We all know that the internet is ubiquitous in our lives. Still, perhaps exactly how ubiquitous it will surprise you: In 2023, U.S. adults are predicted to spend an average of 503 minutes — that’s eight hours, 38 minutes — with digital media daily. And that statistic isn’t even specific to college students, who presumably spend more time online than the general population.
While having information at our fingertips is invaluable, there is an ugly side to our increasing online presence: cyberbullying. In 2020, 44 percent of all internet users in the U.S. reported having experienced online harassment. In addition, a 2016 study of college students reported that 22% of students had been cyberbullied.
College campuses — both on-ground and online — can be hotbeds for digital harassment, where often-anonymous perpetrators have round-the-clock proximity to their targets via electronic devices. But this guide is designed to stop cyberbullying, helping you identify and respond to these harmful situations. Keep reading to protect yourself and others against the dangers of cyberbullying.
The Spectrum of Cyberbullying
We need to begin with a clear understanding of cyberbullying: The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services defines it as “…sending, posting, or sharing negative, harmful, false, or mean content about someone else.” This can take place on electronic platforms like social media, text messaging and messaging apps, online forums or chat rooms, email, and online gaming communities.
When you’re in college, your digital footprint is constantly expanding, meaning cyberbullies have a variety of ways to reach you. But if you feel unsure about whether you’re the victim of cyberbullying, it can be complicated to ask for help or figure out what comes next. So, let’s next identify some common cyberbullying practices, which include:
The term “catfish” describes someone who pretends to be another person by using Facebook or other social media site to create a false identity, typically to engage in deceptive online romances. Unfortunately, there are countless stories of individuals who are financially exploited by their catfish, and some in which people remain in a catfish relationship for many years.
If your correspondence partner is hesitant to video chat, meet in person, or engage in any behavior that seems cagey or evasive, consider swift and decisive disengagement from contact. Especially if someone claims to be a fellow student at your school, they should be readily able to meet in person.
Canceling, also referred to in a larger sense as “cancel culture,” is the online version of public shaming in the town square. It refers to boycotting people — sometimes celebrities or famous brands, but this can also refer to non-celebrities — based on what some consider offensive acts or remarks.
In college courses, controversial discourse can be a part of the exchange of ideas. However, the First Amendment does not protect you from consequences for the things you say, particularly if you offend fellow students or the administration. Keep in mind that you are accountable for everything you say, and being canceled, while a cyberbullying tactic, can also be a consequence of inappropriate conduct.
Cyberstalking is the repeated and deliberate use of electronic communications — like emails, text messages, direct messages, or similar — to harass or frighten someone. Cyberstalkers may send threatening emails, make lewd or rude online comments, join groups and forums to follow their targets, track their target’s computer and internet use, or even use GPS to track physical locations.
If this happens to you on campus, speak to your school’s security team to discuss protective measures. If someone has started following you from class to class or around campus, or if you’re noticing someone enrolling in the same online courses as you and continuing to approach you inappropriately, you’re likely being cyberstalked.
An example of exclusion is intentionally singling out and ignoring a person during virtual discourse, like in a group chat or message group. The target of this behavior may notice this is happening if a group chat that has typically been active goes silent or if messages go unanswered. Often, someone in the larger group will then make malicious comments regarding the person they have excluded, and the target will sometimes receive screenshots of what others are saying from a group member.
Exclusion can be especially common in closed organizations like fraternities and sororities, and you may also find that this happens if friend groups fracture because of a conflict. Experiencing social isolation of any kind in college can be particularly challenging, and exclusion can inspire a deep sense of loneliness.
A very aggressive form of online intimidation, flaming is posting aggressive or vitriolic content, personal insults, or other vulgar or lewd material, typically in forums, comment sections, or via direct messages or email. Cyberbullies also may use other social media sites like YouTube as a highly visible, public-facing platform to engage in flaming.
Cyberharassment is unwanted advances, malicious embarrassment, or threatening behavior directed towards another person using the internet or other forms of electronic communication. Cyberharassment is an umbrella term that includes other types of cyberbullying, like cyberstalking.
