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Preventing Cyberbullying in Schools and the Community

Publication Year: 
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National Center for Mental Health Promotion and Youth Violence Prevention

Bullying is a form of emotional and physical abuse that is characterized by a power imbalance in which a bully chooses victims that he or she perceives as vulnerable. Bullying is deliberate and repeated over time. It can occur in different forms, for example:

  • Physical bullying—poking, pushing, hitting, kicking
  • Verbal bullying—yelling, teasing, name-calling, insulting, threatening
  • Indirect bullying (also called “relational bullying”)—ignoring, excluding, spreading rumors, telling lies, getting others to hurt someone

Extensive research on bullying has shown that it has major long- and short-term effects on the victim that range from low self-esteem, anxiety, and depression to school avoidance and academic failure (Swearer, Song, Cary, Eagle, & Mickelson, 2001). In cases of extreme bullying, some tormented victims have thought about or resorted to committing suicide, or “bullicide” (van der Wal, de Wit, & Hirasing, 2003).

Bullying also has major effects on the immediate bystanders, who may feel:

  • pressured to participate in the bullying
  • anxious about speaking to anyone about it
  • powerless to stop the bullying
  • increasingly vulnerable to being victimized themselves
  • afraid of being associated with the victim or the bully
  • guilty for not having defended the victim (Storey, Slaby, Adler, Minotti, & Katz, 2008)

With the spread of technology-mediated communication in recent years comes a new form of bullying that can occur anywhere and can take a similar toll on the victim. Cyberbullying is a growing form of bullying that involves sending or posting hurtful, embarrassing, or threatening text or images using the Internet, cell phones, or other electronic communication devices. Other forms of cyberbullying include creating Web sites that contain harmful or highly personal materials or images that may damage the victim’s reputation or friendships, distributing questionnaires that poll classmates about a student’s physical traits, and excluding victims from online groups. Since many students have access to the Internet outside of school, cyberbullying can occur at any time of day, and its effects can be difficult to avoid.

What Makes Cyberbullying Different from Other Bullying?

Many aspects of cyberbullying make it unique and potentially more harmful and problematic than traditional bullying. The sense of anonymity provided by screen names or other virtual identities allows bullies to distance themselves from the situation, often making them less inhibited in their cruelty toward their victims (Keith & Martin, 2005) and less aware of the consequences of their actions (National Crime Prevention Council, 2009). This anonymity also provides an easy opportunity for bullies to falsify their identities or impersonate others. The effects of cyberbullying can also be more widespread than traditional bullying, as electronic information is so easily disseminated beyond its intended audience. In this way, cyberbullying is persistent and often indelible and irreversible.

While both boys and girls engage in cyberbullying, research indicates that girls are often more likely than boys to become involved in it, as both perpetrators and victims (Keith & Martin, 2005). When acting as the perpetrators of bullying, girls are more likely than boys to display “relational bullying,” where they engage in “the hurtful manipulation of peer relationships/friendships that inflicts harm on others through behaviors such as ‘social exclusion’ and ‘malicious rumor spreading’” (Crick & Grotpeter, 1995). Online, this abuse is carried out mainly through instant messaging, online conversations (chatting), and e-mails.

Facts About Cyberbullying

In a survey of more than 1,500 youth in grades 4–8, conducted by i-SAFE America Inc. (2004), students reported the following:

  • 58 percent said that someone has said mean or hurtful things to them online
  • 53 percent reported having said something mean or hurtful to another person online
  • 58 percent said that they have not told their parents or another adult about something mean or hurtful that happened to them online

Similar to traditional bullying, cyberbullying appears to increase in elementary school, peak during middle school, and decline in high school.

What Can Schools Do?

As cyberbullying often takes place outside of school, it is a more difficult form of bullying for schools to address. However, given its increasing prevalence, there are actions that school administrators can and should take to decrease cyberbullying and its effects:

  1. Assess the level of cyberbullying in the school or district. Meet with students, parents, school staff, and technology personnel within the school for recommendations on how to survey students. Administrators may want to establish an anti-cyberbullying task force with the school board attorney, principal, disciplinary officer, librarian, and student and parent representatives to gain a better understanding of the problem, and then work with this group to develop anti-cyberbullying initiatives.
  2. Create an awareness campaign for teachers, parents, the community, students, and school staff to inform them about the forms that cyberbullying takes and how it can be prevented or stopped within the jurisdiction of the school. The Health Resources and Services Administration Stop Bullying Now! Web site contains a campaign Activities Guide with creative ideas on how to spread the word about bullying prevention.
  3. Engage students in the creation, dissemination, and application of a policy for acceptable use of the school’s information technology resources. This acceptable use policy (AUP) should spell out what constitutes cyberbullying, specifically prohibit the use of the Internet for bullying, include strategies for preventing and stopping cyberbullying, and specify the negative consequences for policy violations. The AUP should also include a provision for cyberbullying that occurs outside of school if these actions adversely affect the victims’ safety and well-being while in school.
    Note: The AUP should emphasize preventive and educational actions as much as, if not more than, disciplinary actions. Sample AUPs are available through the

    Anti-Defamation League. (n.d.). Responding to Cyberbullying. Retrieved June 26, 2009, from

    Beale, A., & Hall, K. R. (2007, September/October). Cyberbullying: What School Administrators (and Parents) Can Do. Clearing House, 81(1), 8–12.

    Crick, N. R., & Grotpeter, J. K. (1995). Relational Aggression, Gender, and Social-Psychological Adjustment. Child Development, 66(3), 710–22.

    Education Development Center, Inc. (2008). What Is Bullying? Eyes on Bullying [Web site]. Retrieved June 3, 2009, from

    Fight Crime: Invest in Kids. (n.d.). Ten Steps for Families to Stop Cyber Bullying. Retrieved June 26, 2009, from

    Health Resources and Services Administration. (n.d.). Cyberbullying. Retrieved June 26, 2009, from

    i-SAFE America Inc. (2004). Cyber Bullying: Statistics and Tips. Stop Bullying Now [Web site]. Retrieved June 3, 2009, from

    Keith, S., & Martin, M. E. (2005). Cyber-Bullying: Creating a Culture of Respect in a Cyber World. Reclaiming Children and Youth, 13(4), 224–28.

    National Crime Prevention Council. (2009). What Is Cyberbullying? Retrieved June 3, 2009, from

    Storey, K., Slaby, R., Adler, M., Minotti, J., & Katz, R. (2008). Eyes on Bullying Toolkit. Retrieved June 3, 2009, from

    Swearer, S. M., Song, S. Y., Cary, P. T., Eagle, J. W., & Mickelson, W. T. (2001). Psychosocial Correlates in Bullying and Victimization: The Relationship Between Depression, Anxiety, and Bully/Victim Status. Journal of Emotional Abuse, 2(2/3), 95–121.

    van der Wal, M. F., de Wit, C. A., & Hirasing, R. A. (2003, June). Psychosocial Health Among Young Victims and Offenders of Direct and Indirect Bullying. Pediatrics, 111(6), 1312–17.

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