Why Is Cyberbullying So Damaging and How Can You Cope?

Bullying is not new, but the Internet has raised this dangerous game to a new level. Why is cyberbullying so insidious, and how can you cope with it?

Jade Wu, PhD
7-minute read
Episode #268
The Quick And Dirty
  • The anonymity of the Internet makes cyberbullying particularly pervasive.
  • Witnesses to cyberbullying are less likely to help and may normalize the behavior.
  • We use the Internet daily, which means cyberbullying can be particularly challenging to escape.
  • Victims of cyberbullying are often reluctant to talk about it, which makes it an extremely isolating experience.
  • There are several things you can do to avoid bullying scenarios, help victims, and take care of yourself if you're affected.

On September 22, 2010, 18-year-old Tyler Clementi jumped to his death from the George Washington Bridge. He had been a student at Rutgers, one of many hopeful young people starting an exciting new phase of life at college. But three days before his suicide, he had experienced an extreme case of cyberbullying.

Tyler's roommate and another classmate had used a webcam to spy on him kissing another male student, and then they posted about it on Twitter. They even invited others to tune in for a second viewing. Tyler found out, and it’s impossible to say what he felt at that moment. All we know is that he took his own life within days.

Tyler’s tragedy isn't an isolated event. In 2019, a large survey by the Cyberbullying Research Center in the U.S. found that 30 percent of teens had experienced some form of cyber aggression in the previous 30 days. The things they experienced included:

  • Being the target of rumors
  • Mean or prejudiced comments
  • Having someone impersonate them
  • Threats

Cyberbullying is more than a matter of hurt feelings. A 2018 study of over 31,000 teens found that cyberbullying was a strong predictor of emotional and behavioral problems, and that this effect remained even when traditional bullying was accounted for. We also know that being a victim (and, interestingly, being a perpetrator) is linked to having more suicidal thoughts and attempts.

And it’s not only teens who are affected. Adults also experience online aggression and harassment. A 2015 survey of young women, mostly in their twenties, found that one in five had repeatedly received unsolicited sexually obscene messages and solicitations.

We have to be careful not to overlook people’s experiences of cyberbullying, regardless of their gender and age.

Although this particular study focused on women’s experiences, it’s important to point out that men also experience cyber aggression. Interestingly, one study on perceptions about cyberbullying found that men’s reports of these experiences are taken less seriously, and people tend to blame the victim more if it’s a man. We have to be careful not to overlook people’s experiences of cyberbullying, regardless of their gender and age.

What do we know about cyberbullying and what can we do about it?

Digital technology and social media make for unique modern challenges. Teens and adults today deal with a whole new online world that has only become mainstream in the past couple of decades. We have to understand what makes cyberbullying so damaging to help us prevent and cope with it.

1. The internet allows perpetrators to be more anonymous and removed, which amplifies the intensity of the aggression

When you think of the classic playground bully, what comes to mind? They’re aggressive, mean, and not exactly prone to empathy. This applies to cyberbullies too—perpetrators tend to be less empathic, less able to put themselves in someone else’s shoes. The problem is that the Internet makes it much easier for a person to lean into this trait.

When we go online, we step into a world of less inhibited, less accountable, and less empathic people.

It's harder to look someone in the eye as you humiliate and hurt them. Most people aren't capable of inflicting emotional pain on another when they're up close and personal. But online, we're physically removed from one another. We can't see the hurt or fear in someone's eyes. We don't even need to show our faces when we interact. That dynamic can make some people less inhibited. And if someone already leans toward aggression, this anonymity and distance may be all they need to be drawn into bad behavior they wouldn't risk in person. 

This makes cyberbullying particularly hard to combat because there are many more people who are capable of hurling nasty threats from behind a keyboard than in face-to-face interactions. When we go online, we step into a world of less inhibited, less accountable, and less empathic people.

What to do about it:

  • Don’t friend strangers on Facebook. Even if the people you know are less inhibited on Facebook, they can’t hide behind total anonymity.
  • If you engage with someone on Twitter, Reddit, or another platform, block them right away if they use threatening, harassing, or prejudiced comments.
  • Remember, you don’t have to engage. Cyberbullies aren't looking for a productive discussion with you, so no amount of reasonable arguments will persuade them. In fact, your discomfort could reinforce and feed their behavior. Silence is the least satisfying response they can get from you.
  • Get support from forum moderators, other participants in the conversation, and the people in your offline life. 

2. Bystanders to cyberbullying are less likely to step in and help

The distance and anonymity the Internet creates also makes us worse bystanders.

