Cyberbullying prevention guide: effects, signs, and reporting

Share this:
Jump to

Bullying in all forms has long been an unfortunate part of childhood. Think about a quintessential teen movie you watched when you were younger. Chances are that no matter the decade, it featured some kind of bullying behavior, from pouring paint on someone at prom to stuffing smaller kids in lockers to creating a burn book.

Are we dating ourselves? Yep – and that’s exactly the point. As social norms change and new technologies emerge, a lot of pre-teen and teen bullying has moved online to cyberbullying. And unfortunately, bullying itself has increased in the last decade despite efforts to thwart it. 

No form of bullying, cyber or otherwise, is the fault of the child being bullied. This topic is hard for parents to read about because we don’t want our children to be harmed, and don’t want them to cause harm. Still, the reality is that cyberbullying is extremely prevalent. We all need to do our part and make sure our kids are doing their part, in preventing it. 

The truth is, we can never fully know what our kids are doing online. Teens happen to be great at getting things past even the most vigilant parents. So let’s talk about all things cyberbullying so you have the best information available to turn this “right of passage” (according to the movies) into something that’s 100% not okay. 

What is cyberbullying and why is it so damaging for kids?

Cyberbullying occurs when someone uses digital communication mediums to harass, threaten, or humiliate others, usually a child or teen. Cyberbullying uses social media, texts, and online gaming chats to send harmful messages, spread rumors, and share private material. 

Many kids keep cyberbullying to themselves out of shame and fear. They don’t seek help because they worry about retaliation and social consequences. Bullies rely on this reaction to further their power over the victim. Bullying is about dominance and intimidation, and not seeking help only continues this cycle. 

Bullying is deeply harmful to the victim and can have lifelong consequences on their physical, mental, and emotional health. (Jump ahead here to read more on this).

Cyberbullying can be even more damaging because it’s more insidious. Often it’s harder to see and means adults are less likely to notice a problem and intervene. It also gives perpetrators limitless tools for reaching victims, and there’s no end to it when the school day is over. Bullies can keep harassing their victims as long as the victim, or the victim’s peers, are online. 

Teen girl looking at phone

How does cyberbullying happen? 

Cyberbullying can happen in virtually any digital medium. And with more technology, there’s more likelihood that kids will experience cyberbullying. Here are some tactics cyberbullies use: 

  • Fake profiles: Bullies create fake profiles pretending to be the victim's friend and getting them to share sensitive information. 
  • Sockpuppets: Perpetrators use the victim’s information to create a fake profile posing as the victim. Then they share content meant to harm the victim’s reputation. 
  • Doxing: This is when a cyberbully finds and shares personal information online that puts the victim at physical risk, like their home address. 
  • Encouraging self-harm: Cyberbullies play into a victim’s low self-esteem or insecurities and encourage them to harm themself or worsen.
  • Leaking sensitive photos or messages: Perpetrators may share intimate images, videos, or messages with people without the victim’s consent. 
  • Spreading Lies: The target may be blamed for things they didn’t do. Bullies will spread false information and persuade others to turn on the victim. 
  • Gamer bullying: In addition to bullying in chats, gamers can also use a strategy called “griefing” where they purposely sabotage another player and lead a campaign of harassment. 

In addition, cyberbullies often use anonymous profiles which makes them harder to track down and more likely to continue their harassment. Furthermore, these bullies can save sensitive content and repost it from a different account, creating a cycle of harm for the victim. 

Are there laws against cyberbullying?

Some good news! All 50 states in the U.S. have anti-bullying laws. The specifics may vary depending on the state and locality, but most policies include the following: 

  • A clear policy that outlines procedures to handle bullying.
  • Requirements for a school to handle and investigate bullying within a certain number of days.
  • The methods students have available to report bullying.
  • What consequences a bully will face if found guilty. 

The U.S. Department of Education created a framework that includes all of the above that laws and schools can follow. 

There’s no current federal law about cyberbullying specifically. Cyberbullying victims often face an uphill battle because the bullying happens off school grounds and the victim hasn’t sustained immediate physical injuries. Cyberbullying is also harder to track and is often taken less seriously than in-person bullying offenses. 

What are the emotional and mental effects of cyberbullying?

Cyberbullying can have lifelong ramifications on a person’s mental health and ability to connect with others. The impact only gets worse as the abuse goes on, so it’s important to act as soon as possible. 

Here’s some of what your child may experience if they’re being cyberbullied: 

Sudden changes in emotional state.

