong to my daughter other than call her a 'sore loser' once). I am struggling with the feeling that I need to supervise my daughter by reading over her shoulder at a time when I know how important it is for my tween to have some privacy and freedom to express herself. However, when that expression is in the form of hate speech directed at another person and it gets forwarded to multiple friends... I have grounded her from the internet and hope she learned a valuable lesson before she moves on to middle school and more complicated problems."
"My daughter is experiencing cyber-bullying by an emotionally imbalanced former friend. She started with elaborately written emails describing her hatred and disrespect for our family - impeccably timed to coincide with important transitional events in my daughter's life. We tried to ignore them, and peacfully withdraw from the relationship, after notifying the parents, who did nothing. Recently, the girl posted pictures of herself and a a group of other girls with a caption implying that my daughter was in the background using drugs. Needless to say, my daughter doesn’t use drugs, and was taken completely by surprise at the hit. Again, impeccable timing, during the holiday season, and before my daughter undergoes another of a series of operations to fix damage caused by a tumor that nearly took her life 2 years ago. It is hard to describe how vulnerable and angry this type of attack makes one feel. Both my husband and I have careers that depend on our ability to maintain pu! blic trust, and this subtle, reputation-destroying slander has an effect on our entire family. We need to pass legislation to prevent this type of online harassment – or we will have more cases like Megan Meier’s – an innocent young life ended by malicious cyber attack. "
"Okay seriously, sorry to all those parents who actually beleive that deleting IM from the computer will actually stop the problem. It's called WEB MESSENGER, people. My friend's mom took away her keyboard and mouse because she was grounded and my friend STILL found a way to get online. It's the KIDS. I've been bullied online tons of times, I had to change schools so the people would lose interest in me. "
"I was cyber-bullied by someone I at first thought to be my best friend. She called me a few times, we talked online alot... Suddenly she started hating me, messaging really mean things to me. It was really out-of-character for her, since before she seemed to be a really sweet friend. I've seen her picture and heard her voice, she sounds really nice at first. Don't let people use you online."
"Been through it several times with my 13 year old daughter. No easy answer. The parents of other kids not interested in solving the problem. My fix, and what I believe to be the most common sense answer was to remove text and AIM capabilities from my daughter's phone and computer...NOW if anyone wants to say something inappropriate they have to speak to her or say it face to face...something they are far less likely to do. The brazenness clearly comes from the fact that these kids can 'hide' behind a phone or computer screen. It is up to the parents to control the flow of this hateful correspondence...the problem with that is finding parents who care enough or are involved enough in their children's lives to make the effort."
"My developmentally disabled daughter is being ridiculed on the 'fanficrants' commnunity of I have asked livejournal to step in and remove the entry that refers to her as a retard, continually insults her and even directs other members of the community how to further harass her. Is there legal recourse to force them to take action against their users that are causing these problems?"
"Cyber bullying isn't just for kids. I'm an adult that had been thourgh some cyber bully issues. It wasn't until the person found out through 'gossip' where I reside. As a person in the media, in the clear public eye, it quickly became a stalker situation. That was the only way that I could deal with this. I really didn't want to end up like TV news anchors at WEAU-TV in Eau Claire, WI and another one at KIMT-TV, Mason City, IA. Both had stalkers. but mine started as a cyber bully situation, long after I turned 18. Place of residence without cyber bully laws: Toledo, Ohio Partents note it's not just for the kids. It could also happen to you. I'm proof!"
"I'm a student and I have been bullied many different ways.. Physical, and cyber bullied. I do agree that kids are getting... Well.. Meaner, and its pretty much stupid and getting out of hand."
"Very good article full of very useful information. Thank you!!!!"
" It is my experience that LHS is not being nearly aggresive enough in monitoring internet access and cell phone use! KIds are being harrassed via e-mails and printouts made and sent by kids allowed online access during free time. Also the faculty is doing nothing or close to nothing about cell phone use in class. KIds are being allowed to keep ringers on during active classtime .... and nothing has been said to or done about these children even when they answer their phones during class.Can you give me a 'GOOD' reason why the kids would 'NEED' to e-mail or text each other during classtime? Including classtime that might be designated free time. Are there any emergencies that cannot be called into the school office and the child notified immediately????? I have to ask is the staff slacking or just not doing their jobs because it will take effort on their part, does the staff not care , are some children exempt to the rules? Everything I have said does not directly address bullying but it is hurting other kids! We send our children to school to learn! They should be allowed to do this without a special few disrupting classes. What about the kids who get put down and even harrassed because they cannot afford these phones and ipods used in class? They have to deal with this crap enough without it being shoved in their face during class."
"Cyber bullying seems to be bringing out the monster in our children; doesn't it? A child could be scarred for life by the time he or she is 10 years old!"
"I am a parent and Internet Safety presenter for i-Safe America and last night gave a presentation to parents at an elementary school in the Lake Washington School District. It was awesome. Parents are usually shocked when they start to get to grips with the inappropriate behavior their kids are displaying online. The majority of parents feel inadequate understanding the technology behind the Internet that their kids are so comfortable with. However, when you share the figures of the number of kids who are being preyed by sexual predators, are having their IDs stolen (too much personal information posted), and a greater majority of kids now being bullied online they sit up and take notice. The school district has taken the unprecedented action of incorporating Internet Safety into the school curriculum - this is to be highly commended. And the PTSA units are holding Internet Safety presentations for parents. If parents are not keeping an eye on what their kids are doing onli! ne they may regret it. Aside of cyber crime, hate and predators, our kids pages are cached – yes, saved somewhere for perpetuity. Third parties are exploiting our children too. School and college kids are being expelled across the country. And these pages are landing up on the desks of employers. What is more, technology is exploding so fast, that we will soon see these group social network sites on cell phones which are now incorporating GPS. Does anyone have any idea what this could mean? My son was bullied and harassed online last year. We were able to intervene quickly because we paid attention to his moods – the perpetrators were his best friends. Did these other children understand what they were doing? They had no idea. A bully cannot read the body language of the victim. They cannot hear their voice and have no comprehension of what they are doing to the victim. It is incredibly cruel. If the child is allowed to get away with it, the behavior gets worse and other kids are asked to join in the taunts. Schools are now taking action. But parents are not taking enough notice. We need to train our children to become good cyber citizens. They have a right to experience a safe, rewarding and hate-free Online experience. We, the parents, owe this to them. Ladies and gentlemen – if you don’t know what your child is doing online now, you should sit up and take notice. With advancements in technology you haven’t seen anything yet! "