What is cyberbullying? How common is it? And what can teachers do about it? Get advice and resources to support your students.
What is cyberbullying?
How common is cyberbullying?
How can I tell if a student is being cyberbullied?
When and how should I intervene in a cyberbullying situation?
What's my responsibility as a teacher in preventing cyberbullying?
What lesson plans and classroom resources are available to address cyberbullying?
How can teachers work with families to prevent and identify cyberbullying?
Cyberbullying is the use of digital media (such as websites, apps, and text messages) to intimidate, upset, or harm someone. It includes repeatedly sending, posting, or sharing negative, harmful, or mean content about someone else on purpose.
Usually, with cyberbullying, there are other people who see cyberbullying happen. In these situations, people can be bystanders, allies, or upstanders. A bystander observes the conflict or unacceptable behavior but does not take part in it. An ally is someone who responds to the bullying situation by supporting the person being bullied (e.g., checking in with them, being a friend to them, etc.). An upstander tries to stop the bullying by confronting the person who is bullying directly or by telling a trusted adult.
Cyberbullying differs from face-to-face bullying in several key ways. For one, it can feel harder to escape because it can happen anywhere anytime. It's also harder to detect because so much of kids' digital media use is unmonitored by adults. At the same time, cyberbullying can also be very public: Large numbers of people online can see what's happening and even gang up on the target. Though the target is usually exposed publicly, cyberbullies can hide who they are because they can post anonymously or use pseudonyms. And since cyberbullying isn't face-to-face, the one doing the bullying may not see or even understand the implications of their actions.
Reported data on how many kids experience cyberbullying can vary depending on the age of kids surveyed and how cyberbullying is defined. According to the 2018 Common Sense report Social Media, Social Life, 13 percent of teens age 13-17 say they’ve been cyberbullied, including 9 percent who say it has happened to them more than twice. A summary of research by the Cyberbullying Research Center on cyberbullying in middle and high school from 2004 to 2016 indicated that, on average, 28 percent of students have been targets of cyberbullying and 16 percent of students admitted to cyberbullying others. And according to a 2018 Pew Research Center survey, a majority of teens (59 percent) have experienced "some form of cyberbullying" when it is defined to include name-calling and the spreading of rumors.
The Common Sense study also found that some kids are more vulnerable to cyberbullying than others, with girls more likely than boys to experience it. A separate study identified kids with a disability or obesity or who identify as LGBTQ as more likely to be cyberbullied than other kids.
Even if kids aren't the target of cyberbullying (and the majority aren't), chances are high they've witnessed it since it often happens online and publicly. Common Sense reports 23 percent of teens have tried to help someone who has been cyberbullied, such as by talking to the person who was cyberbullied, reporting it to adults, or posting positive stuff about the person being cyberbullied online.
Be aware of your students' emotional state. Do they seem depressed? Fearful? Distracted? Pay attention to what's happening for students socially at lunchtime, in the hallways, or in other areas of your school campus. Has their friend group changed? Do you sense a conflict between students? Are you overhearing talk about "drama" or "haters" (two words kids might use to describe cyberbullying situations)? Don't be afraid to check in with students directly about what's going on. And reach out to their support networks including parents or caregivers, the school counselor, a coach, or other teachers.
Obviously, cyberbullying is something to take seriously. At the same time, it's important to remember that, depending on their ages, kids are still developing skills like empathy, self-control, self-regulation, and how to communicate respectfully online. These situations can be learning opportunities for everyone involved.
School, district, and/or state policies might dictate what actions you take once you've verified that cyberbullying has in fact occurred. Sometimes the recommended response is different depending on whether the bullying occurred on a school-issued device or not and whether it happened outside of school hours or during the school day. Be sure to involve the students' families, school administrators, counselor, and/or school resource officer, as appropriate, to ensure the intervention is effective and follows policy.
