Cyberbullying: How To Help A Friend
Cyberbullying is the experience of being bullied over a technology device such as cell phones, computers, tablets, social media, forums, and gaming. It is unfortunately occurring at a rate that is steadily increasing and very high. Federally collected data from 2017 shows that 15% of school aged children 12-18 have experienced bullying by text message. This study also found that 14.9% of high school students had experienced cyberbullying in the 12 months prior to the 2017 research. You can read more about that study here.
These results are detrimental to the mental and emotional health of our young people. A strong association between youth being bullied and hospitalization for in-patient psychiatry has been found in a recent study in New York. This indicates that our teenagers need to know how to intervene and provide support for their friends. It also means that parents and professionals need to know what is going on so that they can offer support because cyberbullying is resulting in so many young people needing to access mental health services. Often, they access services after having been persistently bullied.
Not only is this leading to inpatient hospitalization, intensive outpatient programs, and the need to even be homeschooled, many people fear being online or using social media because of this bullying. This is not appropriate.
The most common tactics that are used in cyberbullying are to post comments or start rumors about the teenager, to threaten them, to post videos of them that they didn’t consent to, to pretend to be them online, to create a mean webpage about them, and to make their personal information private. This includes offering up their address or phone number so that other people have easy access to harass them. This is a shocking list because it is apparent from this list how cruel the behavior occurring online can be.
There are groups of young people who are at a higher risk of being bullied than others. This includes the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer (LGBTQ) population. It also includes young people of color and young people with disabilities. Many teenagers can attest to the deep fear that is being different from the general population. It seems that anyone who stands out a bit is at risk for bullying and harm, both psychological and physical.
Most of us were witness to this in school. The kids who looked different or acted differently were bullied at greater rates. Online it becomes much easier for people to target these groups because they may be posting about their interests or preferences more than they would discuss or show this in person. For example, if someone posts a photo of their same sex partner, this opens them up to anti-LGBTQ targeting. Perhaps they would not be at risk at school if their partner does not attend the same school. Another reason that this person may be more at risk online is that people who may not feel comfortable bullying in person may feel more empowered to do so online.
If you are a teenager and have been cyberbullied, you know the depth of pain that can occur as a result. If you are a parent of a child who has been cyberbullied, you have been witness to the detrimental effects of cyberbullying on self-esteem, relationship building, and your teenager’s sense of self. If you’re a friend of someone who has been cyberbullied, you likely want to help.
You may not know how to help support someone who is being cyberbullied. We don’t feel we have all the answers either. It does not always seem as though there is a good solution to this epidemic, but what we do know is that there is hope. We also know there are mental health supports available to engage young people in healing from these experiences.
Working towards creating safer communities with less cyberbullying means engaging in action. We must be willing to take a stand, regardless of how significant or insignificant that stand seems. It all matters when we are talking about someone’s life and wellbeing.
One of the first ways that I would recommend you support your friends and peers if you notice them being cyberbullied is to verbalize to them that you notice it. What happens when you verbalize this is that you validate that this was not okay. You were witness to behavior that was intended to harm them. It will hopefully create a space for the individual to open up and discuss the experience if they feel so inclined.
Another possibility when you acknowledge this behavior is that the person may not know they are being cyberbullied. They likely know that whatever is happening to them does not feel great but they may not consider it cyberbullying and therefore may never report it. Teenagers often feel and say things such as “well it wasn’t as bad as the bullying that happened to my other friend so I think I am okay” or “I can deal with this. It is not a big deal.” The reality is that it that big deal that they may not want to acknowledge. Not acknowledging t can lead to hospitalization and the need for intensive mental health services.
Some things that you can say are: “I just want you to know that I noticed that happen. Are you okay?” or “What that person did to you was painful to watch. Do you want to talk about it?”
In order to do this, you need to be looking and listening. I know that sometimes it feels easiest to avoid what appears to be a conflict or something that makes you uncomfortable, but this is how we become more aware community members. It is our responsibility to be paying attention to what is happening online.
Once you have noticed and acknowledged the cyberbullying, it can be helpful to ask the person if they are okay or even if they are safe. Cyberbullying can lead to negative health outcomes such as self-harm or even suicide. When we ask someone if they are okay we should be prepared to follow up with a resource. One resource that teenagers often benefit from is the Crisis Text Line. More information can be found about that here. A person can text HOME to 741741 at anytime to be connected to a crisis counselor. A person can also call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline in the event they feel suicidal. More information can be found at their website.
