AARP Eye Center
Bullying is not new: Kids and parents have been grappling with it for generations. But now that so many teens live a good portion of their lives online, cyberbullying can follow them into their bedrooms and spread their most embarrassing secrets across the globe. The harsh words and humiliating images can, in some cases, exist in what seems like perpetuity.
When I started studying cyberbullying over two decades ago, it was happening in chat rooms, on websites and through AOL Instant Messenger. Now it’s taking place on social media platforms, on anonymous-messaging apps and in virtual reality spaces that parents might not even know exist.
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Cyberbullying is not just affecting a handful of kids. Our 2021 research found that 45 percent of middle and high school students in the U.S. have experienced cyberbullying — a significant increase from our two previous national surveys. In 2019, 37 percent said they experienced cyberbullying, and in 2016, that number was 34 percent.
We’ve also seen a 50 percent increase in reports of cyberbullying via video, which makes sense, given the current popularity of video-based apps like YouTube and TikTok.
It can be overwhelming to think about all the potential places online your child might encounter threats, rumor spreading, stalking, fake profiles that impersonate them, or videos posted without their consent.
But the good news is that while the forms cyberbullying can take — and the places it is happening — are often morphing, you don’t need to be an expert on the latest apps, games or websites to have a positive impact on your teen’s online experiences. The relationship you cultivate with them is key when it comes to preventing the worst of the consequences of bullying, wherever it occurs.
What is cyberbullying?
As codirectors of the Cyberbullying Research Center, my colleague Sameer Hinduja and I have devoted our careers to exploring the causes and consequences of cyberbullying, and what can be done to stop it. We define cyberbullying as “willful and repeated harm inflicted through the use of computers, cell phones and other electronic devices.”
But we’re seeing some new concerns in the realm of cyberbullying: Sextortion — when someone online convinces a teen to send them an explicit image and uses that image to extort money or more images — is on the rise. The FBI recently released a statement warning of a surge in reports of adults posing as young girls on social media and coercing teen boys to produce sexual images and videos, then demanding money.
Throughout the arc of the pandemic we’ve also seen an increase in cyberbullying among younger children who had new access to devices through online education and, in many cases, less supervision online. While in-person school bullying decreased during the height of the pandemic, online bullying increased.