The effects of cyberbullying (and how to protect your kids)

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The truth is, cyberbullying isn’t always easy to spot. Don’t worry—that doesn’t make you a bad parent. But it is super important for all parents to pick up on the warning signs to keep their kids safer online. And that’s exactly what we’ll get into with this article. 

How badly can cyberbullying affect your kids? 

While any form of bullying can be tough on kids, cyberbullying has started to rear its ugly head more and more and has become harder to stop. Sometimes, it can even be more damaging than in-person bullying. 

Even without an immediate threat of physical harm, cyberbullying can still cause things like embarrassment, frustration, anxiety, physical illness, depression, and, in some cases, even suicide [*].

Cyberbullying is on the rise, as 46% of teens between the ages of 13 and 17 have been victims online—often multiple times. 

As a parent, you’ll do anything to keep your kid out of harm’s way. But since cyberbullying happens over messaging apps—or even lurking in the shadows on social media platforms like Instagram, Snapchat, and Facebook—it’s super difficult to see it or stop it from happening. 

In this guide, we’ll go over the effects of cyberbullying and show you some of the warning signs you can watch out for to keep your kids safe. 

What exactly is cyberbullying? Why is it so damaging for kids? 

Simply put, cyberbullying is when someone uses the internet to harass, threaten, or humiliate someone else—most often a child or teen. Cyberbullying can take the shape of abusing victims through online gaming chats, sending threatening text messages, or even posting embarrassing rumors on social media. 

When someone experiences cyberbullying, it can leave them feeling ashamed or afraid. For kids or young adults, this can make them feel like outcasts, which is why they don’t always reach out for help—they fear going to a teacher or parent could make things even worse. 

This type of bullying can be even more slimy than traditional bullying because it usually happens entirely online rather than in person. This can impact kids in a lot of different ways: 

  • It doesn’t stop at home. Thanks to modern technology, bullies can target people at home, so there’s no escape. 
  • It’s harder to defend yourself. Kids experiencing cyberbullying might not have an effective way to reply or shut down bullies, and taking down negative or hurtful posts from social media can be a tricky, long-winded process. 
  • There’s almost an infinite amount of ways to attack victims onlinetext messages, gaming, forums, social media, email… the list goes on. If one account gets banned, bullies can just make a new one and keep the harassment going. 
  • It’s easy to be anonymous. Cyberbullies can easily make fake social media profiles to hide themselves and avoid getting caught. 
  • Online platforms make it easier for bullies. Because it’s so easy to stay anonymous, bullies are more confident they won’t be stopped or face any consequences. 

The bottom line: When your kids are old enough (and ready) to use the internet on their own, they’re going to be at risk of online bullying. Having said that, there are plenty of ways to stay a step ahead of online bullying

Young teen looking at phone

What are the emotional and mental effects of cyberbullying? 

As the abuse goes on, the impact on your kid gets worse. That’s why you should try to identify cyberbullying as soon as possible. 

Here are the things you should look out for: 

Sudden changes in your child’s emotional state.

Kids who are dealing with cyberbullying could suffer from anxiety, depression, and other stress-related disorders. A study of female cyberbullying victims aged 19 to 25 found that 31% felt anger, while more than one in five felt sad or helpless [*]. 

Warning signs that your child is being bullied online:

  • They’re quick to get angry or frustrated. Due to overwhelming emotional turbulence, kids could lash out at parents, teachers, or friends.
  • They spend more time on their own. Kids might feel safer in their own rooms, so they’ll avoid public events—especially if there’s a chance of seeing their bully. 
  • Changes in online behavior. Your kid could avoid certain social media platforms or create new profiles just to hide from their online bully. 

💡 Related: How To Keep Your Kids and Teens Safe on Social Media

Trouble focusing on schoolwork.

Being bullied online can have a huge impact on your kid’s performance at school. Victims might find it hard to concentrate on homework or in class—especially if they go to school with the perpetrator(s). 

Warning signs your child is being bullied online:

  • Dips in grades. Students might not perform as well in school if they're being bullied. Keep an eye on your kids’ academic results and homework standards—sudden drops in performance or participation shouldn't be ignored.
  • Avoiding school and school-related activities. If your kid used to love school or participating in after-school activities, but is now reluctant to go, this might be a sign something is wrong. Some kids even skip class to avoid their bullies altogether. 
  • Lack of work ethic. If kids suddenly stop contributing to class regularly or struggle to keep up with homework, they might be facing some other, more complex challenges.

Isolation from friends, family, and school.

Kids dealing with cyberbullying could lose interest in spending time with other people or may fear that even their most trusted friends will betray them. Some people—especially teens—may worry about their social status and stop going to certain events or hangouts, all in fear that they could be targeted or humiliated in front of others. 

Warning signs your child is being bullied online:

  • No more social events. Birthday parties or other activities outside of school may cause anxiety for kids who are being bullied. Even if they get invited, they might not want to go.
  • More time at home. Instead of going out to socialize or play with friends, bullying victims might just want to spend more time in the comfort of their rooms. 
  • Less chatting with friends. Kids are always talking to friends on devices, in person, or when playing games. If you start seeing your kid has fewer friends around, it’s definitely worth asking why.  

