Cyberbullying: What is it and how to stop it
11 things teens want to know about cyberbullying.
Cyberbullying: What is it and how to stop it
“What would you like to know about cyberbullying?” We posed this question to young people and received thousands of responses from around the world. We brought together UNICEF specialists, international cyberbullying and child protection experts, and teamed up with Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, TikTok and Twitter to answer the questions and give their advice on ways to deal with online bullying.
What is cyberbullying?
Cyberbullying is bullying with the use of digital technologies. It can take place on social media, messaging platforms, gaming platforms and mobile phones. It is repeated behaviour, aimed at scaring, angering or shaming those who are targeted. Examples include:
- spreading lies about or posting embarrassing photos of someone on social media
- sending hurtful messages or threats via messaging platforms
- impersonating someone and sending mean messages to others on their behalf.
Face-to-face bullying and cyberbullying can often happen alongside each other. But cyberbullying leaves a digital footprint – a record that can prove useful and provide evidence to help stop the abuse.
The top 11 questions on cyberbullying
- Am I being bullied online? How do you tell the difference between a joke and bullying?
- What are the effects of cyberbullying?
- How can cyberbullying affect my mental health?
- Who should I talk to if someone is bullying me online? Why is reporting important?
- I’m experiencing cyberbullying, but I’m afraid to talk to my parents about it. How can I approach them?
- How can I help my friends report a case of cyberbullying especially if they don’t want to do it?
- Being online gives me access to lots of information; but it also means I am open to abuse. How do we stop cyberbullying without giving up access to the internet?
- How do I prevent my personal information from being used to manipulate or humiliate me on social media?
- Is there a punishment for cyberbullying?
- Internet companies don’t seem to care about online bullying and harassment. Are they being held responsible?
- Are there any online anti-bullying tools for children or young people?
1. Am I being bullied online? How do you tell the difference between a joke and bullying?
UNICEF: All friends joke around with each other, but sometimes it’s hard to tell if someone is just having fun or trying to hurt you, especially online. Sometimes they’ll laugh it off with a “just kidding,” or “don’t take it so seriously.”
But if you feel hurt or think others are laughing at you instead of with you, then the joke has gone too far. If it continues even after you’ve asked the person to stop and you are still feeling upset about it, then this could be bullying.
And when the bullying takes place online, it can result in unwanted attention from a wide range of people including strangers. Wherever it may happen, if you are not happy about it, you should not have to stand for it.
Call it what you will – if you feel bad and it doesn’t stop, then it’s worth getting help. Stopping cyberbullying is not just about calling out bullies, it’s also about recognizing that everyone deserves respect – online and in real life.
2. What are the effects of cyberbullying?
When bullying happens online it can feel as if you’re being attacked everywhere, even inside your own home. It can seem like there’s no escape. The effects can last a long time and affect a person in many ways:
Mentally — feeling upset, embarrassed, stupid, even angry
Emotionally — feeling ashamed or losing interest in the things you love
Physically — tired (loss of sleep), or experiencing symptoms like stomach aches and headaches
The feeling of being laughed at, shamed or harassed by others, can prevent people from speaking up or trying to deal with the problem.
Cyberbullying can affect us in many ways. But these can be overcome and people can regain their confidence and health.
3. How can cyberbullying affect my mental health?
UNICEF: When you experience cyberbullying you might start to feel ashamed, nervous, anxious and insecure about what people say or think about you. This can lead to withdrawing from friends and family, negative thoughts and self-talk, feeling guilty about things you did or did not do, or feeling that you are being judged negatively. Feeling lonely, overwhelmed, frequent headaches, nausea or stomachaches are also common.
You can lose your motivation to do the things that you usually enjoy doing and feel isolated from the people you love and trust. This can perpetuate negative feelings and thoughts which can adversely affect your mental health and well-being.