Kids who experience cyberbullying may suffer from depression and other stress-related disorders. If your child is quick to get angry or frustrated with family, teachers, or friends, they may be experiencing some issues online. Also watch out for isolating behaviors, like spending more time alone or avoiding activities they used to enjoy, and suspicious social media behavior like suddenly creating new profiles – they might be trying to avoid the bully. 

If their heightened stress is around digital devices, that’s a big red flag. Cyberbullying victims may avoid phones and computers or show frustration after using them. 

Issues with schoolwork.

Stress, lack of sleep, and anxiety can all impact a kid’s academic performance. If you notice declining grades and a change in their usual work ethic it’s worth asking some questions. Also, be on the lookout for a kid who is dropping activities or suddenly avoiding things – if your child expresses anger or sadness around an activity they used to enjoy, try to dig deeper.

Depression can also lead people to neglect solo hobbies, so if something seems off, make sure to investigate.

Isolation and lack of interest in activities.

Avoiding people is a common response to bullying behavior. Kids may start to fear people betraying them or worry about social consequences if they’re bullied in the real world. If you notice your child staying in the house more, declining to go to social events, or talking to friends less, take note. 

Your child may also lose friends or become ostracized by their peers. They may begin blocking people rapidly or disengaging from former friends – some may switch to a new friend group, or avoid friends altogether. 

Feeling powerless.

When a kid feels like they can’t fight back against a bully it’ll manifest in other ways. If your child feels powerless, they may try to run away from home or school to avoid being in a situation where they’ll be bullied, or become more self-conscious about simple things, like asking for help in a store. 

And a note on physical bullying: if your child seems like they’re always losing things, be mindful of the fact that a bully might be taking their things, and they’re too afraid to tell you. 

Poor sleep and daytime fatigue.

Cyberbullying victims have a demonstrated issue with sleep. Sometimes, this is due to stress and other times, they may be up late online trying to deal with bullies. Either way, if a kid seems more tired than usual or is having trouble sleeping, it could be an indicator of something more. 

Dark or suicidal thoughts.

There have been many cases of teens or even pre-teens committing suicide after being bullied. Victims struggling with the mental and emotional effects of cyberbullying may exhibit warning signs. Take action now if you notice your child expressing suicidal feelings, researching suicide, or expressing feelings of hopelessness. 

Low self-esteem.

Cyberbullying can lead kids to have feelings of low self-worth and develop a mindset that they're inferior. They may speak about not being good enough to do the things they used to like, and thinking others are better at things than they are or more worthy. 

When kids have low self-esteem, they may also engage in self-destructive behaviors. Self-harm and drug and alcohol abuse serve as coping mechanisms for these feelings, and parents need to look out for changes in physical appearance and behavior. 

Eating disorders.

Another possible side effect of low self-esteem, some cyberbullying victims will develop eating disorders especially if they’re bullied about their weight or appearance. Changes in eating habits, skipping meals, and regular digestive problems are all alarm bells. 

Signs of cyberbullying and what to do.

Bullying can happen to anyone, and it’s not your kids’ fault, or yours. 

Even with safeguards in place, kids still can and do become victims of cyberbullying. Here are eight steps to take if you think that’s the case: 


  • Listen without interrupting. Kids withdraw from telling parents about their problems if they think a parent will be upset, angry, or disappointed. Stay calm and praise your child for doing the right thing by talking.
  • Collect evidence of the bullying. Write down every detail your child shares, and collect screenshots of text messages, emails, social media photos, etc. If possible, double-check the full details of the story with your child before taking the next steps.
  • Block and report bullies to online platforms. You can block bullies on most platforms and report the behavior through customer support. Some cell phone providers may also help you block specific phone numbers.
  • Rally a support team. Work with your child’s school. Set up a meeting with the principal (and appropriate teacher or guidance counselor) about the situation. Present your evidence, and push for immediate action to stop the problem. If necessary, contact the local police department. Note: call the police immediately if you fear your child or family is in danger. 
  • Seek out counseling to help your child work through the emotional effects. A mental health or psychiatry expert can help your child heal after bullying. Work with a counselor or therapist to develop positive coping skills that can rebuild your child’s confidence. 
  • Get help for yourself. Dealing with cyberbullying is hard on parents as well as children. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, contact one of the main helplines that are available for both kids and adults. 
  • Consider a family safety app that offers cyberbullying alerts. A digital protection service can track your children’s online activities and send you alerts about cyberbullying issues. With Aura, you can protect your family’s online accounts and look out for your children’s well-being on gaming and social media platforms. Try Aura for free today and keep your whole family safe online.

And finally, don’t confront the bully’s parents. It rarely helps and can make things worse. 

How and where to report cyberbullies.

