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More Time on Social Media Increases the Risk of Cyberbullying in Teens

Written by Evolve's Behavioral Health Content Team​:

Alyson Orcena, LMFT, Melissa Vallas, MD, Shikha Verma, MD, Ellen Bloch, LCSW, Lianne Tendler, LMFT, Megan Johnston, LMFT Meet The Team >

The average teenager spends seven hours online every day for entertainment. While spending more time online is a reality of modern life, it changes the way adolescents interact with one another, often in negative ways.

For example, too much time on social media can increase your child’s risk of being bullied online and becoming a cyberbully, according to a study from the University of Georgia. Teens were most likely to be a perpetrator of online bullying if they:

  • Spent a lot of time on social media, even when faced with negative consequences like lack of sleep, poor grades, or doing things online they later regret
  • Spent many hours online each day, beyond social media
  • Identify as male

How Does Social Media Impact Bullying?

Social media cyber bullying is just as harmful, and perhaps even worse, than in-person bullying. The increasing use of social media among young people exposes them to harassment from people they may never even know in real life. 

According to a report from the Pew Research Center, the vast majority of teens who witness bullying on social networking sites say the problem is largely ignored, and 71% of those questioned said platforms don’t make enough effort to prevent or stop cyberbullying on social media.

How Cyberbullying Is Different than Other Forms of Bullying

Many people wonder, “How does social media cause cyberbullying?” The answer is complex, but anonymity is a major factor. Bullies on social media feel emboldened because their identity is protected. 

Other teens and adults from around the world can make cruel comments and harass another person with little or no consequence.

Cyberbullying with social media can happen at any time and anywhere. The possibility of a cruel image or meme going viral adds to the trauma of being bullied online. A teen who is cyberbullied can experience negative comments from thousands of people in locations across the world. 

What Does Cyberbullying Look Like?

Cyberbullying is the use of electronic communication to harass, intimidate, manipulate, or threaten someone. Examples include:

  • Name calling
  • Spreading rumors
  • Spreading private information without consent
  • Personal attacks
  • Harassment or humiliation
  • Discrimination
  • Misrepresenting oneself
  • Social exclusion
  • Cyberstalking (using electronics to stalk or harass someone)

A 2018 Pew Research Center survey found that 59% of teens have personally experienced abusive online behavior. Name calling was the most common cyberbullying behavior, followed by spreading false rumors, constant check-ins by someone other than a parent, and physical threats. About one-quarter of teens say they’ve received explicit images they didn’t request.

Although teenage boys and girls are equally likely to experience cyberbullying, certain types of behaviors, such as rumor spreading and receiving unrequested explicit images, are more common for girls. Girls are also more likely to experience several different forms of cyberbullying. And generally speaking, teens who spend much of their free time online are more likely to face online harassment than less frequent users.

Why Does Cyberbullying Happen?

Teens bully one another for a variety of reasons. Some get bullied at home or don’t get the healthy attention they need from parents, caregivers, teachers, coaches, or siblings. Others have low self-esteem and bully to gain a sense of power or control. Some believe it will help them be accepted by a certain crowd or keep others from bullying them.

Cyberbullying is becoming more common as teens spend more time in digital and online spaces. A few possible reasons include:

  • Anonymity. Social norms are different online than in person. It’s easier to be cruel or aggressive on social media because there is no face-to-face confrontation. Users can remain anonymous and avoid retaliation.
  • Avoidance of Natural Consequences. When a teen bullies someone in person, there are natural consequences to those actions. They can see the damage they cause and have an opportunity to learn from their behavior. Bullying has fewer natural consequences when it occurs online.
  • Underdeveloped Executive Function. With the decision-making areas of their brains still forming, teenagers sometimes make poor choices. The internet creates an environment where it’s easy to post and difficult, if not impossible, to undo their words and actions.

Psychological Effects of Cyberbullying

Social media cyber bullying puts teens at a higher risk of developing depression and anxiety. It can affect their self-esteem, cause them to isolate themselves from peers, or push them to turn to substances as a way to self-medicate the effects of cyberbullying. Social media bullying can also lead to self-harming behaviors and thoughts of suicide.

Signs of Cyberbullying in Teens

Many adolescents who experience cyberbullying feel ashamed or embarrassed even though it is not their fault. If you’re concerned about social media leading to cyberbullying, watch for these warning signs in your child:

  • They stop using electronic devices suddenly
  • They become withdrawn and avoid friends and family
  • They lose interest in hobbies and activities
  • They seem angry, depressed, or anxious
  • They don’t want to go to school
  • They avoid discussions about online activities

If you’re wondering, “Why does my teenager sleep so much?” or “Why is my teen so upset after using social media?” cyber bullying could be the answer.

How Parents Can Help Protect Their Children From Cyberbullying

Studies show parents can influence their teen’s online behavior. Here are a few ways you can help prevent cyberbullying:

  • Talk early and often about appropriate online behavior. Give specific examples so they can make good decisions. Explain the consequences of online bullying, what to do if it happens to them, or what to do if they feel like they’re losing control over their technology use.
  • Set rules limiting time online and enforce them consistently. Get them more involved in offline activities.
  • Encourage your child to speak up if they witness cyberbullying.
  • If your child bullies others online or is the victim of cyberbullying, consider talking with a mental health counselor or a clinician at a teen treatment program. These professionals can help them cut down on social media use, find healthy ways to cope with feelings, build their self-confidence, and address underlying issues that may be at the root of their behavior.

Adolescence is a time when young people are trying to figure out who they are and who they want to be – in real life, as well as online. Helping them navigate their online world will help ensure they reap the benefits of technology while minimizing dangers like cyberbullying.

What to Do if Your Child Is Engaged in Cyberbullying

If you are concerned about social media leading to cyberbulling, take steps to help your child feel safe online. Listen to them without judgment and be careful not to belittle their feelings. Instead, try engaging them in a meaningful conversation. 

You might start by asking, “How does social media cause cyberbulling?” or talking about other examples of generational trauma. Don’t ban them from using social media; that might feel like punishment to a teen. 

Instead, help them learn how to block unwanted commenters and use the internet safely. Encourage them to engage in other activities. For example, you and your child could learn about the benefits of sports for teenagers together.

Our Behavioral Health Content Team

We are an expert team of behavioral health professionals who are united in our commitment to adolescent recovery and well-being.

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