What is cyberbullying? How common is it? And what can teachers do about it? Get advice and resources to support your students.

What is cyberbullying?

Cyberbullying is the use of digital media (such as apps, text messages, and websites) to intimidate, upset, or harm someone. It includes repeatedly sending, posting, or sharing negative, harmful, or mean content about someone else on purpose.

Usually, with cyberbullying, there are other people who see cyberbullying happen. In these situations, people can be bystanders, allies, or upstanders

  • A bystander observes the conflict or unacceptable behavior but does not take part in it. 
  • An ally is someone who responds to the bullying situation by supporting the person being bullied (checking in with them, being a friend to them, etc.). 
  • An upstander tries to stop the bullying by directly confronting the person who is doing the bullying or by telling a trusted adult.

Cyberbullying differs from face-to-face bullying in several key ways. For one, it can feel harder to escape because it can happen anywhere, anytime. It's also harder to detect because so much of kids' digital media use is not monitored by adults. At the same time, cyberbullying can also be very public: Large numbers of people online can see what's happening and even gang up on the target. Though the target is usually exposed publicly, the people doing the cyberbullying can hide who they are by posting anonymously or using pseudonyms. And since cyberbullying isn't face-to-face, the one doing the bullying may not see or even understand the implications of their actions.

What Forms Can Cyberbullying Take?

Unfortunately, cyberbullying can take many forms. As popular social media apps for young people shift and proliferate, so have the ways kids can harass each other—or become victims themselves. Spreading rumors, sending hateful messages, or sharing embarrassing materials can occur across platforms and devices, but there are some other specific forms of cyberbullying to be aware of:

  • Catfishing: Someone sets up a fictional persona online to compromise a victim in various ways, often exploiting a victim's emotions. The perpetrator's goals may be to lure them into a relationship or to intentionally upset a victim, among other reasons. 
  • Cyberflashing: When someone receives an unsolicited sexually graphic image, they've been cyberflashed. This can occur on peer-to-peer Wi-Fi networks or Bluetooth Airdrop, in or outside of school. 
  • Ghosting: When people cut off online contact and stop responding, they might be ghosting. Refusing to answer someone's messages can actually be a way of communicating a shift or upheaval among a group of friends. Often, instead of ever addressing the issue head-on, people will just ignore the targeted person.
  • Griefing: There are people who harass or irritate you in multiplayer video games. They kill your character on purpose, steal your game loot, or harass you in chat. Repeated behavior like that is called "griefing." 
  • Hate pages: On platforms like Instagram, teens may create fake accounts to harass victims, posting unflattering photos of their target, exposing secrets, or sharing screenshots of texts from people saying mean things. It's hard to trace who created the account, and the people doing the bullying can simply create a new "hate" page if one is shut down or removed. Sometimes, these anonymous accounts may be collections focused on rumors or other malicious materials targeting students schoolwide. 
  • Outing: This occurs when someone reveals someone's gender identity or sexual orientation without their consent. What makes this particularly malicious is the risk this may pose for teens who report higher levels of mental health struggles and are at greater risk for self-harm.

Note that kids and teens probably use all kinds of terminology to describe the digital drama or harassment that's happening, so it's best to just ask questions than to use specific terms.

How common is cyberbullying?

Reported data on how many kids experience cyberbullying can vary depending on the age of kids surveyed and how cyberbullying is defined. According to a 2022 Pew Research report on teens and cyberbullying, nearly half (46%) of teens reported experiencing at least one type of cyberbullying, and 28% have experienced multiple types, which represents a steady uptick over the last 15 years.

A summary of research by the Cyberbullying Research Center on cyberbullying in middle and high school from 2007 to 2021 indicated that, on average, 29% of students had been targets of cyberbullying. Nearly 16% of students admitted to cyberbullying others.

Yet not all groups of teens are experiencing cyberbullying equally, as some kids are more vulnerable than others. The Common Sense study "Social Media, Social Life" also found that girls are more likely than boys to experience it. A separate study showed that kids with a disability, with obesity, or who are LGBTQ are more likely to be cyberbullied than other kids.

Even if kids aren't the target of cyberbullying (and the majority aren't), chances are high they've witnessed it, since it often happens online and publicly. Common Sense reports that 23% of teens have tried to help someone who has been cyberbullied, such as by talking with the person who was cyberbullied, reporting it to adults, or posting positive stuff about the person being cyberbullied.

How can I tell if a student is being cyberbullied?

Be aware of your students' emotional state. Do they seem depressed? Fearful? Distracted? Pay attention to what's happening for students socially at lunchtime, in the hallways, or in other areas of your school campus. Has their friend group changed? Do you sense a conflict between students? Are you overhearing talk about "drama" or "haters" (two words kids might use to describe cyberbullying situations)? Don't be afraid to check in with students directly about what's going on. And reach out to their support networks, including parents or caregivers, the school counselor, a coach, or other teachers.