It’s vital that your child feels safe and protected before you begin this process. As noted, vulnerable kids may not always be willing to trust an adult to help them handle these situations. Talk about what that child needs to feel safe before jumping into action steps. 

Then, gather your evidence and give your child time to present everything to you and be forthcoming. They may be reluctant to share embarrassing material - bullying is about humiliation and intimidation, so this is totally understandable. Once you’re certain you have all the evidence block the bullies online and report them to the platforms where the bullying took place. 

Then decide on reporting the bully in person. Depending on the nature of the bullying, you can report it to the school or the police. And of course, if you are concerned your child or family is in danger, contact the police immediately. 

What if my kid is a cyberbully? 

It’s not fun to think about, but it is a reality. Even if your kid isn’t the primary bully, they may be perpetuating the bullying by sharing embarrassing content or laughing or commenting when the bullying takes place. 

You might suspect your child is a cyberbully if they’re spending more time online than usual, creating fake accounts, hiding their screen or changing apps when you walk by, or laughing at something online that they won’t share with you. You may also notice increased violence or callousness toward others in their offline life. 

If you have a hunch, your first move is to talk to your kid and remind them that cyberbullying is not okay. Clarify that it’s cruel, harmful, and not tolerated in your home. Make sure they know the consequences on the people they're bullying, and the consequences to them if your suspicion is true. 

Depending on the situation, you might also consider speaking with the school or a counselor. Your child could participate in an anti-bullying program or receive education that helps them understand the harm they’re causing and how to prevent cyberbullying instead.

5 ways to prevent cyberbulling.

With kids spending so much time online, parents need to be thoughtful about how they engage with social media. Promoting self-esteem on and offline and bringing kids into the safety decisions you make for their online use go a long way in protecting them from cyberbullying. 

Again, and we can't stress this enough: if it does happen, it’s not your fault or your kid’s. Sometimes the world is just rough, but we do hope these tools and tips will help you weather the storm.

1. Teach your kids the 3 R’s of cyberbullying: 

  • Recognize, where you can see the difference between normal and harmful behavior.
  • Respond/Refuse, where you push back at bullies so they know immediately that their behavior is unacceptable.
  • Report, so your child knows when and how to block and report unacceptable online behavior. 

2. Focus on privacy:

Help your kids set all their accounts to private and set up strong passwords. Make sure they understand the importance of privacy online. Go over cyber hygiene and what kind of information they can share online and what kind can be unsafe and why. Turn off location sharing and make sure kids understand that social media is for interacting with people they already know, and not to accept requests or messages from strangers. 

3. Monitor internet usage, apps, and gaming:

You can do all of this with Aura’s parental controls. Depending on your kid’s online usage, you can implement parental controls or make it a rule that they have to share their passwords with you so you can check on them to make sure they haven't posted anything unsafe. Even if they’ve heard everything you said about privacy, kids are kids, and they might accept a friend request on snap from someone posing as a celebrity, or add a geotag when they’re out with friends. You can be their safety net. 

4. Organize a monthly social media audit:

Know what’s popular and stay up-to-date on trends and slang. Make it a point to check in regularly on your kid’s social media and internet usage to make sure they're not using a platform whose safety risks you don’t know, or posting content in an unsafe way. 

5. Maintain open lines of communication:

All kids are different and your strategy will depend on what works best for everyone. Talk early and often to your kids about cyberbullying and how to be a good online citizen. When it comes to social media, ignorance is absolutely not bliss. A well-informed, confident kid will be more likely to stand up to bullies and come to you for help. 

So, are you pining for the good old days of burn books? Yeah, we’re not either.

No matter what form bullying takes, the priority is to give kids and their guardians information and teach empathy. Your family is a team. Keeping that team safe online is good for everyone’s health and peace of mind. 

Create a safe environment for your child in which to talk about bullying. As soon as you recognize any warning signs, gently coax your child to open up — but don't force it. It’s crucial to maintain an open line of communication and show your children that they have a safe space to talk with you — without judgment.

Related tags:
Got a question? Ask an expert here

You ask. We answer!

The online world is full of questions—and we’re here to help answer them. Submit a question here, and we’ll publish it (anonymously), with expert answers, tips, and insights. We'll also email you when your answer is available. While every family is different, your question could be a top concern for other parents. Understanding is a click away.

Ask away!
We've received your question, thank you.

We aim to answer you as quickly as possible, typically within five business days. We’ll also email you a copy of the answer in addition to a link where you can view.

Our responses to your questions are for informational purposes only and not intended to be a substitute for professional advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Never disregard professional advice or delay in seeking it.

Something went wrong while submitting the form.

We’re here to help

Find the resources, community, and conversations you need to raise a safer, more connected generation