Skipping school is another common effect of cyberbullying and can affect the mental health of young people who turn to substances like alcohol and drugs or violent behavior to deal with their psychological and physical pain. Talking to a friend, family member or school counsellor you trust can be a first step to getting help.
The effects of cyberbullying on mental health can vary depending on the medium through which it happens. For example, bullying via text messaging or through pictures or videos on social media platforms has proven to be very harmful for adolescents.
Snapchat: Cyberbullying opens the door to 24-hour harassment and can be very damaging. That’s why we offer in-app mental health and well-being support through our feature “Here For You.” This Snapchat portal provides resources on mental health, grief, bullying, harassment, anxiety, eating disorders, depression, stress, and suicidal thoughts. It was developed in partnership with leading international advocacy and mental health organizations to help Snapchatters contend with some very real issues.
At Snap, nothing is more important than the safety and well-being of our community. Reach out and tell us how we might be able to help.
TikTok: Cyberbullying has the potential of having a negative impact on people's mental health. It's why it's so important that you reach out to someone you trust – whether it's a parent, teacher, friend or caregiver – and let them know what you're going through so that they can help you.
The well-being of our community matters hugely to us, and we recognise that cyberbullying can have an adverse impact on people's mental health. As well as taking strong action against content or behaviour that seeks to shame, bully or harass members of our community, we have partnered with experts to develop our well-being guide to help people learn more about improving their well-being, and keep TikTok a safe and inclusive home for our community.
4. Who should I talk to if someone is bullying me online? Why is reporting important?
UNICEF: If you think you’re being bullied, the first step is to seek help from someone you trust such as your parents, a close family member or another trusted adult.
In your school you can reach out to a counsellor or your favourite teacher.
And if you are not comfortable talking to someone you know, search for a helpline to talk to a professional counsellor.
If the bullying is happening on a social platform, consider blocking the bully and formally reporting their behaviour on the platform itself. Social media companies are obligated to keep their users safe.
It can be helpful to collect evidence – text messages and screen shots of social media posts – to show what’s been going on.
For bullying to stop, it needs to be identified and reporting it is key. It can also help to show the bully that their behaviour is unacceptable.
If you are in immediate danger, then you should contact the police or emergency services in your country.
Facebook/Instagram: If you’re being bullied online, we encourage you to talk to a parent, teacher or someone else you can trust -- you have a right to be safe. We also make it easy to report any bullying directly within Facebook or Instagram.
You can always send our team an anonymous report from a post, comment or story on Facebook or Instagram.
We have a team who reviews these reports 24/7 around the world in 50+ languages, and we’ll remove anything that’s abusive or bullying. These reports are always anonymous.
We have a guide on Facebook that can help lead you through the process of dealing with bullying -- or what to do if you see someone else being bullied. On Instagram, we also have a Parent’s Guide that provides recommendations for parents, guardians and trusted adults on how to navigate cyberbullying, and a central hub where you can learn about our safety tools.
Twitter: If you think that you are being cyberbullied, the most important thing is to ensure you are safe. It’s essential to have someone to talk to about what you are going through. This may be a teacher, another trusted adult, or a parent. Talk to your parents and friends about what to do if you or a friend are being cyberbullied.
We encourage people to report accounts to us that may break our rules. You can do this through the support pages on our Help Center or through the in-Tweet reporting mechanism by clicking on the “Report a Tweet” option.
5. I’m experiencing cyberbullying, but I’m afraid to talk to my parents about it. How can I approach them?
If you are experiencing cyberbullying, speaking to a trusted adult – someone you feel safe talking to – is one of the most important first steps you can take.
Talking to parents isn’t easy for everyone. But there are things you can do to help the conversation. Choose a time to talk when you know you have their full attention. Explain how serious the problem is for you. Remember, they might not be as familiar with technology as you are, so you might need to help them to understand what’s happening.
They might not have instant answers for you, but they are likely to want to help and together you can find a solution. Two heads are always better than one! If you are still unsure about what to do, consider reaching out to other trusted people. There are often more people who care about you and are willing to help than you might think!
