Written By: Security.org Team | Published: August 18, 2021

Over the past few years, misinformation and threats of violence have spread like wildfire through social media, renewing debate over the limits of free speech and the role of social media companies in content moderation. In the midst of this unresolved controversy over what’s OK to share on the internet, an increasing number of children are dealing with the consequences of harmful speech firsthand.

The use of virtual learning, social media platforms, and online gaming have increased over the past couple of years, fueled by COVID-19 shutdowns. But as kids and teens continue to enter the online world more frequently than ever, cases of cyberbullying also flourished.

Our recent study of parents with children ages 10-18 sheds light on how cyberbullying has evolved in an increasingly digital landscape:

  • More parents reported that their child has been cyberbullied in 2021 (34 percent) than in 2020 (21 percent).
  • About two in three parents of bullied children said cyberbullying incidents happened on social media, with Instagram being the top platform for incidents.
  • Even though nearly all parents said their kids have access to the internet and social media, 11 percent of parents don’t monitor or limit their kids’ online activities at all.

Table of Contents:

How Common is Cyberbullying?

According to the Cyberbullying Research Center, cyberbullying rates have steadily climbed since 2007.1 This year was no different: cyberbullying among children ages 10-17 has increased during the past year. In Security.org’s Cyberbullying Study, 21 percent of parents reported that their children had experienced cyberbullying. This year, 34 percent of parents had children who’d been bullied online.

To your knowledge have any of your children been victims of cyberbullying? 2021 2020
Yes 34% 21%
No 58% 65%
I'm not sure 8% 14%

Other harmful incidents abounded in the same time period: According to internet safety app L1GHT, there was a 70 percent increase in hate speech in kids and teens during the pandemic-related shut downs.2

In both of our 2020 and 2021 studies on cyberbullying, screen time and cyberbullying rate had positive correlation. In other words, as children spend more time online, they are more likely to experience cyberbullying.

Before the pandemic began, just 21% of kids spent 4 hours or more everyday on screens, compared to 44% in June 2020.3 Another study revealed that in August 2020, 70 percent of parents estimated their kids spend at least four hours a day on screens.4

About 1 in 3 parents reported that cyberbullying incidents involving their kids happened within the past six months, as virtual schooling and COVID-19-related social distancing measures have continued across many parts of the country. Some parents (14 percent) had at least one child who was experiencing bullying at the time of the survey, which was conducted while many children were on summer vacation. This shows that cyberbullying isn’t seasonal, and continues even while school isn’t in session.

How recent was the latest cyberbullying incident experienced by your child(ren)? 2021 2020
Still ongoing 14% 12%
In the last month 31% 22%
In the last 6 months 32% 22%
In the last year 11% 22%
More than a year ago 12% 21%

Additionally, the study showed that younger children (preteens) are more likely to experience cyberbullying than older teens. Sadly, there is no conclusive reason as to why that’s the case. It could mean that older teens are simply less likely to report bullying to their parents or teachers.

Percent of children who’ve been cyberbullied, by age group 2021
10 – 12 34%
13 – 15 28%
16 – 18 18%

Where Does Cyberbullying Occur?

Four out of five parents reported that their children participate in game streaming platforms, and 94 percent of parents said their kids use social media, with Youtube and Instagram being the most popular platforms. Unfortunately, cyberbullying abounded in all of these online spaces.

Approximately two in three parents of bullied children said the harassment took place on social media. Nearly half of parents with children who’d been bullied reported that the incidents had happened while playing online games.

Where did your child's cyberbullying incident take place? Select all that apply. 2021
Social media 67%
Online games 48%
Text messages 24%
Other 1%

On social media platforms and in gaming communities, cyberbullying may look like the posting of rude or hateful comments, sharing of someone’s personal or private information without their consent, or harassment through private messages. Usually, cyberbullying is done to intimidate, hurt, or humiliate the victim. Depending on the state, cyberbullying on social media and in gaming communities can cross into unlawful behavior.

The most common social media site for cyberbullying was Instagram at 73 percent, followed by Facebook and Snapchat.

When your child experienced cyberbullying on social media, on which social media platform(s) did it take place? Select ALL that apply.

Instagram 73%
Facebook 65%
Snapchat 35%
YouTube 34%
Whatsapp 32%
Twitter 31%
TikTok 19%
I'm not sure 4%

There is a correlation between social media addiction and cyberbullying perpetration rates. A survey of teenagers ages 13 through 19 found that teens who are addicted to social media are more likely to be involved in cyberbullying.5

Cyberbullying may be a way for some children to experience the dopamine-driven satisfaction of social media attention. According to Amanda Giordano, an associate professor at the University of Georgia’s Mary Francis Early College of Education, social networking sites create dopamine hits for children. Giordano said, “it’s feeding into that addictive behavior, and [the teens] may be using cyberbullying as a way to get likes, shares, comments, and retweets.”

How Do Parents Handle Cyberbullying?

Parenting in the digital age can be difficult. Some parents are unsure what amount of screen time is healthy for their child or how to prevent their child from being the victim of online harassment. Despite the increasing prevalence of cyberbullying, 11 percent of parents reported that they don’t monitor their kids’ online activities. Parents who monitor their children online were more likely to report that their children had experienced cyberbullying. This shows that parental monitoring may be an important way to discover and resolve cyberbullying incidents.

To your knowledge have any of your children been victims of cyberbullying?
Yes No I'm not sure
Parents monitor children online 36% 58% 7%
Parents do not monitor children online 19% 63% 16%

Among parents who did monitor their children’s online activities, different methods included:

  • Talking about how to respond to different online situations (59 percent)
  • Limiting the amount of time spent online (45 percent)
  • Regularly monitoring the child's chats and messages (43 percent)
  • Setting appropriate permissions and restrictions on devices (42 percent).

