10 warning signs of cyberbullying (and what to do)

Share this:
Jump to

As if it weren’t hard enough to decipher your kids’ behavior, the signs they might be dealing with cyberbullying can also be pretty difficult. Bus, as a parent, it’s good to be familiar with what they might look like so you can continue keeping your kids safe. Here’s what to look for →

How do you know if your child is being bullied online? 

It’s a tough stat to see, but nearly 70% of students in the U.S. say they see signs of cyberbullying quite often[*]. So, how are you supposed to pick up on the same warning signs they’re seeing? 

An even harder stat to swallow: in 2020, about five million kids between the ages of 10 and 18 were cyberbullied in the United States [*]. Unfortunately, cyberbullying often goes unreported and unnoticed by adults. 

Worst of all, sometimes, even when victims go to parents or teachers for help, the bullying doesn’t stop. In one devastating case last year, a 10-year-old student took her own life after being continually bullied—even after her parents tried to get her school to intervene [*].


In this guide, we will explain how cyberbullying happens and review the red flags to watch out for so that you can keep your children safe online.

How does cyberbullying happen? 

To put it simply, cyberbullying is essentially any type of bullying that happens on any digital medium—text messages, emails, social media, or online games. Bullies are looking to torment, intimidate, and humiliate their victims by sending or sharing harmful content. 

While we know it’s tough to see these statistics, the scary truth is that cyberbullying has hit record high numbers in recent years—with 79% of children on YouTube, 69% of kids on Snapchat, and 64% of kids on TikTok likely to be cyberbullied [*].

Here are a few tactics that cyberbullies may use:

  • Fake profiles: A perpetrator creates fake profiles, pretending to be a friend. They establish trust, making your kid think it’s okay to share personal information. The bully uses it against them to shame and harass the victim. 
  • Sockpuppets: Not what you’re thinking, but close. Cyberbullies use a victim's photos and information to create a fake identity, pretending to be them and posting mean content and images, ruining their victim’s online reputation. 
  • Doxing: Cyberbullies search for a victim's personally identifiable information (PII) and publish it online. For instance, a bully could share their victim’s address and social media links, encouraging others to send harmful content or visit the victim’s home.
  • Encouraging self-harm: Cyberbullies can harass people on social media and gaming platforms, encouraging victims to harm themselves… or worse.
  • Leaking sensitive photos or messages: You’ve probably heard of young couples “sexting” or sharing explicit or sensitive photos through apps like Snapchat. Cyberbullies take these photos and messages and share them online, leading to even more harassment of the victims. 
  • Spreading lies: More vulnerable targets are blamed for things they didn’t do at school. Bullies make these accusations, persuading even more people to turn against the victim. 
  • Gamer bullying: In gaming, “griefing” refers to players sabotaging another player’s gameplay. For example, cyberbullies might steal virtual belongings or lead a campaign of harassment during in-game chats.

More often than not, cyberbullies use anonymous profiles, which makes them harder to track, making things even more miserable for victims as the bullying campaign continues.

In the news: Michelle Carter sent over 1,000 texts to her boyfriend, encouraging him to follow through on his plans to commit suicide—many of them coming right up to his final moments. Carter spent 11 months in federal prison when she was just 18 years old. [*].

Young girl staring at her phone

10 signs that may indicate your child is being cyberbullied.

  1. Using their device more (or less) 
  2. Acting overly emotional after using a device
  3. Deleting their social media accounts
  4. Not wanting to attend social events
  5. Showing drastic changes in their mood
  6. Complaining to get out of going to school
  7. Becoming nervous when receiving a text
  8. Having difficulty sleeping
  9. Talking about self-harm
  10. Losing interest in hobbies

Catching on to the warning signs of cyberbullying can be tough. Kids will hide their devices or avoid talking about it altogether because they’re afraid you might intervene (which only worsens the bullying). 

As a parent, it’s good practice to be aware of these warning signs that your kid might be experiencing cyberbullying. 

1. Using their devices significantly more (or less).

It’s no secret that screen time is only going up for kids of all ages. On average, kids between the ages of 8 and 12 use screens for about 5.5 hours a day, while kids between the ages of 13 and 18 use devices for nearly 8.5 hours each day. 

While more screen time can make it harder to keep track of all your kids' online activities, it can also help you keep an eye on whether or not they’re being bullied.  

Be on the lookout for: sudden changes to your child’s screen time.

A shift in your child’s online activity or device usage can be a clear sign of cyberbullying. Less time online might be them trying to avoid being bullied. More time online could mean they’re combatting bullies. 