💡 Related: How To See What Your Kid Is Doing Online

Loss of interest in hobbies and other activities.

Getting bullied—or anything that could have a negative impact on mental health—will usually stop people from doing the things they once enjoyed. Kids who are getting bullied may have feelings of despair or hopelessness that lead them to lose interest in hobbies, especially in-person activities. 

Warning signs that your child is being bullied online:

  • Skipping school activities or saying usual activities are canceled. Kids are notorious for inventing excuses to avoid participating in activities they don’t love. But if they stop going to sports or band practice, there might be something deeper going on. 
  • Expressing anger or sadness with a specific activity. If your kid shows intense emotions around an activity they once loved—or suddenly stops enjoying doing it—there could be underlying reasons. Maybe someone is teasing them about their hobby or targeting them when they’re going to said activity. 
  • They even neglect solo hobbies. Depression and anxiety caused by bullying could even lead to abandoning hobbies like playing musical instruments, drawing, or writing. 


Feeling powerless against bullying.

Kids experiencing cyberbullying could also feel like they can't defend themselves or stop online harassment, which could come to the surface as fearfulness or lack of confidence. 

Warning signs that your child is being bullied online:

  • Losing things (more than usual). Yes, kids aren’t the best at keeping track of personal belongings. But if you see your child begin losing things more frequently, it could be that bullies are taking their stuff. And, out of shame, your child isn’t telling you. 
  • Running away from home or school. If a kid experiencing cyberbullying feels powerless, the natural thing to do is try to escape the situation. Hiding or running away when they should be at home or school is one of the most common signs of bullying. 
  • Becoming more introverted. When kids are picked on, they might become more self-conscious or shy. You might see your child lacking confidence. They could feel seemingly helpless to perform simple tasks like speaking with others in public.

💡 Related: The Top 10 Warning Signs of Cyberbullying (And What To Do)

Heightened stress and anxiety—especially around digital devices.

Prolonged bullying is severely damaging to mental health—especially when it happens over and over across the internet. Targets of bullying have reported higher rates of social anxiety and depression, and as many as 26% had suicidal thoughts [*]. 

Warning signs that your child is being bullied online:

  • Avoiding digital devices altogether. If kids stop using their computers and smartphones, it could be a sign someone is giving them a hard time when they go online.
  • Erratic online behavior. Anxiety could cause victims of cyberbullying to block and unblock contacts or obsessively check notifications. If you notice kids quickly hiding their phones or jumping when it beeps, that's worth discussing. 
  • Anger or frustration after using a device. If you ever see your kid slam their laptop shut or throw down their cell phone, consider this a major red flag. 

Poor sleep and increased daytime fatigue.

In a systematic review of 9,443 adolescents who were cyberbullied over the previous 12 months, there was a clear association with sleep problems [*]. The anxiety that comes with cyberbullying makes it hard for plenty of high school students to get to sleep as they toss and turn, worrying about what the next day at school could have in store for them. 

Warning signs that your child is being bullied online:

  • Going on devices more frequently at night. Going online at night is one thing, but when a kid is online more and more past bedtime, it could be a sign they’re trying to deal with issues on social media or even monitoring their bullies.
  • Clear signs of fatigue. If your kid always looks tired in the morning and seems forgetful or dazed throughout the day, something is impacting their sleeping habits. 
  • They develop sleep disorders. Insomnia and other sleep disorders can be linked to mental health issues stemming from cyberbullying.

💡 Related: How To Control Internet Access At Your Home

Dark or suicidal thoughts. 

In February 2023, 14-year-old Adriana Kuch took her own life after being attacked at a New Jersey high school. The bullies shared a clip of the assault online, causing the young girl more stress than she could handle [*]. The sad truth is that kids experiencing cyberbullying are more likely to suffer from suicidal thoughts than those who aren’t. 

Warning signs that your child is being bullied online:

  • They express suicidal feelings. It’s tough for kids to talk about their problems or emotions, so these feelings could come out in poems, stories, or artwork that depicts suicide or self-harm.
  • Researching suicide. It's good to monitor your younger family members' search histories. If ever you discover they’ve been looking up content about self-harm, it's vital to talk to them immediately before they make suicide attempts.
  • Expressing feelings of hopelessness for the future. You might hear your kids make statements about life seeming pointless or the future being hopeless and offering no prospects.

📞 Get help dealing with cyberbullying. If you or a loved one is dealing with dark thoughts, dial 988 to speak with someone from the national 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline. This is a free, confidential, and 24/7 resource.

Low self-esteem.

Bullying online can cause children to feel ashamed or unworthy, which damages their self-esteem. When kids develop low self-esteem, they might start doubting themselves and their abilities. In the long run, this makes kids less willing to try new things, express themselves, or pursue their ambitions.