Here are a few resources to support teachers and schools in responding to cyberbullying:
- What Principals Can Do About Cyberbullying from EdWeek
- Cyberbullying Fact Sheet: Identification, Prevention, and Response from the Cyberbullying Research Center
- The No Bully School Partnership
- Responding to Cyberbullying: Guidelines for Administrators
As educators, it's our responsibility to teach students how to use digital media in respectful and safe ways. This includes helping kids learn how to identify, respond to, and avoid cyberbullying. Given the demands on teachers to meet school, district, and state goals, it can be a challenge to figure out where these lessons fit into the school day. Fortunately, as technology becomes part of every aspect of our lives, including how we teach and learn, more schools and districts are giving teachers the time and resources to prioritize these skills. Here are a few ways to approach cyberbullying prevention in the classroom:
1. Promote a positive and safe classroom culture. Whether or not you have technology in the classroom, setting norms of respectful communication sends a message to your students about what is and isn't acceptable. Find ways to demonstrate that your classroom is a safe, emotionally caring environment. Provide resources in the classroom to help students identify, respond to, and avoid cyberbullying. This could be tips on how to respond to cyberbullying (for elementary school or middle and high school) or the phone number for the Crisis Text Line.
2. Embrace teachable "dig cit" moments. Step up when you encounter a teachable moment related to cyberbullying or respectful online communication. Encourage students to pay attention to "red flag moments" -- when something happens on digital media that makes them feel uncomfortable, worried, sad, or anxious. Explain to students the three ways they can and should respond if they witness cyberbullying: support the target of the bullying (be an ally); try to stop the cyberbullying (be an upstander); and/or tell a trusted adult (report it). It may not be part of your lesson plan, and it may set you off track for a bit, but every time you reinforce anti-cyberbullying messages, you're doing the critical work of cyberbullying prevention. And as hard as it may be to admit, ignoring these teachable moments also sends a message your students will remember.
3. Incorporate lessons on cyberbullying into your existing curriculum. Find connections to the content you're already teaching and make time to address cyberbullying directly. From setting norms of online communication to using historical examples of propaganda and hate speech to discussing a bullying situation in a novel you're reading, the possible connections to cyberbullying can be made with a little planning.
4. Advocate for a school- or district-wide digital citizenship program. The most effective cyberbullying prevention strategy has to involve the whole community. A fully integrated digital citizenship program gives teachers the time and resources to tackle these topics head-on, provides kids with consistent and frequent opportunities to build their skills, and supports families as they reinforce the messages at home.
The Common Sense K–12 Digital Citizenship Curriculum teaches students about the effects of cyberbullying on both themselves and their larger communities. They are encouraged to take the active role of upstander and build positive, supportive online communities, and they can learn how to cultivate empathy, compassion, and courage to combat negative interactions online.
- Putting a STOP to Online Meanness (grade 2): What should you do if someone is mean to you online?
- The Power of Words (grade 3): What should you do when someone uses mean or hurtful language on the internet?
- Super Digital Citizen (grade 4): How can we be upstanders when we see cyberbullying?
- What’s Cyberbullying? (grade 5): What is cyberbullying and what can you do to stop it?
- Digital Drama Unplugged (grade 6): How can you de-escalate digital drama so it doesn't go too far?
- Upstanders and Allies (grade 7): How can you respond when cyberbullying occurs?
- Responding to Online Hate Speech (grade 8): How should you respond to online hate speech?
- What You Send In "That Moment When ... " (grade 9): How can we act with empathy and positivity when we're online?
- Countering Hate Speech Online (grade 10): How can we counter online hate speech and xenophobia?
- Online Disinhibition and Cyberbullying (grade 11): How does online disinhibition sometimes lead to cyberbullying?
- Should Online Hate Speech Be Censored? (Grade 12): Should online hate speech be censored?
The first step is to communicate with your students' families about your expectations in the classroom and explain the skills you're helping students learn related to positive, responsible media use. When parents are informed and on board, they're more likely to reinforce the messages at home.
Since families often look to schools for guidance on dealing with cyberbullying, you can offer them the latest advice and resources on the topic. Spark a conversation by sending home these printable Family Tips or handing them out at parent meetings. You can also share articles, videos, and Q&As in a classroom newsletter, on your class website or social feed, or at your next parent event.