6. How can I help my friends report a case of cyberbullying especially if they don’t want to do it?
UNICEF: Anyone can become a victim of cyberbullying. If you see this happening to someone you know, try to offer support.
It is important to listen to your friend. Why don’t they want to report being cyberbullied? How are they feeling? Let them know that they don’t have to formally report anything, but it’s crucial to talk to someone who might be able to help.
Remember, your friend may be feeling fragile. Be kind to them. Help them think through what they might say and to whom. Offer to go with them if they decide to report. Most importantly, remind them that you’re there for them and you want to help.
If your friend still does not want to report the incident, then support them in finding a trusted adult who can help them deal with the situation. Remember that in certain situations the consequences of cyberbullying can be life threatening.
Doing nothing can leave the person feeling that everyone is against them or that nobody cares. Your words can make a difference.
Facebook/Instagram: We know that it can be hard to report someone. But, it’s never OK to bully anyone.
Reporting content to Facebook or Instagram can help us better keep you safe on our platforms. Bullying and harassment are highly personal by nature, so in many instances, we need a person to report this behavior to us before we can identify or remove it.
Reporting a case of cyberbullying is always anonymous on Instagram and Facebook, and no one will ever know you let us know about this behavior.
You can report something you experience yourself, but it’s also just as easy to report for one of your friends using the tools available directly in the app. More information on how to report something is included in Instagram’s Help Center and on Facebook’s Help Center.
Twitter: We enabled bystander reporting which means that you can make a report on behalf of another person. This can now be done for reports of private information and impersonation as well.
7. Being online gives me access to lots of information, but it also means I am open to abuse. How do we stop cyberbullying without giving up access to the Internet?
UNICEF: Being online has so many benefits. However, like many things in life, it comes with risks that you need to protect against.
If you experience cyberbullying, you may want to delete certain apps or stay offline for a while to give yourself time to recover. But getting off the Internet is not a long-term solution. You did nothing wrong, so why should you be disadvantaged? It may even send the bullies the wrong signal — encouraging their unacceptable behaviour.
We all want cyberbullying to stop, which is one of the reasons reporting cyberbullying is so important. But creating the Internet we want goes beyond calling out bullying. We need to be thoughtful about what we share or say that may hurt others. We need to be kind to one another online and in real life. It's up to all of us!
Facebook/Instagram: Keeping Instagram and Facebook safe and positive places for self-expression is important to us -- people will only be comfortable sharing if they feel safe. But, we know that cyberbullying can get in the way and create negative experiences. That’s why at Instagram and Facebook, we’re committed to leading the fight against cyberbullying.
We’re doing this in two main ways. First, by using technology to prevent people from experiencing and seeing bullying. For example, people can turn on a setting that uses artificial intelligence technology to automatically filter and hide bullying comments intended to harass or upset people.
Second, we’re working to encourage positive behavior and interactions by giving people tools to customize their experience on Facebook and Instagram. Restrict is one tool designed to empower you to discreetly protect your account while still keeping an eye on a bully.
Twitter: Since hundreds of millions of people share ideas on Twitter, it’s no surprise that we don’t all agree. That’s one of the benefits because we can all learn from respectful disagreements and discussions. But sometimes, after you’ve listened to someone for a while, you may not want to hear them anymore. Their right to express themselves doesn’t mean you’re required to listen.
8. How do I prevent my personal information from being used to manipulate or humiliate me on social media?
Think twice before posting or sharing anything online – it may stay online forever and could be used to harm you later. Don’t give out personal details such as your address, telephone number or the name of your school.
Learn about the privacy settings of your favourite social media apps. Here are some actions you can take on many of them:
- You can decide who can see your profile, send you direct messages or comment on your posts by adjusting your account privacy settings.
- You can report hurtful comments, messages and photos and request they be removed.
- Besides ‘unfriending’, you can completely block people to stop them from seeing your profile or contacting you.