Asking additional questions such as “is there something I can do to help you?” or “do you want me to help you talk to someone about this?” can be extremely empowering.
If you are a teenager and you’re helping a friend deal with cyberbullying, it is not your responsibility to manage this alone. Your responsibility is to love your friend. There are trained counselors and adults who should be helping this person. You can walk with them to the school counselor’s office or to a medical clinic after school to get support. Please do not feel like you need to take this on alone.
When teenagers experience suicidal ideation for long periods of time, often they need access to intensive mental health treatments including inpatient hospitalization, outpatient counseling, and medication management for depression.
If your friend requires this kind of supports, especially inpatient hospitalization, please stand by them. Their road to recovery may be a lengthy one but having trusted and loving friends to support them makes a difference on their journey.
Remind them of their worth
The teenage years are hard, without having to worry about being bullied. This is a time when people struggle coming into their own, their bodies, their identities, and trying to learn. It is a time of confusion and frustration for many. Being bullied can make it feel unbearable.
If you notice your friend being bullied, give them extra love. Remind them that they are beautiful, smart, kind, or good. Tell them that whatever was said about them is not true. This can mean the world to someone who perhaps begins to believe the negative things that were said about them.
The old saying is true: treat people how you want to be treated. If you were being bullied, what would you need or want? This is what you should offer to someone else.
This kind of validation and kindness can interrupt a process of disordered thinking that could go on. For example, a young woman could be called “fat” by a peer. This could lead to eating disorders, self-hatred, and more terrible experiences for her. This too could lead to emergency room visits, hospitalization, and the need for intensive counseling. A friend could interrupt this process or reduce it by saying the opposite to her or just telling her that it is not true, and it does not matter. Remind people not to believe the critics and bullies. This could empower them to do so.
Call in the bully
There is a difference between calling in and calling out. Calling out would be to say something along the lines of “why the hell did you do that?”. It is accusatory and does not promote understanding or healing for either the bully or the bullied.
Calling in would be to invite the bully into a conversation about why what they did does not feel good or safe for the other person. You can say something such as “I noticed that you were cyberbullying online and I’m wondering if we could talk about it? I’m not sure if you knew, but that was painful to the person. Is there something going on that is making you feel you need to do this?”
Depending on the kind of bullying, this can be a good approach. Perhaps the individual does not even know what they are doing is hurtful to the other person. Perhaps they think it is a joke, but it does not feel like a joke for the other person. This kind of dialogue provides them a safe environment to explore because it is nonjudgmental and not accusatory.
Make a report
There are also situations where calling in a bully is not the right approach. If you notice someone is engaging in illegal cyberbullying behavior, such as posting videos and images without the other person’s consent, you should report this to an adult, a school staff, or even the police immediately. You will not get in trouble for reporting something that occurred. Even if it is found to be inconclusive, the important thing is that you made the report so that a trained person could investigate.
You may have heard over the years that this is called “snitching” or “tattle telling” but this is behavior that could save someone’s life. If this kind of severe cyberbullying goes on uninterrupted for long periods of time, the person could be at great risk. It is best to just try to stop it immediately and it is what the person being bullied deserves.
At a basic level, every human deserves safety. Cyberbullying and bullying in general puts that personal safety in jeopardy and it is not okay. Often the person who is bullying has been bullied. They may have learned this behavior through their own painful experiences. This is valid and yet it is still not okay. Interrupting the process for one person could impact the health and healing for many other people involved.
It may be difficult, but we want to empower you to support your friends through their cyberbullying experience. We can collectively reduce the high percentages of cyberbullying federally if we all are willing to engage in the process. This will look different depending on the severity of the situation. You could simply offer an ear and some love to your friend. You may need to make a report to a school professional or even the police. You may need to offer the person a resource to help them manage the emotional turmoil that occurs as a result of the bullying.
Whatever step you take in mediating, know that we stand with you on the path to end bullying. We thank you for your willingness to promote safer, healthier, and happier communities.
If your struggles with cyberbullying – or any form of bullying – leave you in a fragile mental health state, know that you have options. At Beachside, we have experience working with teenagers to overcome the depression and anxiety this poor treatment can cause. Have your parent or guardian reach out to us in order to set up a free consultation! Let us help you heal!