What To Know About Bullying (and Cyberbullying)

Hazing. Name-calling. Tormenting. Rumor-spreading. Harassment.

Although bullying is identified by many names and comes in many forms, its intent and effects are all the same – to hurt, harm, and cause pain to the intended target.

Just a couple of short decades ago, almost all bullying occurred face to face – in classrooms or schoolyards or neighborhoods close to home. Now, however, with the rapid growth of the internet and social media and the prevalence of smartphones, bullying has a far greater scope.

In fact, according to Pew Research, digital or cyberbullying is all too common among US teens. Recent numbers show that almost six out of every ten teenagers have experienced at least one form of cyberbullying.

The types of online harassment include offensive name-calling, spreading of false rumors, either receiving explicit images they didn’t request or having similar images of themselves shared without their consent and physical threats or stalking.

A similar percentage of parents worry about their teens being the target of cyberbullying. 59% worry about general harassment, while 57% have concerns over explicit materials either being sent or received by their child.

So what can a parent and their child do to protect themselves? Let’s take a look at what exactly bullying is, the different types and negative effects that result from it, how to spot signs that bullying is occurring, and steps to take to avoid it.

What is Bullying?

On the surface, bullying might seem fairly straightforward.

One person aims to inflict pain on another through aggression that includes physical, verbal, psychological, or social means.

Bullying, however, is anything but simple. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), bullying “involves an observed or perceived power imbalance and is repeated multiple times or is highly likely to be repeated.”

More than just isolated incidents of one child being mean to another, bullying more commonly takes place over long periods. The bully’s attacks, whatever form they take, are often sustained, and wear down the victim physically and emotionally.

Bullying also carries the added complexity of the bullies themselves, and the genesis for their behavior as well as the likelihood they fall victim to other bullies. Bully-victims may even suffer considerably more psychological turmoil than those who are just bullies or victims.

Even though much of the conversation focuses on adolescent bullying, harmful behavior does not end with childhood. Aggressive, unwanted intimidation-type behavior occurs between adults as well, across many different situations.

Types of Bullying

For many years, when discussions on bullying arose, they centered on the physical aspect of the act – intimidation through hitting, slapping, or pushing.

As our understanding of bullying has evolved, so too has the realization of the many modes it can take. For example, each of the following represents various types of bullying:

  • Verbal bullying by calling someone names, spreading rumors or gossiping about an individual, or making verbal threats
  • Non-verbal threats, such as menacing hand gestures
  • Abuse directed at harming someone emotionally
  • Exclusionary actions such as isolation or ignoring someone or purposely excluding them from a group for the intent of humiliating them
  • Gossiping about an individual or spreading rumors about them
  • Using manipulative or controlling behavior to intimidate a victim (for instance, cornering or entrapping a student in a school bathroom)
  • Degrading an individual based on their race, sex, religion, or sexual orientation
  • Degrading an individual based on a disability
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As society has evolved, so too has how we connect. Unfortunately, this ongoing connection between peers also increases the likelihood for someone to be a victim of bullying. Unlike typical bullying behavior, cyberbullying doesn’t require the perpetrator and victim to be in the same room, vicinity, or even the same town.

Through the always on, always connected environment of email, text messaging, social media and networking, gaming communities, or similar apps meant to connect, cyberbullying follows the victim wherever they go.

Similar to regular bullying, cyberbullying takes on many forms, including:

  • Texting of offensive, abusive, or threatening messages or materials
  • Creating and sharing either embarrassing or offensive images
  • Exclusionary behaviors, such as blocking individuals from online communities or friend groups
  • Online shaming or voting for or against individuals in online social polls
  • Singling out, stalking, or harassing others through social networks (trolling)
  • Creating hate-based pages with the intent of embarrassing or humiliating someone
  • Pressuring an adolescent to harm themselves or even to commit suicide
  • Sending explicit messages or materials (sexting)
  • Encouraging or pressuring underage individuals to participate in explicit acts or conversations to send similar materials

While in class, at home, or an after-school job, online bullying is a constant threat. Although girls are at higher risk, cyberbullying is reaching epidemic levels for all youths – 70% of students have seen frequent online bullying. 68% see cyberbullying as a serious issue.

