10 Warning Signs of Cyberbullying (& What To Do)

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Hari Ravichandran

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    Will You Know If Your Child Is Being Bullied Online?

    Nearly 70% of students in the United States say they frequently see signs of cyberbullying [*]. But are you able to pick up on those same warning signs?

    In 2020, about five million kids between the ages of 10 and 18 were cyberbullied in the United States [*]. Sadly, cyberbullying often goes unreported and unnoticed by adults. 

    Sometimes, even when victims seek help from parents and teachers, 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 [*].

    Cyberbullying is a tragic consequence of children living in a digital world. As parents, it’s critical that we learn to identify the signs of cyberbullying early on — and know when and how 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?

    Cyberbullying is any form of bullying that takes place over digital mediums, such as text messages, email, social media, or online games. Bullies seek to torment, intimidate, and humiliate their victims by sending or sharing harmful content. 

    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: Perpetrators use fake profiles, pretending to be a friend. As the bully establishes trust, the child may share personal information — which the bully then uses to shame and harass the victim. 
    • Sockpuppets: Cyberbullies use a victim's photos and information to create a false identity profile. The bullies then post mean content and images to ruin their victim's online reputation.
    • Doxing: Cyberbullies search for a victim's personally identifiable information (PII) and publish it online. For example, the bullies might 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. Young couples might engage in “sexting” or share sensitive photos through apps like Snapchat. Cyberbullies may share these photos and messages online, leading to widespread harassment of the victims.
    • Spreading lies. Vulnerable targets are often blamed for things they didn't do at school. Bullies might knowingly accuse them of shameful deeds and persuade others 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.

    Quite often, cyberbullies use anonymous profiles, which makes them harder to track, and is more distressing for victims as the bullying campaign continues.

    Related: YouTube Parental Controls: 4 Ways To (Easily) Get Started

    What Are the Consequences of Cyberbullying?

    Cyberbullies are motivated to target people for similar reasons to in-person bullying. For example, bullies might pick on victims because of physical appearance, race, sexual orientation, gender, hobbies, or financial situation.

    Many signs of cyberbullying are harder to notice. Worse still, online bullying is often persistent. 

    The problem follows kids beyond the bounds of the school walls — coming home with them on their devices, games, and social media platforms — and enables bullies to torment victims on weekends, holidays, and even when they move to different schools or cities. 

    Cyberbullying follows kids beyond the bounds of the school walls — coming home with them on their devices, games, and social media platforms.

    There are many consequences of cyberbullying for children, including:

    • Humiliation at being exposed or shamed online in front of their entire school community.
    • Powerlessness because there’s no escape or safe place away from bullying. 
    • Low self-esteem as the cyberbullies might pick on things that victims are already self-conscious about — for example, their weight, skin, or birthmarks.
    • Isolation and a feeling that they are all alone, with no friends or support. 
    • Depression and anxiety because of the constant bullying and fears of what will happen in the future.
    • Sleeplessness and fatigue during the day because they are restless all the time.
    • Anger at their tormentors, on whom they may desperately plan revenge or lash out at school.
    • Academic issues including victims losing interest in class — which may increase absenteeism from school to avoid the bullies. 
    • Substance abuse issues as the victims turn to drugs and alcohol as a coping mechanism.
    • Self-harm and suicide as victims look for ways to release or escape their intense feelings. 

    While many bullies get away with their abuse of victims, others can face serious ramifications if teachers and parents find out.

    The laws on cyberbullying vary from state to state. For example, cyberbullying laws in Florida direct schools to suspend or expel bullies. In other states, like Missouri, cyberbullies may be charged with a criminal offense if they use social media to make violent threats.

    In the news: Michelle Carter spent 11 months in federal prison when she was 18 years old after a court found her guilty of involuntary manslaughter. Carter sent over 1,000 texts to her boyfriend, in the week before his suicide. Many of the messages encouraged him to see through his plans — right up to his final moments [*].

