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Identifying the Signs of Cyberbullying: Anyone Can Be a Target

Dr. Robin Kowalski talks about the signs of cyberbullying.

So much of our lives are online these days. This has many benefits, but it also opens us up to risks. One of those risks is cyberbullying. The anonymity of being online provides many opportunities for it, and it can sometimes be difficult to spot the signs of cyberbullying. And when it comes to cyberbullying, even adults can be victims.


See Cyberbullying with Dr. Robin Kowalski for a complete transcript of the Easy Prey podcast episode.

Dr. Robin Kowalski has been a professor of psychology at Clemson University for almost two decades. She has a PhD in Social Psychology from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, and her research focuses on aversive interpersonal behaviors, specifically cyberbullying.

When Dr. Kowalski first came to Clemson, she was researching traditional schoolyard bullying and teasing. Twenty years ago, research into cyberbullying was just starting. From her research on behavior and bullying, it seemed like a natural progression to look at bullying in the digital world.

Cyberbullying versus Traditional Bullying

Traditional bullying is an aggressive act intended to cause harm or distress to the victim. It is repeated over time, and typically there is some kind of power imbalance between the victim and the perpetrator.

Cyberbullying is also an aggressive act intended to cause harm or distress and repeated over time. But those things look different in a digital world. The aggression isn’t physical online. Repetition also has a different quality. A cyberbully might send a single email to hundreds of people, which is a kind of repetition. They might also send a single email to one victim who reads it over and over, and that is also a kind of repetition.

If I am more savvy with technology than somebody else, then that affords me in the online world a great deal of power.

Dr. Robin Kowalski

It is debated whether a power imbalance applies to cyberbullying, but Dr. Kowalski thinks it does, just in a different form. The ability to use and understand technology is a form of power online. Anonymity, the online ability to keep the victim from knowing who is bullying them, also gives power.

There is quite a bit of overlap between traditional bullying and cyberbullying. How much overlap depends on which publication you read. One researcher said that 90% of traditional bullies also engaged in cyberbullying. Dr. Kowalski’s research came up with a more moderate number. Regardless, many bullies are involved in both.

Why Be a Cyberbully?

Many of the common reasons behind traditional bullying are also behind cyberbullying. For instance, a bad family situation – the perpetrator might be bullied at home, and since they can’t bully their parents back, they take it out on someone with less power than them.

Cyberbullies can also be victims of past bullying. They might be physically smaller or weaker or have less social status so they can’t get back at their bully in the physical world, but the anonymity of the internet lets them bully their own bully.

Regardless of the reasons behind it, power is a huge factor in any type of bullying. By engaging in bullying behavior, the perpetrator can feel like they are bigger and better than someone else.

Anyone Can Be a Target

Many people think that bullying is a problem only faced by children. Most articles about identifying the signs of cyberbullying focus on how to identify signs of cyberbullying in your child. But cyberbullying is not limited to children, or even to young adults. In the virtual world, anyone can be a target.

In the online world, anybody has the potential to be a perpetrator and anybody has the potential to be a victim of cyberbullying.

Dr. Robin Kowalski

Signs of Cyberbullying in Young People

Victims of both kinds of bullying experience similar psychological problems. Signs of cyberbullying and traditional bullying include greater anxiety, more depression, more suicidal ideation, sleep problems, sometimes aggressive behavior, and in older children sometimes an increase in substance use (such as vaping, drugs, or alcohol).

Loneliness is one of the biggest signs of cyberbullying. A cyberbullied child may feel like all their friends are involved, so they isolate themselves and feel like they can’t talk to anyone. They may also have academic issues. They may not want to go to school, causing their grades to fall, or they may develop physical health issues like headaches and stomachaches they can use as a reason to avoid school.

Loneliness, isolation, and sudden personality changes are all signs of cyberbullying.

Parents should watch for warning signs of cyberbullying. Weight loss, significant changes in personality, anxiety, withdrawal from social activities, social isolation, and any sudden behavior changes signal something is wrong. It may not be cyberbullying, but if you notice these changes, open lines of communication with your child to determine the problem.

Signs of Cyberbullying in Adults

Sadly, [cyberbullying] knows no age boundaries.

Dr. Robin Kowalski

One of the places cyberbullying can happen is in the workplace. The cyberbullying power imbalance is a bit less obvious in the workplace, because the bullying is often peer-to-peer. But the signs of cyberbullying are very similar. It can cause higher anxiety, higher depression, low self-esteem, reduced job satisfaction, higher likelihood of quitting, and physical symptoms that victims can use to avoid going to work. Other signs of cyberbullying in the workplace are counterproductive work behaviors – aggression, passive aggression, and slacking off on teamwork or assigned tasks.