2. Acting upset or overly emotional after using a device.

Bullying is all about power and control. Perpetrators look for vulnerable people to prey on—especially if the bully sees them as weak and helpless. This dynamic causes victims to deal with the constant feeling of shame or humiliation. 

Keep an eye on how your children act during—and especially after—they use their devices. 

Are they upset? Do they seem confused, scared, or overwhelmed? 

One 17-year-old victim of cyberbullying recalls being so upset that she threw her phone against the wall—smashing it to pieces [*]. Sound familiar? It might be cyberbullying. 

Be on the lookout for: extreme anger or frustration after using a device.

If your children ever get angry enough to slam a laptop or throw their cell phones, this could be a major red flag that they’re dealing with cyberbullying.

3. Deleting their social media accounts or opening new ones.

When a child is dealing with a tough situation, their natural instinct may be to try and escape. Even as a parent, you might feel it best to suggest that your child stop using certain social media platforms where the bullying is happening. However, that approach rarely solves the problem since the bully in question might also be at school. 

Be on the lookout for: deleting social media accounts or starting new ones.

If you notice your kid has deleted certain online accounts only to open new ones with different names, it’s a good idea to ask why. There might be an issue they’re trying to get away from, and a new account is their temporary solution—although we can tell you it’s not an effective or long-term one. 

Millie Bobby Brown rose to stardom before she was a teenager. But the Stranger Things actress also dealt with cyberbullying for years. When she removed all social media apps from her phone, things got much easier to handle, but she still avoids managing her accounts when possible[*]. 

4. Becoming withdrawn and not wanting to attend social events.

While mood swings are pretty common for teens and pre-teens, a drastic change in their attitude or desire to be social can be a major sign of cyberbullying. 

In one tragic case, 15-year-old Nate Bronstein was cyberbullied relentlessly after transferring to a top-ranked private school [*]. 

Nate’s mother, Rose, noticed her son becoming withdrawn and angry but didn’t know the full story. After months of being bullied by school students and teachers, Nate took his own life. His parents are now suing the school, some staff, and the parents of Nate’s alleged abusers.   

Be on the lookout for: spending an excessive amount of time alone.

Maybe your son or daughter wants to hide out in their room, or maybe they refuse to spend time with the family or go out with friends. This withdrawn behavior could be an attempt to get away from bullies and not just the typical teenage tantrum. 

5. Showing drastic changes in their mood and emotions.

While some signs of cyberbullying can be harder to spot, ongoing intimidation and oppression from a bully will become obvious sooner than later. 

From mood swings and emotional outbursts to signs of depression, children may show clues to their situation and how it's affecting their mental health. 

The parent of a 16-year-old boy explained how their son was cyberbullied on Facebook for eight hours. The relentless assault triggered an acute psychotic break, leading the boy to an adolescent psychiatric ward for nearly a month [*].

Be on the lookout for: signs of mental health issues brought on by cyberbullying.

This could include:

  • Increased depression and anxiety
  • A lack of interest in hobbies or activities
  • Sudden outbursts of anger or extreme irritability
  • Persistent sadness that lasts two weeks or longer
  • Difficulty with sleeping
  • Finding it hard to concentrate

6. Complaining about physical symptoms to get out of going to school.

A poll by UNICEF found that one in five children has missed school because of cyberbullying. 

When your child pretends to be sick in order to miss school, it could be a genuine physical reaction brought on by stress—or it could be that they’re trying to escape or avoid bullies. Either way, it’s important to take these complaints seriously. 

As the mother of one victim of cyberbullying explained [*]:

"It got to the point where she didn't want to go to school. She had chronic headaches and stomach aches." 

Be on the lookout for: unexplained and prolonged physical pain.

Pay close attention if your child is experiencing sudden or prolonged physical pain or illness that can’t otherwise be diagnosed, the most common complaints being headaches or stomach pain. 

7. Becoming nervous or jumpy when receiving a text, email, or message.

Is your child on edge every time their phone beeps or vibrates? 

This type of anxious behavior, whenever a smartphone notification appears, isn't something you should take lightly. It’s one of the most prominent warning signs of cyberbullying. This response comes from a child who has become conditioned to expect something bad (from a bully) every time they get a message on their phone or computer. 

Be on the lookout for: hiding devices when you’re around.

Young victims of cyberbullying might hide their phones or tablets or turn off their computer screens when parents are in the same room. 

Carol Todd stood before a court to explain how her teenage daughter, Amanda, became anxious and frightened with every new message she received. A 43-year-old man orchestrated a years-long campaign of cyberbullying, threats, and extortion against the teenager—following her online even as she changed schools [*].  