    10 Signs That May Indicate Your Child Is Being Cyberbullied

    1. Using their device significantly more (or less)
    2. Acting upset or overly emotional after using a device
    3. Deleting their social media accounts or opening new ones
    4. Becoming withdrawn and not wanting to attend social events
    5. Showing drastic changes in their mood and emotions
    6. Complaining about physical symptoms to get out of going to school
    7. Becoming nervous or jumpy when receiving a text, email, or message
    8. Having difficulty sleeping or feeling sleepy during the day
    9. Talking about self-harm
    10. Losing interest in hobbies that they used to enjoy

    Spotting the warning signs of cyberbullying can be difficult. Children often hide their devices or avoid talking about what they’re going through out of fear that you’ll intervene (and worsen the bullying). 

    Parents need to be aware of these warning signs indicating that their children might be victims of cyberbullying:

    1. Using their devices significantly more (or less)

    Screen time is growing rapidly among children of all ages. On average, kids ages 8—12 use screens for about 5.5 hours each day, while those between the ages of 13—18 use devices about 8.5 hours each day [*].

    Average child screen time has risen steadily since 2015
    Average child screen time has risen steadily since 2015. Source: Common Sense Media

    While more screen time can make it difficult to keep track of what your children are doing online, it can also help you recognize if they’re being bullied. 

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

    A sudden change in your child’s online activity or device use is a clear sign of cyberbullying. Children may spend less time online (to avoid being bullied) or greatly increase their use (in an attempt to combat bullies).

    💯 Pro tip: Track your child’s screen time and usage with Aura. Aura’s all-in-one family protection includes parental controls and screen time monitoring. This means you’ll know exactly how long your kids are spending on their devices and can quickly identify changes that could be signs of cyberbullying. 

    2. Acting upset or overly emotional after using a device

    Bullying is about power and control. Perpetrators prey on vulnerable people they perceive as weak and helpless. This dynamic causes victims to deal with persistent feelings 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 [*].

    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 away, this is a major red flag that they’re dealing with cyberbullying.

    3. Deleting their social media accounts or opening new ones

    In the face of adversity, a child's instinct may be to try and escape. Even as a parent, your initial suggestion may be to advise your child to stop using the social networking platforms where the bullying is taking place. However, that approach rarely solves the problem, as the bullies may also be at school.

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

    If you notice your child has deleted certain online accounts and opened new profiles with different names, it’s important to ask why. There may be an issue they are trying to get away from — and a new account is not an effective or long-term solution. 

    Millie Bobby Brown found fame 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, although she still avoids managing her own accounts [*]. 

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

    4. Becoming withdrawn and not wanting to attend social events

    While a change in behavior is common for teenagers and pre-teens, a drastic change in their attitude or desire to be social can be a major warning 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 extent of what was happening to him. 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

    Perhaps your son or daughter wants to hide out in their room, or refuses to spend time with the family or go to social events with peers. Often, this withdrawn behavior is an attempt to get away from bullies. 

    5. Showing drastic changes in their mood and emotions

    While some signs of cyberbullying are harder to spot, the pressure of a prolonged campaign of intimidation and oppression soon becomes apparent. 

    From mood swings and emotional outbursts to signs of depression, children may show clues to their plight 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 [*]. 

    Your child may pretend to feel unwell in order to miss school and escape bullies, or it could be a genuine physical reaction brought on by stress. Either way, it's important to take complaints of a headache or stomach ache 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

    Be especially careful if your child experiences sudden or prolonged complaints of physical pain or illness that can’t be otherwise diagnosed. Headaches and stomach pain are two of the most common complaints.

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

    Does your child seem on edge when their phone beeps? 

    Anxious behavior whenever a smartphone notification appears isn't a trivial matter — it's one of the warning signs of cyberbullying. This response is triggered when children become conditioned to expect something bad 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 may hide their devices or turn off the computer screen when their parents are nearby. 

    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 cite a lack of sleep as the most significant psychological impact of cyberbullying [*]. 

    As they face bullies online and offline, the stress may prevent children from getting a good night's sleep, which leads to fatigue during the school day.

    Be on the lookout for: Unusual sleeping patterns 

    Your child may fall asleep at school or oversleep in the mornings. Some victims may even regress to bedwetting if the bullying persists.