- You can also choose to have comments by certain people to appear only to them without completely blocking them.
- You can delete posts on your profile or hide them from specific people.
On most of your favourite social media, people aren't notified when you block, restrict or report them.
9. Is there a punishment for cyberbullying?
UNICEF: Most schools take bullying seriously and will take action against it. If you are being cyberbullied by other students, report it to your school.
People who are victims of any form of violence, including bullying and cyberbullying, have a right to justice and to have the offender held accountable.
Laws against bullying, particularly on cyberbullying, are relatively new and still do not exist everywhere. This is why many countries, including North Macedonia, rely on other relevant laws designed to protect children against all forms of violence and discrimination, including cybercrime. .
In countries that have specific laws on cyberbullying, online behaviour that deliberately causes serious emotional distress is seen as criminal activity. In some of these countries, victims of cyberbullying can seek protection, prohibit communication from a specified person and restrict the use of electronic devices used by that person for cyberbullying, temporarily or permanently.
However, it is important to remember that punishment is not always the most effective way to change the behaviour of bullies. It is often better to focus on repairing the harm and mending the relationship.
Facebook/Instagram: On Facebook, we have a set of Community Standards, and on Instagram, we have Community Guidelines that we ask our community to follow. If we find content that violates these policies, like in the case of bullying or harassment, we’ll remove it.
If you think content has been removed incorrectly, we also allow for appeals. On Instagram, you can appeal content or account removal through our Help Center. On Facebook, you can also go through the same process on the Help Center.
10. Internet companies don’t seem to care about online bullying and harassment. Are they being held responsible?
Internet companies are increasingly paying attention to the issue of online bullying.
Many of them are introducing ways to address it and better protect their users with new tools, guidance and ways to report online abuse.
But it is true that even more is needed. Many young people experience cyberbullying every day. Some face extreme forms of online abuse. Some have taken their own lives as a result.
Technology companies have a responsibility to protect their users especially children and young people.
It is up to all of us to hold them accountable when they’re not living up to these responsibilities.
11. Are there any online anti-bullying tools for children or young people?
UNICEF: Each social platform offers different tools (see available ones below) that allow you to restrict who can comment on or view your posts or who can connect automatically as a friend, and to report cases of bullying. Many of them involve simple steps to block, mute or report cyberbullying. We encourage you to explore them.
Social media companies also provide educational tools and guidance for children, parents and teachers to learn about risks and ways to stay safe online.
Also, the first line of defense against cyberbullying could be you. Think about where cyberbullying happens in your community and ways you can help – by raising your voice, calling out bullies, reaching out to trusted adults or by creating awareness of the issue. Even a simple act of kindness can go a long way.
If you are worried about your safety or something that has happened to you online, urgently speak to an adult you trust. Call a Child Helpline to get help.
Facebook/Instagram: We have a number of tools to help keep young people safe:
- You can opt to ignore all messages from a bully or use our Restrict tool to discreetly protect your account without that person being notified.
- You can moderate comments on your own posts.
- You can modify your settings so that only people you follow can send you a direct message.
- And on Instagram, we send you a notification you’re about to post something that might cross the line, encouraging you to reconsider.
Twitter: If people on Twitter become annoying or negative we have tools that can help you, and the following list is linked to instructions on how to set these up.
Expert contributions from: Sonia Livingstone, OBE, Professor Social Psychology, Department of Media and Communications, London School of Economics; Professor Amanda Third, Professorial Research Fellow, Institute for Culture and Society, Western Sydney University.
With special thanks to: Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.
UNICEF contributions: Mercy Agbai, Stephen Blight, Anjan Bose, Alix Cabral, Rocio Aznar Daban, Siobhan Devine, Emma Ferguson, Nicole Foster, Nelson Leoni, Supreet Mahanti, Clarice Da Silva e Paula, Michael Sidwell, Daniel Kardefelt Winther.
Reporting abuse and safety resources [links to safety resources on popular social media]