Adults can also be cyberbullied outside of work. Especially in our polarized political climate, someone could take issue with an opinion you expressed online and decide to cyberbully you. Any kind of differing beliefs, not necessarily political ones, could be a catalyst for cyberbullying. And even outside of work, the signs of cyberbullying are the same: Depression, anxiety, and low self-esteem, among others.

Methods of Cyberbullying

One of the hazards of cyberbullying is the many different ways it can happen. It can take the form of text messages, emails, or private social media messages to the victim; public posts or comments on social media; sharing of images; and many other forms. Social media is a common platform for it to happen because that’s where many young people are spending their time.

One method of cyberbullying is called “outing and trickery.” The bully convinces the victim to trust them and share private information, then shares or publicly posts the information. Cyberbullies can also do this through sexting and posting revenge content online. It could be an online fight involving multiple people flinging personal attacks, known as a flame war or flaming. It could be sharing the content of a disagreement. Any method you can think of to attack someone or share hurtful things on the internet could be used to cyberbully.

What to Do If You’re Being Cyberbullied

The best course of action when you encounter signs of cyberbullying starts with blocking. Do not respond and immediately block the bully. If it’s an isolated incident, this should stop it. If it’s repeating, this tactic will unfortunately not stop the bully from contacting you through other messages or posting things publicly.

Especially for younger people, the next step is to report signs of cyberbullying to someone with the authority to do something about it. Dr. Kowalski’s research found young people are likely to not tell anyone, and if they do talk about it, they will tell a friend. That can be helpful psychologically, but a friend can’t do anything about the situation.

They’ve got to believe that it will make a difference in terms of cyberbullying if they report it.

Dr. Robin Kowalski

One of the reasons kids don’t tell adults that they are being cyberbullied is they’re afraid their parents will take away their technology. Taking away their technology is essentially punishing the child for being a victim of bullying. Dr. Kowalski thinks it’s better to open communicationbetween the parent and child. One middle school student told her that they are fine with parental supervision, but not supervision – they were fine with their parent looking at their history to see what they had been doing, but not okay with constant pervasive surveillance like keylogging. It’s the difference between a trusting relationship with open communication and an invasion of privacy.

What To Do If Your Child is a Cyberbully

One year, Dr. Kowalski had a few students on her research team assisting with her research into signs of cyberbullying, its associated behaviors, and its consequences. One of those students had cyberbullied people in middle school. She had known that’s what she was doing, but she hadn’t realized the extent of the consequences until she worked on the research team. She was very troubled to learn about the magnitude of consequences for the victim. Another student researcher had been a victim of severe cyberbullying, and they spent a lot of time talking about it.

Spending time talking with a victim of cyberbullying can help a cyberbully realize the consequences of their actions.

Education on the consequences is extremely important, but so is talking to people who have had the experience. It’s one thing to hear a list of the signs of cyberbullying. It’s another thing to hear a victim say, “I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t eat for months, and I didn’t want to go to school.” One-on-one contact, not necessarily with their victim but with a victim, helps cyberbullies understand the true impact of their actions. The cyberbully intends to harm the victim, but in many cases they aren’t aware of the degree of harm they can cause.

Becoming Resilient to Cyberbullying

An important first step for everyone is learning netiquette, or online etiquette. If we receive something inflammatory, our first instinct is usually to fire back without thinking. This can escalate the situation or even start a flame war. Instead, pause and think carefully about the response. Practicing de-escalation can help take some of the fuel from the fire.

Education about the signs of cyberbullying and the potential consequences is also important to cyberbullying prevention. Individual people have different responses to the same situation. If you are the perpetrator of cyberbullying, you can’t know how resilient the victim is and how your bullying will affect them. Education can help provide the perspective that if you engage in this, these things may happen.

Dr. Kowalski believes that a positive school climate can help reduce bullying. She has researched psychological meaning and mattering as a way to make people feel important and significant. It’s misleading to think that these actions can completely eliminate cyberbullying in whatever form, but it could go a long way towards reducing the frequency and signs of cyberbullying.

You can find Dr. Robin Kowalski on Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, and Instagram. If you’re interested in learning more about her research on cyberbullying, you can read her book Cyberbullying: Bullying in the Digital Age, coauthored with Dr. Susan P. Limber and Dr. Patricia W. Agatston, or Cyberbullying in Schools, Workplaces, and Romantic Relationships: The Many Lenses and Perspectives of Electronic Bullying, coauthored with Gary W. Giumetti.

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