Done entirely with the malicious intent to manipulate, impersonation is a deliberate type of deceit using electronic means. A cyberbully can use a false identity to antagonize a target on a platform like Facebook or Instagram or impersonate someone known to the target to either damage the existing relationship or solicit private information from the target. A cyberbully may even impersonate their target and behave in a way online that the target would not, intending to ruin their reputation or damage other relationships. Beware of friend/message requests that seem to be coming from a person you already know and are connected to. This account is likely a bad actor impersonating your connection and simply trying to add followers under a fake profile.
Also called “doxing,” an outing deliberately reveals personal or sensitive information about someone without their permission, intending to embarrass, humiliate, or endanger them. Examples might include releasing contact information — such as someone’s phone number or home address — or sharing information disclosed privately via text, email, or direct message by posting or forwarding screenshots. This can happen if you share intimate photos or videos with a partner with the intent that they are private and then disseminated without your knowledge or consent. Anything that includes your image or information that is widely or publicly shared without your permission is considered an outing.
Most cyberbullying is sexual harassment, especially if it involves demeaning a person based on gender or sexual activity. Using sexual epithets as well as insults based on gender, spreading rumors about someone’s sexual activities, or disseminating intimate photos are equally pernicious acts of sexual harassment online. Crucially, academic institutions covered by Title IX are required to take swift and decisive action against sexual harassment on their campus or among their students.
If you see comments from an online source — usually anonymous — that seem provocative and are “baiting” other readers to reply, typically in outrage, that person is engaging in trolling behavior. They intend to stir the pot and deliberately begin an argument between others online, and they may make statements they don’t even believe to watch the fallout. The goal of this form of cyberbullying is a provocation, and perpetrators intend to keep their targets in an elevated emotional state.
How Does Online Bullying Impact College Students
The descriptions above of common cyberbullying practices paint a consistent picture: deliberate and repeated attacks, insults, taunting, belittling, and often the relentless pursuit of a target to antagonize them — all to exert power over the target.
If we placed these behaviors in any other relational context, such as a parent/child or romantic relationship, we would call this behavior “abuse.” Calling these behaviors among peers “bullying” instead of “abuse” sanitizes the experience and limits it to a peer group as if to minimize the impact on the target. Experiencing abuse from any source in formative developmental years, including during college, has severe implications for future relationships, personal development, and social connection.
If you are experiencing bullying, either in person or cyberbullying, you are experiencing abuse. Its impact can be profound and far-reaching. Online students who experience cyberbullying often see a decline in their academic progress or achievement and increased social isolation. While the physical aspects of bullying are primarily absent from cyberbullying, the mental harm college students suffer remains, including loss of self-esteem and depression.
Experiencing bullying online versus in person does not diminish its intensity, as many perpetrators will behave more cruelly under the internet’s cloak of anonymity. Students who experience cyberbullying may hide their pain or internalize it, expressing it only through acts of self-harm, thoughts of suicide, or thoughts of harming others.
While the target of cyberbullying is not at fault for its occurrence, there are proactive steps you can adopt to strengthen your personal reserves against cyberbullying, as well as resources and support to help you in your healing journey.
How to Prevent Cyberbullying
It’s true that students can only do so much to protect themselves against bad actors, but there are still concrete steps you can take to insulate yourself from online bullies. A simple or easy target is more desirable than someone with more safeguards in place, so consider adopting some of the following practices to build and maintain a constructive online presence.
Learn About Online Harassment and Behaviors
As soon as an online contact goes from friendly to relentless or the attention goes from wanted to undesired, you may be in the territory of online harassment. This may take the form of someone who repeatedly messages you, even though you no longer reply to their messages. Some cyberbullies will create new profiles to bypass platforms’ “block” function to continue to contact you.
If someone begins to contact you excessively or even beyond the frequency or intensity that is welcome to you, you may be experiencing online harassment. You may need to take drastic steps to remove this person’s access to you and report their account to the platform’s administrators. This can happen after ending a relationship or friendship or expressing disinterest in forming a relationship or friendship with someone.
Your message to the cyberbully should be clear and firm: “I am no longer interested in having contact with you. This will be the last message you receive from me. Please do not contact me further.” Document everything, ideally in chronological order, and keep records of contact attempts by the cyberbully in the event you need to escalate the online harassment to a legal case.