If one person witnesses a physical assault, the victim has a potential ally, or at least someone to call the police. If a hundred people witness an assault, nobody feels like it’s their responsibility or their place to step in. And sometimes they might even think that what’s happening must be normal. This is called the Bystander Effect. It not only happens in real life, it happens online to an even greater extent.

This diffusion of responsibility leaves victims more isolated and makes perpetrators more emboldened.

What to do about it:

  • Positive change starts with you! If you're a bystander, step in and call out bad behavior, and reach out to the victim to offer your support.
  • Invite others by name to also add their support.
  • Focus on the behavior itself, not the person perpetrating it. Aim your response at calling out bad behavior and supporting the victim rather than shaming the perpetrator. Fighting bullying with more bullying isn't the answer.

3. Cyberbullying can be hard to escape

The Internet exists 24/7 all around the world, and we use it every day. This makes cyberbullying very hard to escape. There isn’t a physically safe location, such as home, the workplace, or even out of town during a vacation, where a victim can be totally out of reach. You can’t simply move. Sometimes, you can’t even pursue a geographic restraining order to escape the harassment.

The Internet is everywhere and we use it every day. There isn’t a physically safe location where a victim can be totally out of reach.

In 2008, Melissa Anelli started getting threatening messages from someone in New Zealand. These sexual and violent messages became more and more graphic, and eventually, she and her family members were receiving postcards and phone calls from the stalker.

Melissa is an author and webmaster of The Leaky Cauldron, a Harry Potter fansite. Her experience of cyberstalking was a perfect case study of how difficult it can be to escape. Because the stalker, who was a fan Melissa had banned from a Leaky Cauldron forum for offensive comments, did not live in the U.S. as Melissa did, the police had no jurisdiction.

Eventually, the offender was arrested in New Zealand, but Melissa has reported that the harassment never fully stopped.

What to do about it:

Through perseverance, Melissa Anelli was able to get some help from international law enforcement, but she has also talked publicly about how traumatizing this experience has been. Cyberbullying incidents don't have to be as extreme as Melissa's to be a frustrating and scary experience.

  • Give yourself breaks from the Internet and social media so you can create safe spaces and times for yourself.
  • Engage with your resources to protect yourself. Keep records of the harassment, report incidents to webmasters or forum moderators, report stalking and hate crimes to law enforcement, and safeguard personal information like your phone number and address.
  • Try your best to let go of what you can't control and focus on what you can. Instead of checking your inbox throughout the day or rereading offensive messages, spend your time and mental space on other areas of your life that are fulfilling and give you a sense of mastery. Remember that in this case, “letting go” is not resignation or defeat, but rather, an empowering choice you can make.

4. Cyberbullying is incredibly isolating

Cyber aggression leaves no bruises and scars, even though the emotional damage can be just as bad. Ironically, while the abuse can be invisible, it can also be very exposing.

We all know that what gets on the Internet tends to spread and stay. Even years after the initial cyberbullying, there may be permanent records of humiliating videos, sexually intimate pictures, and vicious rumors that follow a victim. This can affect every relationship, or hopeful relationship, this person has for the rest of their life.

Ironically, while the abuse can be invisible, it can also be very exposing.

These factors make cyberbullying a particularly isolating type of trauma. It may be hard to reach out for social support because you may feel intimidated or embarrassed about what's going on. I can imagine, for example, that if someone’s ex-partner spread nude pictures of them on the Internet, the last thing they would want is to point their family and friends to these pictures and ask for emotional support.

Even when there's no embarrassing material present, being the recipient of repeated harassment it can be difficult to share. Remember the statistic I talked about earlier that said 20 percent of young women in one study had received repeated, unwanted sexual messages? That study also found that a large number of the women  internalized the harassment. Keeping the harassment to themselves affected not only their mood but even their appetite and sleep.

What to do about it:

  • Get social support. It’s important to get support from people you can trust, and people who will want to help you instead of judging you.
  • If you don’t feel comfortable sharing with family or friends, you can also reach out to a mental health professional, who will not only be nonjudgmental but also bound by confidentiality.
  • Remember that you don’t have to deal with this on your own. It’s possible that the stress of the isolation will cause you more grief than the stress of sharing your embarrassing experience with someone who cares.
All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Jade Wu, PhD Savvy Psychologist

Dr. Jade Wu was the host of the Savvy Psychologist podcast between 2019 and 2021. She is a licensed clinical psychologist. She received her Ph.D. from Boston University and completed a clinical residency and fellowship at Duke University School of Medicine.