When and how should I intervene in a cyberbullying situation?

Obviously, cyberbullying is something to take seriously. At the same time, it's important to remember that, depending on their ages, kids are still developing skills like empathy, self-regulation, and how to communicate respectfully online. These situations can be learning opportunities for everyone involved.

School, district, and/or state policies might determine what actions you take once you've verified that cyberbullying has in fact occurred. Sometimes the recommended response is different depending on whether the bullying occurred on a school-issued device, and whether it happened outside of school hours or during the school day. Be sure to involve the students' families, school administrators, and counselor as appropriate, to ensure the intervention is effective and follows policy.

Here are a few resources to support teachers and schools in responding to cyberbullying:

What's my responsibility as a teacher in preventing cyberbullying?

As educators, it's our responsibility to teach students how to use digital media in respectful and safe ways. This includes helping kids learn how to identify, respond to, and avoid cyberbullying. Given the demands on teachers to meet school, district, and state goals, it can be a challenge to figure out where these lessons fit into the school day. Fortunately, as technology becomes part of every aspect of our lives, including how we teach and learn, more schools and districts are giving teachers the time and resources to prioritize these skills. Here are a few ways to approach cyberbullying prevention in the classroom:

  • Promote a positive and safe classroom culture. Whether or not you have technology in the classroom, setting norms of respectful communication sends a message to your students about what is and isn't acceptable. Find ways to demonstrate that your classroom is a safe, emotionally caring environment. Provide resources in the classroom to help students identify, respond to, and avoid cyberbullying. This could be tips on how to respond to cyberbullying (for elementary school or middle and high school) or the phone number for the Crisis Text Line.
  • Embrace teachable "dig cit" moments. Step up when you encounter a teachable moment related to cyberbullying or respectful online communication. Encourage students to pay attention to "red flag moments"—when something happens on digital media that makes them feel uncomfortable, worried, sad, or anxious. Explain to students the three ways they can and should respond if they witness cyberbullying: support the target of the bullying (be an ally); try to stop the cyberbullying (be an upstander); and/or tell a trusted adult (report it). It may not be part of your lesson plan, and it may set you off track for a bit, but every time you reinforce anti-cyberbullying messages, you're doing the critical work of cyberbullying prevention. And as hard as it may be to admit, ignoring these teachable moments also sends a message your students will remember.
  •  Incorporate lessons on cyberbullying into your existing curriculum. Find connections to the content you're already teaching and make time to address cyberbullying directly. From setting norms of online communication to using historical examples of propaganda and hate speech to discussing a bullying situation in a novel you're reading, the possible connections to cyberbullying can be made with a little planning. And since it's possible someone in class is dealing with cyberbullying, it's helpful to stay attuned and sensitive to students.
  • Advocate for a school- or district-wide digital citizenship program. The most effective cyberbullying prevention strategy has to involve the whole community. A fully integrated digital citizenship program gives teachers the time and resources to tackle these topics head-on, provides kids with consistent and frequent opportunities to build their skills, and supports families as they reinforce the messages at home.

What lesson plans and classroom resources are available to address cyberbullying?

The Common Sense K–12 Digital Citizenship Curriculum teaches students about the effects of cyberbullying on both themselves and their larger communities. They are encouraged to take the active role of upstander and build positive, supportive online communities, and they can learn how to cultivate empathy, compassion, and courage to combat negative interactions online.

Grades K–5:

Grades 6–8:

Grades 9–12:

How can teachers work with families to identify and prevent cyberbullying?

The first step is to communicate with your students' families about your expectations in the classroom and explain the skills you're helping students learn related to positive, responsible media use. When parents are informed and on board, they're more likely to reinforce the messages at home.

Since families often look to schools for guidance on dealing with cyberbullying, you can offer them the latest advice and resources on the topic. Spark a conversation by sending home these printable Family Tips or handing them out at meetings with parents and caregivers. You can also share resources in a classroom newsletter, on your class website or social feed, or at your next parent event.

Erin Wilkey Oh

Erin’s work focused on supporting students, teachers, and families for over a decade. As content director for family and community engagement at Common Sense, she provided parents and caregivers with practical tips and strategies for managing media and tech at home, and supports teachers in strengthening partnerships with families. Prior to her work with Common Sense, Erin taught public high school students and adult English learners in Kansas City. Her time as a National Writing Project teacher consultant nurtured her passion for student digital creation and media literacy. She has bachelor's degrees in English and secondary education and a master's degree in instructional design and technology. Erin loves to knit, read, hike, and bake. But who has time for hobbies with two young kids? In her free time these days, you'll find her hanging out at playgrounds, the zoo, and the beach with her family.