Practice Safe Online Behavior
Without realizing it, social media users disclose a potentially dangerous amount of personal information. By sharing their full names and locations, they do the same for their spouses, children, and other loved ones.
Posting a photo while wearing your college sweatshirt, tagging yourself at your on-campus housing (or having location services “on” by default), or complaining about a route you take to commute can all help someone identify exactly where you are, which can lead to more aggressive pursuits. Consider everything you post through the lens of a bad actor. Be thoughtful about your privacy settings and what you share in public online spaces. Geographically tagging photos or other experiences allows cyberbullies to follow your movements or approximate your residence based on the spots you frequent.
When posting, ask yourself why you are sharing the photo, post, or story. If it’s to share with your friends and loved ones, consider privacy options that allow you to filter who can view your post and be wary of any messages or friend requests from an unknown sender. Even if you appear to have mutual acquaintances, do your due diligence before adding that person into your privacy circle. Ask around to verify their identity and confirm their profile’s integrity.
Finally, consider the impact of your post on others — you may be unintentionally enabling cyberbullying against another person. Consider how it feels when you see your friends out and about when you weren’t invited or whether everyone in the photo wants to be tagged in a particular location. If there wasn’t an open invitation to an event, consider limiting your audience to mitigate potential harm.
With discourse on the internet often replacing in-person interaction, how we practice respect online should also reflect the social norms we adopt when engaging in society.
Online forums and comment sections are where many people may find themselves ensnared in an unintended debate that does not showcase our finest selves. When posting a comment online, consider whether you would walk up to another person in class and speak the words you intend to type. Often, without the face-to-face experience of seeing another person’s emotional response, we may feel emboldened to cut deeply with our words, provoking the other person to attack reciprocally.
While those who behave disrespectfully will always exist on the internet, you have the choice about how you conduct yourself in these spaces. If a conversation is heating up, you can disengage and set your focus or priorities elsewhere. Above all else, remember that there is a person — with experiences, insecurities, and emotions — on the other end reading and processing your words. Even if their behavior is antagonistic, the best recourse is to disengage respectfully. Remember that if a situation should escalate to the disciplinary board at your school or becomes a legal matter, you are responsible for what you say and its effect on the other person, even if you were responding out of provocation.
Trust Your Instincts
Sometimes a cyberbully will begin to display suspicious behavior — such as elements of catfishing, impersonation, or cyberstalking — but will attempt to preempt your protective instincts by making “jokes” like, “I’m not a stalker or anything, haha,” or by suggesting something vague like, “You’ve definitely met me before, remember that time where we all went to that club?” By anticipating your skepticism and disqualifying it preemptively, the cyberbully may lead you to question your judgment and not be as cautious as you might otherwise be. After all, why would someone who is engaging in catfishing make a joke about not being a catfish?
This is part of the misdirection and control a person could wield over you to remain in their game for as long as possible. If you’re unsure about your own ability to assess the situation, ask a friend, parent, or another trusted person for their read on what’s happening. Please do not rely on your correspondence partner to assuage your apprehensions, as that may be their goal as someone engaging in cyberbullying. When in doubt, trust your instincts.
What to Do If You Are a Victim or Target
No matter how well you prepare or insulate yourself, you may someday become a cyberbully’s target. Experiencing the abuse of cyberbullying can feel relentless, isolating, and even embarrassing. Awareness of the realities of cyberbullying is the first step in preventing it from happening, but there are many ways to address a situation that feels like it’s escalating. Let’s discuss a few.
Talk to Someone — You Are Not Alone
People often experience shame as a target of cyberbullying — a feeling that “I did something to encourage this” because “I am bad/stupid/foolish.” However, according to renowned researcher Brené Brown: the antidote to shame is empathy. As soon as someone else offers compassion and connection, shame loses its hold on you. This can rapidly decrease the isolation you’re experiencing as a target of cyberbullying. Reaching out for help from a friend, mental health professional, or school administrator is a crucial step.
