How to talk about cyberbullying

By: Neil Mitchell

Know how to identify potential signs of cyberbullying and how to respond.

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With the emergence of social media platforms, a new term was born: cyberbullying. As social media exploded, this new form of harassment and targeting for harm became a leading tech concern. Two decades later, cyberbullying remains a primary digital safety issue. 

What can we as parents and digital citizens do to help tackle the difficulties of cyberbullying, particularly among our children? Awareness and preparedness are your best tools. Explore the information below to help recognize cyberbullying and how to respond.

Cyberbullying definition

Cyberbullying is defined as using technology to intimidate, threaten, embarrass, or willfully target or harm another person.

Forms of cyberbullying

There are several forms of cyberbullying, such as sending mean texts, threatening user comments, posting embarrassing images on social media, and status or “story” updates that can be cruel. Cyberbullying can often be repetitive, with the same person being targeted frequently. It is also often anonymous.

Signs of cyberbullying

Unless your child is willing to make you aware of texts, posts or other evidence of cyberbullying—and without violating your child’s trust—cyberbullying can be difficult to detect. Kids who are bullied are more likely to exhibit anxiety, fear, depression and stress, but these types of behavioral signs can also be general indicators of other issues in our children’s increasingly stressful lives. Parents should, however, feel empowered to recognize changes in behavior as an opportunity to start a conversation.

Some common indicators that a child is being cyberbullied include:

  • Being emotionally upset following time on their phone
  • Social withdrawal, or avoiding social events in and out of school
  • Tech use secrecy, or leaving the room to text
  • Distress or concern when texts or social notifications are received
  • Any/all of the above occurring with frequency

Keep this in mind as well: The typical parental concern is that our own kids are being cyberbullied, but our kids could also be the perpetrators. Thirty six percent of American teens admit to having been cyberbullied, while 14% admit to having been the bully. Some of those same behavioral signifiers exist as signs of bullies (secrecy, withdrawal, increased stress, etc.). Some common indicators that a child is being a cyberbully include:

  • Multiple social networking accounts on a large number of sites
  • Increased aggression and frustration, particularly when online or using tech 
  • Sarcastic comments or laughter while texting or online
  • Lack of empathy for others

Conversation starters

Again, these signs are often general and may indicate issues beyond cyberbullying, but the key is to recognize behavioral shifts as a time for conversation.

  • Approach with sensitivity: Whether they’ve been bullied, or they are the bully, a child’s main concern might be the threat of being exposed or in trouble. Demonstrating understanding can help them to talk about these difficult issues.
  • Give them the space to vent: By empowering kids to talk through some of their concerns, frustrations and pain, they will be more equipped to deal with the situation while you’ll be more equipped to help.

Three strategies to address cyberbullying

  1. Disengagement can be a powerful tool: Bullies often thrive on retaliation. Disallowing them that satisfaction can be a strong deterrent, encouraging them to move on.
  2. Capture evidence of cyberbullying: Just as tech allows anonymity, it also provides an opportunity to keep a record of cyberbullying through screenshots and records of incidents. This can be both empowering to the bullied, who may need to demonstrate proof of being cyberbullied, and a deterrent to bullies, who will then be unable to hide behind distance and anonymity to create chaos.
  3. When to take action and how: Cyberbullying may range from upsetting to criminal. Know when something needs to be brought up to school officials, employers or—in the case of dangerous threats—law enforcement.

Bullying online remains a major unsolved issue. Hopefully, these tips can help you identify potential signs of cyberbullying and equip you with the skills needed to talk to your kids about this ongoing digital parenting concern.

Sources: stats on cyberbullying (Cyberbullying Research Center)

About the author:

Neil Mitchell is media consultant, focused on digital and online safety. He has been working with Verizon on online safety issues for over a decade.


Verizon's Parenting in a Digital World Portal publishes articles from a diverse set of authors with expertise across the digital safety spectrum. Contributors to the Portal are compensated by Verizon for their work.

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