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This fact sheet provides guidance on how to support victims of cyberbullying. Get information on what cyberbullying is, including what makes it different to ordinary bullying and how common it is. Get guidance on responding to a young person who is being cyberbullied and resources to assist you.

This will help you to:

  • understand cyberbullying
  • support a young person being cyberbullied
  • access appropriate online safety resources for young people.
Girls on their phones at school

What is cyberbullying?

With the increased level of access that young people have to internet communication tools, a very real problem has been the evolution of online bullying (cyberbullying). Cyberbullying makes young people vulnerable to abuse in a very real and harmful way that can result in serious emotional distress.

Cyberbullying is a form of harassment, which is carried out through an internet service such as email, chat room, discussion group, online social networking, instant messaging or web pages. It can also include bullying through mobile phone technologies such as short messaging service (SMS).

Examples of cyberbullying behaviour are:

  • teasing and being made fun of in a negative manner causing emotional distress
  • spreading of rumours online
  • sending unwanted messages after being asked not too
  • defamation.

Cyberbullying can happen to anyone and the bully can act anonymously if they want, or out in the open if they feel they cannot be reprimanded. People can also be bullied online by groups of people such as class groups or collective members of an online community.

What's different about cyberbullying?

While bullying isn't new, cyberbullying has a unique set of characteristics that are evolving with changes in technology:

24/7 and the invasion of home/personal space

Cyberbullying can take place at any time and comes directly into your personal space whether it is at work or at home.

The audience can be very large and reached rapidly

The difficulty in controlling electronically circulated messages means the scale and scope of cyberbullying can be greater than for other forms of bullying. Electronically forwarded content is hard to control, and the worry of content resurfacing can make it difficult for targets to move on.

People who cyberbully may attempt to remain anonymous

This can be extremely distressing for those being bullied. The person cyberbullying never needs to be in the same physical space as their target.

The profile of the bully and target

Cyberbullying can take place both between peers and across generations; teachers have also been targets. Age or size is not important. Bystanders can also become accessories to the bullying; for example, by passing on a humiliating image.

Some instances of cyberbullying are known to be unintentional

It can be the result of not thinking (something sent as a joke may be deeply upsetting or offensive to the recipient) or a lack of awareness of the consequences - for example saying something negative online about another pupil, or friend that they don't expect to be forwarded or viewed outside their immediate group.

Many cyberbullying incidents can themselves act as evidence

This is one of the reasons why it's important to know how to respond!

How common is cyberbullying in Australia?

The number of reports of cyberbullying to the NetAlert Helpline has been increasing, particularly since 2006.

An online safety survey conducted by NetAlert and Ninemsn in February 2007 found that:

  • 16% of young people said they had been bullied online, while 14% were bullied through their mobile, with boys and girls experiencing similar levels.
  • 56% thought it was easy to get bullied online.

Under certain circumstances (such as harassment and making threats) cyberbullying is a criminal activity and is illegal. If you feel someone's safety is at risk, contact '000' or your local police. Police around Australia are working together to reduce this type of crime and create awareness amongst parents and teachers.

Responding to a young person who is being cyberbullied

Support the young person being bullied

As with other forms of bullying the target of cyberbullying may be in need of emotional support. Key principles here include reassuring them that they have done the right thing by telling someone; recognising that it must have been difficult for them to deal with; and reiterating that no-one has a right to do that to them.

Offer them advice on online empowerment

It is essential to advise the young person being bullied not to retaliate in any way or reply angrily to any of the messages or emails. Responding, particularly by showing anger, is probably what the bully would expect and by refusing to do this, the bully is thrown off guard and may discontinue their actions. If there is a need to respond, it should be done in an assertive manner, and with support.

Some strategies that can be effective, depending on the situation:

  • if it is a private message, not responding and ignoring bullying behaviour is often effective
  • if it is public, take action to report, delete or block the post or message
  • ask a friend to come to their assistance and help by standing up for them in a constructive and assertive way.

Be sure to let the young person know that keeping evidence of the bullying is important, and they can pass this information on to parents, teachers, carers or even police if necessary.

Reporting and responding to the bullying

Most social networking services have features that allow users to report and/or respond to cyberbullying in constructive ways. The Office of the Children's eSafety Commisioner provides information on how to respond to harassment and how to report cyberbullying material on social networking services and websites.

Preventing cyberbullying from re-occurring

Depending on the method the bully is using, there are steps that can be taken to prevent it from happening in the future. It is important to express to the young person the need for careful management of the information they share online and with whom. Most online networking and email sites allow the user to set their own level of privacy and security. This can hinder the amount of external emails and messages that come through and can also prevent additional emails to come through once the user has indicated he does not want them too. This ability to block, delete and filter within networks and email is something all users should be made aware of when using online technology.

Resources to assist

Next steps to support a young person