Yet, 75% also admit to visiting a website where a fellow student was subjected to bullying.

Effects of Bullying

The consequences of bullying can be catastrophic.

Regardless of the bullying a victim is subjected to, adverse, long-term effects to their physical and mental well-being can occur. Potential concerns include:

  • Anxiety and depression
  • Sadness and loneliness
  • Loss of interest in being around other friends or family or loss of interest in hobbies or other activities
  • Change in eating or sleeping habits
  • Poor performance with grades or athletic activities
  • Increased risk for the victim to withdraw from their environment or drop out of school

In extreme cases, suicidal thoughts or behaviors may also appear in victims. However, underlying causes contribute more to a student being at risk for suicide than bullying, although it can play a part in making a bad situation worse.

In the most severe instances, victims of bullying will continue to experience problems well into adulthood.

The adverse effects of bullying aren’t just limited to the victims.

While many people may have little sympathy for bullies, as they get older, children that bully may suffer from alcohol or drug abuse, be more prone to commit criminal acts or fits of violence and display abusive behavior towards those close to them.

Bullying can also have repercussions for society at large. Victims of bullying are more apt to carry a gun to school, and the majority of perpetrators of school shootings were at one time victims of bullying.

Signs of Bullying and How to Prevent It

According to some stats, only one out of every ten students that are victims of bullying report it to a parent or adult they trust. How then can a parent recognize their child is being harassed or abused by a peer?

There are no absolutes regarding the behavior of a child or adolescent. Anxiety or nervousness that might seem to indicate bullying could merely be the result of worry over an upcoming test or athletic event.

However, there are signs that, along with directly talking to and engaging your child, can help to identify potential bullying before it becomes a more significant problem. A few things to be aware of include:

  • Personal belongings that are inexplicably lost or damaged
  • Unexplained injuries or injuries the child attempts to hide
  • Poor performance at school (especially if the student once excelled)
  • Loss of desire to attend school, skipping classes, or feigning illness to avoid going
  • Increased anxiety or distress or an unexplainable withdrawing from friends, family, or activities they once enjoyed
  • Changes in eating or sleeping
  • Displays of aggression or begins to bully others (particularly alarming if the child had no prior history of either)

Prevention of bullying can prove difficult – after all, it’s not feasible to be with your child all the time, particularly as they grow older. You can take steps though that will help minimize the risk, especially in situations where the bullying may be harder to identify, such as online.

First, familiarize yourself with parental controls for all social media platforms and any gaming networks where you allow your child to participate. Knowledge of privacy controls and how to block unwanted attacks or attention will help you and your child better manage who they do and don’t interact with.

Monitoring or limiting your child’s time on social media also lowers the risk for cyberbullying. Regular searches on your child’s name will ensure they have not been subject to online attacks or derogatory posts.

Next, talk to your child regularly. Engage with them on what’s going on at school, within their circle of friends, and in their online networks. Even if conversations are short with little substance, being a good listener will help you pick up on small tidbits of information or notice changes in behavior that could indicate a problem.

Finally, report any bullying that your child (or any child for that matter) may encounter – whether it’s online, through messages received by your child, or at school. Some studies indicated that reporting and interventions are highly effective at stopping or reducing instances of bullying.

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Final Thoughts

Ultimately, the most vital aspect to combating bullying (or to keep your child from becoming a bully) is to engage your child and ensure they have a strong and supportive social network. Having friends or being part of groups can minimize the risk of bullying and ensure your child carries with them confidence and a healthy self-image.

Learn More on PsydPrograms.org

Ann Steele, Ph.D.


Ann Steele, Ph.D., is Editor-In-Chief of PsydPrograms.org. Ann has training as a clinical psychologist and psychoanalyst who has worked with adults, couples, adolescents, and preteens throughout San Diego county.