Cyberbullying affects almost half of American teens. Parents may be unaware.

By Elizabeth Chang.    washington post january 19th 2023

A new survey about teens and social media shows that nearly half of teens say they have been cyberbullied. In a separate survey administered to a parent of each teen, the adults ranked cyberbullying as sixth out of eight concerns about social media. Their top concern was their child being exposed to explicit content.

The survey results, released by Pew this week, aren’t surprising, said Devorah Heitner, author of “Screenwise: Helping Kids Thrive (and Survive) in Their Digital World.” “There’s just so much online aggression — aggression because of online disinhibition and the ways that we forget there’s another human being on the other end of the screen.”

Parents might be more aware of the fact that pornography is widely available online than of the explicit harassment that some kids are facing, she said, which could account for the fact that only 29 percent said they were extremely or very concerned about their child being harassed or bullied.

The teen survey found that 46 percent of kids ages 13 to 17 had experienced at least one of six cyberbullying behaviors, while 28 percent have experienced multiple types. The behaviors and the percentages of teens experiencing them were:

  • Offensive name-calling (32 percent).
  • Spreading of false rumors about them (22 percent).
  • Receiving explicit images they didn’t ask for (17 percent).
  • Constantly being asked where they are, what they’re doing or who they’re with by someone other than a parent (15 percent).
  • Physical threats (10 percent).
  • Having explicit images of them shared without their consent (7 percent).

The report noted that “15- to 17-year-old girls stand out for being particularly likely to have faced any cyberbullying, compared with younger teen girls and teen boys of any age. Some 54% of girls ages 15 to 17 have experienced at least one of the six cyberbullying behaviors, while 44% of 15- to 17-year-old boys and 41% of boys and girls ages 13 to 14 say the same.”

The survey of 1,316 teens, conducted April 14 to May 4, cannot be compared with the last Pew report on this subject, released in 2018, because the methodology and sampling practices were changed for this year’s survey, according to Pew researchers Emily Vogels and Monica Anderson. That means the organization cannot say whether 2022 results reflect an increase or decrease in cyberbullying since 2018.

Heitner thinks the report can be helpful for parents in that it lays out a range of behaviors that some parents might not have been aware of or might not have thought of as cyberbullying. And, she said, all parents should be alert to cyberbullying, even if they think their child is not a victim or a perpetrator, because teens who observe these behaviors can still be affected by them.

“If your kid is on a group text and some other kid is being called a slur, a homophobic slur or a racist slur, your kid is still going to be affected by it,” she said. It’s important for parents to talk to their kids about the climate of the social media sites or group chats they frequent, she added. If a child is going on a new YouTube channel or following someone new on TikTok, parents can ask questions such as: “What is the vibe like?” “Are the comments mean?” “Are the comments racist?”

The fact that name-calling is the No. 1 kind of cyberbullying is not unexpected, “because there’s so much of that going on in our culture,” Heitner said. She also said that younger teens in particular may be confused about what terms are appropriated, because “there’s so much re-appropriation of historically offensive names, whether by the queer community or the Black community or other communities.”

Parents “need to let their own kids know that they can be very accountable for things that they say, that anything you say to someone, even if you feel like you’re joking, could be screenshotted” and shared with others and with authorities. “If in doubt, don’t say it. Don’t share it if you think it could be hurtful, if it’s unsubstantiated, certainly if you don’t have consent to share a picture, don’t share it. And if it’s explicit, don’t share it. Even if you do have consent, just don’t share explicit pictures.”

What parents are getting wrong about teens and sexting

In a separate questionnaire administered to a parent of the teens surveyed, the parents ranked their top concerns as:

  • Being exposed to explicit content (46 percent).
  • Wasting too much time on social media (42 percent).
  • Being distracted from completing homework (38 percent).
  • Sharing too much about their personal life (34 percent).
  • Feeling pressured to act a certain way (32 percent).
  • Being harassed or bullied by others (29 percent).
  • Experiencing problems with anxiety or depression (28 percent).
  • Experiencing lower self-esteem (27 percent).

A majority of the parents — 57 percent — said they at least sometimes checked their teens’ social media activities, with 49 percent saying they often or sometimes set limits for social media use. Black parents were more likely than Hispanic or White parents to check their teens’ social media activity.

New school mental health days? How parents can make them work for kids.

Heitner suggested that parents who are worried about the time their children are spending on social media implement a no-double-screen rule, meaning kids can’t have their phones with them while working on homework. She also suggested checking in with a child who seems glued to their phone, to make sure they aren’t being targeted. Most important, however, is making sure that kids unplug at night, even if it means shutting off the WiFi for kids up to the age of high school seniors.

It’s difficult for teens to regulate themselves if they have a connected device in their bedroom, which could affect their sleep. “And if they’re not getting sleep,” she said, “that’s going to hit their mental health. That’s going to hit their physical health, that’s going to hit their school performance or their athletic performance and nothing good ever happens.”

Teens do think their parents are doing a good job in one way: combating online abuse. “What we saw is that 66 percent of teens said that how their parents were handling online harassment, they were doing an excellent or very good job,” said Pew’s Vogels. The percentages of adults that kids thought were doing an excellent or good job at handling online harassment went down from there: teachers (40 percent), law enforcement (37 percent), social media sites (25 percent) and elected officials (18 percent).

Vogels said the team asked several new questions in this survey. “We asked the reasons that teens thought that they may have been targeted for harassment. And … physical appearance topped the list,” at 15 percent. Other reasons were gender (10 percent), race or ethnicity (9 percent), sexual orientation (5 percent) and political views (5 percent). Black teens were more likely than Hispanic or White teens to say their race made them a target.

“We also asked about a couple different tactics that teens thought … would be effective or not in combating harassment online,” Vogels said. “Half of teens thought that criminal charges would be an extremely effective tactic for curbing harassment they might face online. Half also thought that permanently banning users who harass others from their accounts would also help.”

Forty-two percent of teens think that monitoring and deleting posts also would be highly effective. But, Heitner noted, several major social media companies are laying off content moderators. “So we know that things are about to get bad, if they weren’t already.”