Bullying is something most counselors, especially those who work in schools, are familiar with. Teasing, name-calling, put-downs, and even aggressive bullying behavior that leads to physical or mental harm have always been around and can occur in virtually any setting. Yet bullying has been affected in large ways by the rise of technology — and not in a good way.
Cyberbullying — when a person is harassed online or through social media — has amplified the scale and scope of the problem. Today, young people spend ever-increasing amounts of time online. “Tweens” (ages 8-12) average 5.5 hours of screen time a day, while teenagers (13-18) are even more plugged in, with more than 8.5 hours, according to a 2021 census from nonprofit Common Sense Media.
In addition to its 24-hour access, the anonymity of the internet also encourages cyberbullying. Online bullies torment other users with posts designed to provoke or harm. The barriers to bullying, in many cases, have been lowered or eliminated by the internet.
Whether bullying occurs in the schoolyard or online, it can be life-changing. Counselors who see individuals harmed by bullying can have a big impact in helping them recover and cope. It’s key that counselors understand what causes cyberbullying and the magnifying role of the internet. Here’s what professionals with a Master of Arts in Counseling or those who plan to pursue a career in counseling should know:
Social Media and Cyberbullying
Bullying can range from general taunting or teasing to physical confrontations and attempts to intentionally degrade a person’s well-being. A 2021 survey by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found 20% of responding high school students had been bullied on school property within the previous 12 months, and one in six stated they had been bullied online in the past year.
Bullying is even more common in middle school, according to the CDC. Among middle school students, 28% reported having been the victim of bullying in the previous year and 33% had been cyberbullied in that period.
The rise of online culture has made bullying a much more complex social construct: what does and does not constitute online bullying? According to the Cyberbullying Research Center (CRC), cyberbullying is defined as “willful and repeated harm inflicted through the use of computers, cell phones, and other electronic devices.” Cyberbullying can take many different forms:
- Repeatedly making fun of a person online or picking on them via email or text message
- Saying something bad about a person in a post or leaving critical or sarcastic comments in response to a person’s posts
- Making online threats, spreading rumors, and posting unflattering pictures or videos
A major source of cyberbullying is social media. These platforms can have the opposite desired effect of uniting peers, and instead can be weaponized to harass and bully others. Common Sense Media reports on social media use by teens:
- 53% are regular users of Instagram
- 49% use Snapchat
- 30% use Facebook
- 17% use Discord
- 16% use Twitter
Research by Security.org found that the link between social media and cyberbullying is most prevalent on these sites:
- YouTube: 79% report being cyberbullied
- Snapchat: 69%
- TikTok: 64%
- Facebook: 49%
Effects of Cyberbullying
In addition to understanding what causes cyberbullying, counselors need to recognize what it looks like. Pacer’s National Bullying Prevention Center identifies five characteristics of cyberbullying:
- Using an electronic form of communication
- Performing an aggressive act
- Intending to harm the victim
- Repeating the act or similar acts
- Causing harm to the intended victim
The effects of cyberbullying can often be intense for victims. SingleCare identifies the negative impact cyberbullying can have on young victims:
- Emotional effects include humiliation, isolation, anger, and feelings of powerlessness.
- Mental effects include depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, academic difficulties, suicidal thoughts, and self-harm.
- Behavioral effects include drug and alcohol use, missing school, carrying a weapon, and engaging in risky sexual behavior.
- Physical effects include gastrointestinal problems, eating disorders, and sleep disturbances.
Cyberbullying isn’t necessarily more dangerous than other types of bullying, but it does present a unique challenge to counselors whose clients have had such experiences. Still, there are strategies and methods counselors can use to help bullied youth express themselves, overcome bullying, and find other avenues of help.
How Counselors Can Help Victims of Cyberbullying
One of the main challenges counselors face in treating clients who’ve been cyberbullied is that victims may be reluctant to tell a parent, teacher, or other trusted adult about the bullying. According to Nemours KidsHealth, the physician-reviewed information website, children may feel fearful or ashamed of the bullying, or they may be worried that their electronic devices may be taken away from them.
Because bullying can often be viewed as a ritual of youth and brushed aside, counselors should work to improve their openness and accessibility to encourage students to speak out. The real, sometimes deadly consequences of cyberbullying are becoming increasingly known. A growing number of suicides attributed to cyberbullying have been profiled by local and national media.
When a student comes in for help, counselors should be prepared with resources. Some of the steps recommended by cyberbullying experts include: sharing suicide hotline numbers, reporting the cyberbullying to proper administrative or law enforcement authorities, and having information on programs (like those run by the Anti-Defamation League).
How Schools and Parents Can Help Prevent Cyberbullying
Academic leaders and counselors need to step up to tackle the problem of cyberbullying and develop protocols and processes for dealing with reporting, victims, and offenders. The San Bernardino Sun reports that school districts with lower rates of cyberbullying share certain characteristics:
- They’ve implemented programs to improve the mental health climate of their schools.
- They’ve hired additional counselors to work with bullies and their victims.
- They create clear anti-bullying guidelines and procedures.
- They provide easily accessible online portals where students can report instances of cyberbullying.
- They may monitor students’ use of social media and other internet services for signs of bullying.
When dealing with counseling issues that affect children, it’s often necessary to involve parents. This is no different when addressing cyberbullying, as parents have a large role to play outside of school, when cyberbullying is most likely to occur. However, it’s equally important to plan for a parent’s reaction to the knowledge that their child is being cyberbullied.
Having a conversation with parents on the subject of cyberbullying is a valuable opportunity to recommend steps they can take at home to protect and support their child, like installing web filters and watching for signs of withdrawal or depression. These discussions can also be a forum for counseling parents, helping them come to terms with the reality of cyberbullying and the appropriate response to it. Parents whose children are cyberbullied may be angry or want to seek retribution. Counselors can help parents exercise reason and understanding when focusing on how to help their child.
Reaching Out to Cyberbullies
While it’s key to successfully treat the cyberbullying victim, it’s equally important to reach out to the bully and understand what causes cyberbullying behavior. Many of the students doing the bullying don’t realize their behavior qualifies them as bullies. In some instances, bullying is an attempt to feel powerful and in control of a situation. In other cases, a bully’s actions are a form of reactive aggression in response to a perceived threat. The National Counseling Society notes that social media can make children and even adults act more aggressively than they would in the real world. It can also reinforce and amplify certain behaviors and mindsets. Acts of cyberbullying may result in a high number of likes and shares, for example.
Cyberbullying may also indicate that the perpetrator has struggles of their own, such as:
- Difficulty maintaining relationships
- Loss of school time due to bullying-related suspensions and exclusions
- Shame about their bullying behavior
- Greater risk of becoming abusive adults
- Increased likelihood of legal troubles
Some bullies may have been pressured to do so because they wanted to fit in: being bullied into being a bully. Bullies may feel misunderstood by society and may experience as much mental trauma as a victim. To help address this, counselors can work with bullies on anger management skills and self-confidence.
A Master of Arts in Counseling Can Help You Tackle Cyberbullying
Because it’s a relatively new phenomenon, there isn’t much uniformity in how to treat cyberbullying. However, it’s likely to become a bigger factor as youth increasingly live online. As a new generation of counselors graduates and works in schools, they’ll be on the front lines of developing approaches to address and treat cyberbullying, and help students cope or recover.
Considering the scope and complexity of cyberbullying, having a well-rounded education is crucial to confronting it. Professionals seeking to advance the national response to cyberbullying would do well to consider earning their online Master of Arts in Counseling from Bradley University.
Find out how Bradley can help you advance your counseling career today.