8. Having difficulty sleeping or feeling sleepy during the day.

Around 63% of victims experiencing cyberbullying say that a lack of sleep is the most significant psychological impact of cyberbullying [*]. 

Facing bullies online and offline can lead to stress that keeps your kid from getting a good night’s sleep, leading to fatigue during the school day. 

Be on the lookout for: unusual sleeping patterns.

Is your kid falling asleep at school? Oversleeping in the mornings? Again, this might be more than your typical teenage behavior. Some victims have even regressed to wetting the bed after persistent bullying. 

9. Talking about self-harm.

While some signs of cyberbullying could be played down as the natural changes that happen during adolescence, others shouldn’t be taken so lightly. The tragic truth is that cyberbullying victims are almost twice as likely to attempt suicide.[*]  

Be on the lookout for: signs of depression or thoughts of self-harm.

Left unchecked, depression could lead to suicidal thoughts and self-harm. Jaylen White endured cyberbullying for ten months. The 12-year-old could not escape his tormentors, even as he changed schools and switched to remote learning.

As the bullies hacked Jaylen's Netflix and PlayStation accounts to deliver threatening messages, the 12-year-old began talking about taking his own life. Thankfully, the bullying stopped when the perpetrator was caught in the act by his mother [*].  

10. Losing interest in hobbies they used to enjoy.

Kids don’t always stick with their hobbies. But if bullies have ever teased them about their hobbies or intimidated them in any way to make them feel unwelcome on the football field or at other events, victims might withdraw from their friend groups and avoid social settings altogether. 

Be on the lookout for: suddenly losing interest in things they once loved.

If your child suddenly stops playing sports or loses interest in a hobby they’re usually excited about, it’s worth chatting with them in case something else is going on. 

One young girl explained on an online forum that she is constantly bullied for her hobbies, which makes her “want to throw those hobbies away because it has been happening ever since I started posting my work on the internet.” [*]

Was your child a victim? 

Most of the time, kids are scared to come forward about this issue because their bullies have threatened to make things worse if adults get involved. Instead, it’s often up to you (the parent) to recognize the problem and step in to support your child before the effects of cyberbullying go too far.

Almost 90% of teenage cyberbullying victims don't tell their parents or trusted adults (including teachers) about the abuse. 

Here are nine steps you can take if your child is being bullied online:

  1. Make your child feel safe. Victims of bullying feel lonely and powerless. Show that you’re listening without judgment—that you’re there for unconditional support. This simple act can give your kid the confidence that a solution will be found. 
  2. Let your child do the talking. Before taking any action, you need to get the full picture. Encourage your child to explain everything in detail using their own words. It’s important to stay calm and reassure your child that you are on their side.
  3. Collect evidence. You can squash the harassment more easily when you can prove the details of the abuse to the school or authorities. Collect screenshots of instant messaging conversations, text messages, images, videos, and supporting notes about any bullying incidents.
  4. Block the bullies. Go through your child’s accounts (social media, text, email, gaming, etc.) together to identify and block any profiles that have added to the issue. If necessary, your children can delete all their accounts and open new accounts with strong privacy settings
  5. Report the bullies to the platforms. If the bullying continues despite opening new accounts, make an official report to the platform itself (Facebook, Discord, TikTok, etc.). Provide full details of the profiles and suspects so that the platform can ban them. This is where those screenshots come in handy. 
  6. Collaborate with the school. Your child needs to feel safe at school. Set up a meeting with key figures, like the principal and your child's head teacher, to discuss the bullying. You can present all of your evidence to help them in their internal investigation.
  7. Seek counseling. Many children may struggle to share details of the problem with their parents. Speaking with a counselor helps victims open up to an objective third party. 
  8. Positive refocus. Encourage your kids to continue doing what makes them happy, whether that’s pursuing their favorite hobbies or playing music or sports. Planning regular family events is another good way to show your kids how they can enjoy life away from the internet. Go on a camping trip, have a family games night, or try an arts and crafts project together. 
  9. Contact the police. If the bullying continues or gets to the level of physical threats or attacks on your child or property, don’t hesitate to involve the police. While state laws vary for online threats, you can always turn to county sheriffs or state police if your local law enforcement officers don’t take action.

The bottom line: keep your kids safe from cyberbullies.

In today’s digital age, online bullying is a growing problem—especially for young people who spend so much time on their devices, social media, and gaming platforms. 

Knowing how to spot the signs of cyberbullying can help protect your kids, give them the support they need if they become targets, and take action to make their worlds safer online and IRL.

For kids growing up in a digital world, cyberbullying is a tragic reality. As parents, it’s crucial we learn to identify signs of cyberbullying early on—and know when and how to intervene. 

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