Save the Evidence
As legislation catches up with the rapidly changing nature of the internet, keeping documentation of your experiences with a cyberbully can empower you to take legal action later. Document any contact or communication — including during periods where their contact was welcome, and especially noting when it was not — in the event you want to seek legal recourse or protection.
Block the Bullies
Deciding to end someone’s ability to contact you may seem like an overreaction, but if you’re experiencing cyberbullying, this action can protect you emotionally and physically. While some people use “block” functions to communicate anger towards another, it’s most effective when you want to terminate contact with another person fully. Likewise, if you’re being cyberbullied, use the block function to protect yourself from further harassment.
Make Your Social Accounts Private
A cyberbully is usually pretty good at identifying ways to find targets. Still, the best offense is always a strong defense — meaning it’s best to keep your public-facing social media content highly curated or private. Without information to explore, cyberbullies may lose interest and move on to someone new.
Don’t Respond to the Trolls
If you begin to experience feelings of provocation online, disengage immediately. It is highly unlikely that you will change or shift another person’s perspective through this discourse, and it’s possible that you’re attempting to reason with someone engaging in trolling behavior. Stop the conversation and move on to prevent trolling.
Report Their Actions to the Platforms
For individuals who are repeatedly engaging in harassing or inappropriate online behavior, consider using the reporting function of the platform to escalate your concern. User agreements include language regarding conduct on the platform, and social media platforms are not meant to be used for bullying behavior. If you report a profile, make sure to document that as part of your evidence record.
Contact the School
In addition to local, state, and federal laws, colleges and universities have their own student code of conduct, which all students must abide by. Even if someone’s cyberbullying behavior does not meet the criteria of a legal definition, it may violate your school’s code of conduct, which may result in discipline, suspension, or even dismissal.
Contact Law Enforcement If Necessary
Contact law enforcement immediately if you feel concerned that you are in any danger due to cyberbullying or witness behaviors like “revenge porn” (disseminating intimate photos or videos without permission). Your safety always comes first. Law enforcement is becoming more familiar with how to manage cases of cyberbullying. It may have other mechanisms to support you, and this step may provide further documentation in the event you take legal action later.
How Colleges are Helping Protect Students
Fortunately, cyberbullying legislation has been adapting to the changing landscape, with all 50 states adopting some form of legislation: 48 states include cyberbullying and online harassment in their definition of bullying, 45 states have criminal sanctions for cyberbullying, and 46 states require school sanctions for cyberbullying. Encouragingly, 49 states have laws requiring a school policy on bullying, with 28 states adopting language that is specific to off-campus or online students. School policies are also evolving, particularly in light of the prevalence of mental health crises or deaths by suicide as a result of cyberbullying — such as the death of Tyler Clementi in 2010. Campuses are increasingly defining cyberbullying policies in their codes of conduct, like in this example from Vermont Tech, creating more powerful social contracts that provide protection and often outline consequences.
Cyberbullying Resources for Online College Students
Many students have suffered from some form of cyberbullying during their lifetime or education. So, it stands to reason that students attending online college are even more susceptible to cyberbullying, which is why colleges and national organizations are dedicating more resources to address the issue. We know that seriously impacts the outcomes and mental health of affected students, so if you’re experiencing online harassment or if you know someone who is, you can find sources of help below.
If a member of your school community is cyberbullying you, you have resources to help you report it and seek support.
- Student Counseling Center: Seek emotional support from your student counseling center on campus, which offers free sessions for students.
- Student Life/Academic Dean: If you have documentation or evidence, consider escalating your concerns to your dean or other student life officials. They may be able to provide assistance or begin a disciplinary process against your offender.
- IT: Consider contacting your school’s IT department if the cyberbullying comes from another student. They may be able to limit that person’s access to various school forums, thereby decreasing their access to you.
- Title IX Office: If you are experiencing cyberbullying that includes sexual harassment of any nature and your school is covered by Title IX, the school is obligated to provide you with a safe learning environment free from discrimination on the basis of sex.
- Campus Security/Local Law Enforcement: Campus security may be able to offer you safeguards or protection if cyberbullying is inspiring concerns about your physical safety.