    9. Talking about self-harm

    While some signs of cyberbullying could be played down as the natural changes that happen during adolescence, others can’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 can be fickle with their interests as they grow; but if bullies have teased them about their hobbies or intimidated them in some way to make them feel unwelcome at sports grounds or events, victims might withdraw from their peer groups and avoid social events.

    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 are usually excited about, it’s worth having a chat 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 the Victim of Cyberbullying? Do This

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

    Many kids are scared, fearing further reprisals from their bullies if they involve adults in the issue. Instead, it’s often up to parents to recognize the problem and step in to support their child. 

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

    1. Make your child feel safe. Bullying victims often feel lonely and powerless. Show that you will listen to them without judgment and provide unconditional support. This simple act can give your child the confidence that a solution can and will be found.
    2. Let your child explain what happened. Before taking any action, you must get the full picture. Encourage your children to explain everything in detail in their own words. It’s important to stay calm and reassure your children that you are on their side.
    3. Collect evidence. You’ll have more success in ending the harassment when you can prove details of 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 connections on all email and social media accounts together to identify and block any profiles that have contributed to the bullying. 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 (Facebook, Discord, TikTok, etc.). Provide full details of the profiles and suspects so that the platform can ban them.
    6. Collaborate with the school. Your child should 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 aid in their internal investigation.
    7. Seek counseling. Many children may struggle with sharing details of the problem with their parents. By speaking with a counselor, victims can open up to an objective third-party. 
    8. Positive refocus: Encourage your children to do what makes them happy, such as pursuing their favorite hobbies or playing music. Planning regular family events is a good way of showing your children how they can enjoy life away from the internet. For example, you could organize camping trips, games nights, and arts and crafts projects together. 
    9. Contact the police. If the bullying continues or gets to the level of physical threats or attacks on your child or property, you shouldn’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.

    Do You Think Your Child Is Bullying Kids Online? Here’s What To Do

    Cyberbullying isn’t just “kids being kids.” Almost 60% of males who are bullies as children become convicted criminals by the age of 24 [*]. 

    If you discover your child is bullying others, taking action now could stop your child from continuing down the wrong road.

    If your child is a cyberbully, do this:
    • Take bullying seriously. Don't ignore the behavior or dismiss it as "childish behavior." You must accept that anyone — even your own child — can be cruel to another person. 
    • Stop it immediately. The top priority is to nip the problem in the bud right away, regardless of who started it or why. Do what it takes to eliminate your child's involvement in the matter and any influence your child may have on other accomplices. 
    • Understand the cause of the bullying behavior. Often, bullies act out because of an underlying issue in their lives. It could be something at home, in school, or with their health. Get to the root of the problem to understand why they mistreat others.
    • Cultivate empathy. Sit your child down and ask them to put themselves in their victims' shoes. Educate them on the impact and potential consequences of their actions, and teach them to be compassionate and kind to others.
    • Teach constructive solutions. Sometimes, bullies target victims over a perceived slight. Explain that there are better ways to resolve problems than seeking revenge over petty issues. Foster open communication about challenges, and give your child the direction, tools, and opportunities to solve their issues in more positive ways. 
    • Use parental controls. Restrict your children’s access to devices and the internet, and monitor their activity online. By doing random checks and weekly check-ins to discuss any issues, you can stay on top of any problems and prevent bullying from reoccurring.
    If your child is a spectator of cyberbullying, advise them to do the following:
    • Stop the bullying. If your child is confident in openly (and safely) standing up to a bully, you could encourage them to set a good example for others. 
    • Avoid joining in. Make it clear to your children that they should never participate in bullying, whether “liking” a hurtful post or laughing as other kids make fun of someone.
    • Walk away. Your children might not want to physically stand up to a bully, but they can distance themselves from the mob. Bullies are denied the attention that they want when other kids walk away.
    • Get an adult. Your child can avoid confrontation and help the victim by making a discreet report to a trusted adult. 
    • Support the victim. Encouraging your child to reach out to the victim can help stop bullying. Suggest ways that your child can support victims — from sitting next to them at lunch to picking them for sports teams and inviting them to social events. 