Warning signs that your child is being bullied online:

  • Engaging in self-destructive behaviors. This could look like lashing out emotionally or self-harm, demonstrating bad behavior in school, or even engaging in substance or alcohol abuse. 
  • Developing a mindset that they are inferior. Kids with low self-esteem might express that they’re “feeling stupid” or talk in ways that undermine their own abilities in certain areas like sports or art. 
  • Thinking others are better than they are. Feeling inadequate compared to others is a hallmark of low self-esteem and confidence. 

Using drugs or alcohol.

Victims of cyberbullying will sometimes even turn to substances as a way to cope. A study from the American Academy of Pediatrics found that students who were bullied when they were in the fifth grade were more likely to use marijuana, alcohol, and tobacco when they reached 10th grade [*].

Warning signs that your child is being bullied online:

  • A downfall in appearance and personal hygiene. When kids (or anyone) use drugs or alcohol, they will often neglect their hygiene and grooming habits. Strong body odor, visible dandruff, and dirty clothes may point to a bigger problem.
  • Sudden fluctuation in weight. People who use drugs or alcohol may lose a lot of weight or put on weight quickly. 
  • Tremors, slurring their words, or lack of coordination. Substance abuse may be noticeable if your kid develops tremors, slurred speech, or poor coordination.

Changes to their friend groups.

Children experiencing cyberbullying might lose their friends or even become ostracized by their peers. While kids go through different friend groups as they get older, it’s worth asking why your kid stops hanging out with certain friends—there could be a suspicious or concerning reason behind the fallout. 

Warning signs that your child is being bullied online:

  • Constantly alone. Bullied kids may look for new friends who are nicer and not likely to bully them. But if you notice your kids are alone more often than not, they may be facing issues with their peers. 
  • Rapid changes in online friends. Teens often have online friends, especially if they’re into online gaming. If your child starts unfriending or blocking friends or constantly talking about new people, there could be a social problem that stops them from building lasting relationships.
  • Not wanting to talk about friendships. Changing the subject or not acknowledging certain friends (or kids they used to be friends with) could be a sign of some tension. 

Eating disorders and physical issues.

People being bullied often begin having physical health problems. In the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development (ABCD) study, researchers found that many victims of cyberbullying developed eating disorders and related health issues, including weight gain and binge eating [*]. 

Warning signs that your child is being bullied online:

  • Stomach pain. This isn’t your average tummy ache. Constant complaints of stomach issues or digestive problems might be a sign of anxiety or distress. 
  • Changes in eating habits. Keep an eye out for a child eating a lot more or a lot less than usual, either of which can happen when kids are under extreme stress.
  • Skipping meals. Not eating regular family meals could be a sign of an eating disorder or worries about self-image.

What to do if you think your child is being bullied.

Parental controls help keep kids safe, but unless you block internet access altogether (good luck with that), there is always a chance of online bullying. 

It’s tough for young people to talk about their feelings—even if they’re dealing with the effects of cyberbullying. Since it’s hard for them to open up and tell you what’s going on, the responsibility falls on the parent to look out for the warning signs of cyberbullying and to take action quickly. 

Here are eight steps to take if you think cyberbullies are targeting your child:

  • Create a safe environment to talk. As soon as you recognize any warning signs, try to gently push your child into opening up—but don’t force it. It’s important to keep an open line of communication and show your kids they have a safe, judgment-free space to talk with you. 
  • Listen without interrupting. It’s easy to get upset when your kid tells you they’re being bullied. But as soon as they see you get angry or even disappointed, they’ll withdraw from the conversation. Do your best to stay calm and praise your child for doing the right thing by talking to you. 
  • Collect evidence of the bullying. Write down every detail your child shares, and collect screenshots of text messages, emails, social media photos, etc. If you can, 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 numbers. 
  • 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 your local police department. In cases of violence, assault, theft, or harassment, it might be time to call in the police. Reach out immediately if you fear your child is in danger. 
  • Consider counseling to help your child work through the emotional effects. A mental health or psychiatry expert can be a huge help for your child to heal after experiencing bullying of any kind. 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, too! 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. 

Are there laws against cyberbullying? 

All 50 states in the U.S. have anti-bullying laws to protect students and young people. While the protocol may vary depending on the school or local laws, the typical regulations include: 

  • A clear policy that outlines procedures for handling bullying
  • Requirement for a school to investigate and report bullying within a specific number of days
  • The methods students have available to report bullying incidents
  • What consequences the bullies will face if found guilty

In 2010, the U.S. Department of Education created a framework of common components found in state laws, policies, and regulations focused on bullying. The framework includes a procedure for students, families, staff, and others to report incidents and ensure safeguards for students who have been bullied. 

There is not currently a federal law that specifically applies to cyberbullying. However, bullying overlaps with harassment when it is based on race or ethnicity, color, national origin, sex, disability, or religion. In these cases, both police and schools are legally obligated to address the issue.

The bottom line: keep your entire family safe online.

Unfortunately, with the ease of access (and anonymity), cyberbullying has become a huge threat facing young people today. From social media to gaming platforms, the digital age presents a large number of threats that can follow your kids home from school. Stay vigilant, stay connected, and do the best you can to handle and protect your kid. 

🔎 Catch the warning signs early: A spike in time spent on specific social media or messaging platforms can be a massive red flag of cyberbullying.

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