Looking for assistance outside of what your school can provide? Consider some of these online resources:
- StopBullying.gov: This website offers details on types of bullying, legal rights, and cyberbullying prevention tips.
- StompOutBullying.org: With a crisis line and other ways to get help immediately, suggestions for ways to help, and other campaigns, Stomp Out Bullying is a nonprofit dedicated to the reduction and prevention of bullying, cyberbullying, and other forms of abuse.
- Cyberbullying.org: The Cyberbullying Research Center provides resources, a roundup of state laws regarding cyberbullying, and research about how cyberbullying affects students, their families, and society at large.
Interview with an Expert
What are some of the differences between a joke and bullying? Where is the “line?”
The main difference lies in intention: Bullying intends to hurt someone while joking intends to create an enjoyable atmosphere through entertainment. When jokes target an individual or a group, it can be considered bullying because the goal of entertainment may come at the expense of hurting someone. It can be hard to know where the line is because even if someone’s intention isn’t to hurt another by making a joke. The impact of their words may still be hurtful. It’s important to pick up on social cues and check in with those you make jokes about to make sure your words are not harming them.
What can someone do if a friend is cyberbullied?
If you know someone who is being cyberbullied, let them know that you care about them and are there to support them. Validate that their experience of bullying is real, and ask how you can be there for them. You may feel the urge to tell your friend what to do or how to handle the situation. This is normal, and your intention is likely to help. However, it’s important to remember that your friend may feel like they’ve lost their autonomy, and you want to be careful to not perpetuate that feeling. If you want to give them advice, ask if they are open to hearing your thoughts. If your friend is in danger and you have concerns about their safety, reach out to a professional, such as your school’s counseling center or public safety, for support.
What is the role of a bystander in cyberbullying? Is there a productive way to call out someone who is engaging in cyberbullying behavior?
Bystanders can have a significant role in the mitigation and prevention of bullying. Bystanders have the opportunity to reach out to the person being bullied and check in and provide support. They can also confront the person conducting the cyberbullying in both direct and indirect ways. For example, for direct approaches, they can let the individual who is cyberbullying know that their behavior is inappropriate. Indirect approaches can include reporting the individual’s behavior to the social media platforms it occurs on or to school officials. Additionally, they can leave groups where this behavior is occurring and ensure they don’t share or forward harmful content.
How should targets or bystanders act differently if the cyberbullying is more sinister, such as in the case of “revenge porn?”
Remember that cyberbullying can be a traumatic experience for someone, particularly when there have been ruptures in trust and safety in cases like revenge porn. Interacting with the harmed individual in a way that respects their autonomy and privacy is crucial. Ask what you can do to support them.
If the victim is a minor, you may be obligated to take certain courses of action, such as reporting the incident. If this is the case, aim to do so collaboratively in a way that empowers the individual. If you are the individual who has been affected, know that you have options. Similar to other cases of cyberbullying, maintain evidence of the perpetrator’s behaviors in case you want to take action. It can be helpful to speak with school officials and local law enforcement to understand policies and laws relating to your situation. Also, know that you have the right to request the removal of content that has been posted without your consent. While these measures will not undo the harm cyberbullying has caused you, there are ways in which you can regain a sense of autonomy.
What are some protective factors against cyberbullying? What do you tend to see in schools or other communities with low instances of cyberbullying?
Cyberbullying can truly happen to anyone. Strong caregiver relationships and positive experiences in school environments are protective against cyberbullying, in part because the feelings of safety in these relationships and spaces lend themselves to an individual being able to be open about uncomfortable and unsafe experiences they have online, which can subsequently lead to early intervention and support to cope with the challenges of cyberbullying.
Positive peer relationships and school environments that create atmospheres of mutual respect and connection-building see lower instances of cyberbullying.
Furthermore, digital literacy amongst students, caregivers, teachers, and administrators helps to reduce instances of cyberbullying. Finally, environments, where individuals are empowered to call in cyberbullying can help maintain low rates of its occurrence. Research shows that being a bystander to cyberbullying increases the risk that the bystander will eventually cyberbully others. Empowering observers to act can mitigate the possibility that they will become perpetrators in the future, thereby creating an overall safer community.