Cyberbullying: what is it and how to defend yourself


A survey made by ISTAT (Italian National Institute of Statistic) showed the alarming spread of cyberbullying in Italy: 5,9% of teenagers between 11 and 17 years old with Internet access are victims of repetitive harassment through e-mails, chat, SMS or social networks. Girls are the most targeted victims (7,1% against 4,6% of boys). Cyberbullying is “an aggressive and intentional act, conducted by an individual or a group of individuals, using different forms of electronical contact, repeated throughout time against victims who struggle to defend themselves.” (Smith et al., 2008)

Violence and humiliation are carried out through the diffusion online of embarrassing pictures or videos, gossips, threats and mockery. The goal is to denigrate and damage the reputation or the friendships of a coeval, leading the victim to an exclusion of the group of peers.

Cyberbullying has specific characteristics. Firstly, unlike traditional bullying, which usually takes place in specific places and times, it’s a pervasive phenomenon affecting the victim every time they go online. Moreover, cyberbullying has a wide range: the messages and materials sent are transmitted and re-shared beyond the circle of acquaintances. Cyberbullying allows the molester to keep the anonymity, protecting their identity. In addition, molesters don’t receive immediate and tangible feedback from the victim: they don’t see the pain and the harm they have caused and as a result they don’t seize the consequences of their own actions. In turn, this causes a weakening of ethical hesitation: often, people do and say things online that wouldn’t dare to do or say in real life.

Lastly, cyberbullying leads to the activation of mechanism such as minimization (the acts carried out are defined as “simple jokes” and the diffusion of responsibility (“Everyone was doing that” or “I haven’t done anything, I just posted a message I received”).

Cyberbullying is a complex phenomenon that can be found in different forms:

  • flaming: violent and gross messages, aimed at provoking fights in a forum or chat
  • harassment: offensive, rude, insulting messages continuously sent
  • cyberstalking: insistent and intimidatory harassment, that lead the victim the fear for their safety
  • denigration: online diffusion of gossips and/or offensive material with the intent to damage reputation or the friendships of a coeval
  • impersonation: identity theft of the victim through account violation, with the aim of damaging or compromising the victim's reputation;
  • outing and trickery: spread of confidences of a coeval, private or intimate images previously sent privately from the victim
  • exclusion: exclusion of the coeval from an online group
  • cyberbashing or happy slapping: clips published online, where the victim is being beaten or insulted by the bully in front of a group that is filming the scene.

Among the psychological consequences suffered by victims of cyberbullying there is anxiety, depression and, in the most extreme cases, suicide. (Kowalski et al., 2014). It is therefore necessary to identify in advance cases of cyberbullying in order to realise an effective and timely intervention.

How do I know if my children are victims of cyberbullying?

  1. Nervousness or refusal to go to school
  2. Irritability and anxiety while using social media and/or immediately after
  3. Denial in sharing with their parents or adults of reference information on their own account and their online activities
  4. Inexplicable loss of weight or sudden weight gain, headache, stomach ache and difficulty in eating
  5. Difficulty in falling asleep and sleepiness during the day
  6. Progressive decline in interest in hobbies or activities that generally were done with pleasure
  7. Tendency to depression and isolation

I am a victim of cyberbullying. What can I do to defend myself?

The best thing would be to receive psychological treatment to obtain concrete support (this also applies for the cyberbully: therapy offers instruments to manage aggressivity and devious behaviours).

In absence of a specialised intervention you can use some strategies:

  1. Talk about what happened with an adult you trust: it is important you don’t feel alone in this situation
  2. Avoid answering or interacting with those who are provoking you, often this reinforces the willing of the bully to harm you
  3. Save the most emblematic messages to use them when you report the aggressors, but avoid storing all the offensive material, otherwise you run the risk of continuously reading it and overthink, reinforcing the humiliation you endured
  4. Block and report immediately the person who is attacking you: on social media you can report the content and the author to the platform, which can take action by cancelling the content and blocking the author
  5. Limit the privacy of your content, you can decide who can see your account and tag you

Translated by Francesca Cioffi

Original version by Sara Bergamini

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  • L'Autore

    Sara Bergamini

    Sara Bergamini è psicologa, iscritta all'Albo degli Psicologi della Lombardia.

    È membro di Mondo Internazionale dal gennaio 2020. Attualmente collabora con il team del progetto TrattaMi Bene occupandosi di tematiche relative all'età evolutiva.



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