    How To Prevent Cyberbullying From Happening To Your Kids 

    Here are some tips on how to prevent cyberbullying from happening in the future:

    Educate your children about digital safety

    It’s never too early to teach your kids about the dangers of sharing too much personal information online. Not only will this help them reduce the impacts of cyberbullying; it’s also a good habit to develop throughout their lives to stay safe.

    Here’s what to do:

    • Encourage good cyber hygiene so that people can’t easily access their online accounts.
    • Advise your children to protect sensitive information so that bullies and hackers don’t get their phone number, email address, or home address.
    • Warn them never to share login credentials for their email inboxes, social media accounts, or gaming profiles (even with their friends).

    Related: Family Identity Theft Protection — The Parental Guide for 2022

    Set up protection on devices and online accounts

    With complex passwords that your children keep secret, it's harder for bullies to access their accounts. 

    Here’s what to do:

    • Sign up for a family identity theft protection service to manage your children’s online activity.
    • Use the privacy tools on social media platforms to limit what others can see and do on your child’s profile. For example, you can prevent others from tagging your child in photos.
    • Activate two-factor authentication (2FA) to stop bullies and predators from hacking into your child’s account.

    Monitor your children to ensure they are staying safe online

    If your child has already been bullied or you have spotted some signs of cyberbullying, it's essential to remain vigilant. 

    Aura parental controls content filters
    Aura's parental controls allow you to monitor and block sites and apps on your child's devices. Learn more →

    Here’s what to do:

    • Monitor the websites and mobile apps your children use. Place restrictions on certain sites, or limit their daily internet usage, if you feel it will help their online safety.
    • Follow or “friend” your kids on social media platforms so that you can view the content they post.
    • Download an all-in-one family safety app like Aura that gives you parental controls, device security, and family identity theft protection. 

    Start a family support group

    Open discussion about bullying can provide ongoing support and education to your children. Create open lines of communication so that they feel comfortable talking to you about cyberbullying and what’s going on in their lives.

    Here’s what to do:

    • Learn more about cyberbullying from resources such as StopBullying.gov and the Cyberbullying Research Center.
    • Teach children to think carefully about what they post online and with whom they share it. 
    • Set up protocols for identifying and reporting signs of cyberbullying that are accessible to the rest of the family.
    • Role-play scenarios help your kids understand what to do when they encounter cyberbullying and how they can confidently approach the situation. 
    • Start daily or weekly journals to reflect on any issues that happened online or offline, and discuss possible solutions as a team.
    • Schedule routine check-ins to review your children's content, so that you can stay on top of developing issues before they escalate.

    The Bottom Line: Keep Your Kids Safe From Cyberbullies

    Online bullying is a growing problem, especially for young people who spend so much time on their devices, social media, and gaming platforms. 

    Learn to identify the signs of cyberbullying so that you can help protect your children and support them if they become targets. 

    And for additional peace of mind, consider an all-in-one family safety solution like Aura. 

    With Aura, you get:

    • Parental controls to filter content and limit screen time. Aura helps you manage what your kids can do online and monitor how they use apps.
    • Virtual private network (VPN) with Wi-Fi and malware protection. Protect your family’s devices from hackers with military-grade encryption and powerful antivirus software.
    • Family identity theft protection. Aura monitors your family members’ sensitive information and passwords to see if they’ve been leaked online. You’ll get alerts in near real-time if anyone is trying to ruin your child's credit or steal their identity.
    • $1,000,000 insurance policy. If the worst should happen, Aura has your back. Every adult member on an Aura plan is covered for up to $1 million in eligible losses due to identity theft.
    Keep your family safe online. Try Aura FREE for 14 days.

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    1. Financial identity theft and fraud
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    6. Employment identity theft
    7. Criminal identity theft
    8. Tax identity theft
    9. Unemployment and government benefits identity theft
    10. Synthetic identity theft
    11. Identity cloning
    12. Account takeovers (social media, email, etc.)
    13. Social Security number identity theft
    14. Biometric ID theft
    15. Crypto account takeovers