A recent study by New York University that analyzed data from the World Health Organization found that the more a child saw their parent as “loving”, the less likely they are to engage in or initiate cyberbullying.6 While there is certainly not one right way to parent, this study suggests that the way that the child perceives their parent’s emotional support could influence the way they behave toward their peers online.

Although no parent can definitively prevent cyberbullying, these findings point to the strong influence that parent-child relationships can have on childrens’ relationships with their peers. Open communication in the relationship can also help parents find out if their child has been targeted by bullies online.

How did you first come to find out that your child was being cyberbullied? 2021
They told me 31%
Their school let me know that they were concerned 27%
I found out by monitoring their activity 27%
I noticed they were acting differently so I asked them what was going on 6%

Just over 30 percent of parents reported that they found out about cyberbullying incidents when their kids told them about it. Touching base with teachers can also be an important way to detect and prevent bullying. Nearly a quarter of parents who had children that had been cyberbullied found out when their school contacted them about the incident.

When your child was being cyberbullied, did you notice any of these behaviors? Select all that apply. 2021
Seeming agitated, nervous, or unusually quiet, especially after being online 45%
Wanting to spend more or less time than usual on online 43%
Problems sleeping, eating, or with schoolwork 41%
Not wanting to go to school 22%
Headaches or stomach aches 11%
None of the above 5%
Other 3%

A change in a child’s behavior could also indicate that they’re suffering from cyberbullying. According to our research, almost half of the parents of bullied children noticed agitation, nervousness, and unusual quietness from their bullied kids. Some also noticed a change in routine — either spending more or less time than usual online, difficulty sleeping or eating, or failing to do schoolwork.

Not wanting to go to school is another sign of cyberbullying, according to the parents, and sometimes, the mental distress caused by bullying could manifest itself in the form of headaches or stomach aches.

One thing is clear: As parents, it’s crucial to pay attention to changes in your child’s moods, behaviors, routines, and academic performance. Doing so can help you determine whether or not they are being bullied online or are experiencing distressing situations.

Taking Action Against Cyberbullying

Remember, cyberbullying can have a negative lasting impact on children’s self-esteem, physical health, social life, and overall identity. However, resources exist for parents who are concerned about cyberbullying prevention, as well as for parents and children who have already experienced the consequences of cyberbullying. Aside from our cyberbullying resource guide, we’ve taken the time to gather resources you or your child may use if they are experiencing cyberbullying.

Support hotlines and directories

There are a few helpful hotlines you can provide to your child if they have experienced cyberbullying, including:

  • 1-800-273-8255 (TALK) – This free 24/7 hotline was created by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to help anyone who may be having thoughts of harming themselves or others. When someone calls this phone number, they will speak with a trained mental health professional. Spanish speakers can call 1-888-628-9454. Those who are deaf or hard of hearing can call 1-800-799-4889.7
  • The Trevor Project: The Trevor Project organization offers 24/7 help for LGBTQ youth. This free hotline is a way for children to discuss their problems with a kind, anonymous stranger who can offer help via text or phone call.8
  • 1-800-VICTIMS: This hotline exists as a resource directory. Enter your zip code to get a list of resources in your area.9
  • National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: This hotline leads to a non-profit organization that offers free support from trained mental health professionals 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.10
  • For Parents: 1-855-4A PARENT (1-855-427-2736) The National Parent Helpline.11
  • If there is an immediate emergency, call 911.

Cyberbullying prevention: advice for parents

To prevent cyberbullying, it’s increasingly critical to consistently encourage open communication between yourself and your child. You may also wish to monitor their online activity and limit your child’s screen time. Be sure to talk to your children about the dangers of cyberbullying, what to do if they witness or experience cyberbullying, and encourage anti-bullying behavior in your household. You may also educate your child on why cyberbullying can be extremely harmful, and encourage your child to be respectful towards other children and avoid being a perpetrator of cyberbullying.

You may also choose to encourage your child to:

  • Protect their passwords.
  • Never take explicit photos of themselves or others.
  • Block people who are harassing them and tell an adult right away if this occurs.
  • Log out of online accounts when they are finished using their computer, phone, or tablet device.
  • Create privacy controls: There are many ways you can protect your child’s phone or computer, be it adding passcodes, turning on features like “Find My iPhone,” and restricting certain apps or websites. Don’t be afraid to dive deep into the settings!

Our data

Security.org surveyed 897 parents in the U.S. with at least one child between the ages of 10-18 in July 2021. Some parents surveyed had more than one child who had been cyberbullied.

Additional sources:

  1. https://cyberbullying.org/summary-of-our-cyberbullying-research
  2. https://l1ght.com/Toxicity_during_coronavirus_Report-L1ght.pdf
  3. https://morningconsult.com/2020/08/20/youtube-netflix-and-gaming-a-look-at-what-kids-are-doing-with-their-increased-screen-time/
  4. https://www.emarketer.com/content/increased-screen-time-children-teens-likely-here-stay?ecid=NL1009
  5. https://news.uga.edu/social-media-addiction-linked-to-cyberbullying/
  6. https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2020/09/200902101822.htm
  7. https://www.stopbullying.gov/resources/get-help-now
  8. https://www.thetrevorproject.org/
  9. https://1800victims.org/crime-type/cyber-bullying/
  10. https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org/
  11. https://www.nationalparenthelpline.org/