The cyberbullying message read
“Girly, scrawny, and ugly” 

The words flashed on Ryan’s phone as he opened up his messages. It was a screenshot from a group chat of a dozen members in his grade. Ryan is a middle schooler at Stratford Middle School in San Jose. His brow furrowed in confusion, Who are they talking about? Why was this sent to me? 

In shock, Ryan saw the first message mentioning his name, and his eyes filled with tears. Seconds later, another screenshot popped up. He clicked on the new message, hoping this was some sort of prank. A new series of text messages. Same profile pictures, and the same anonymous names. He scanned the screenshot. The same person who previously name-called him fabricated a lie that he had a crush on a guy. With social media’s ability to send information to hundreds of people within a matter of seconds, this rumor didn’t stay silent for long. 

Ryan figured that by the next morning, he would still be able to seek refuge with his close friends. But when he walked into school the next day and smiled at his friends in the hallways, they walked right past him. Others turned their heads, whispering.

At lunch, he went to the spot where he usually sat with friends every day. He sat waiting. Two minutes passed. Three. Then those minutes faded into the entire lunch hour. They did not show. 

Shunned, ignored, and ostracized because of a rumor, Ryan felt defeated and hurt. He realized that because of a single lie perpetuated online by one of his peers online, in a matter of seconds, he had lost his entire friend group, which took him years to build up. 

Why is it so easy to cyberbully?

In this age of social media, it’s not uncommon for teens to experience cyberbullying. According to a Pew Research Survey 2022, 46% of teens aged 13 to 17 have reported experiencing 1 of 6 cyberbullying behaviors. While traditional bullying is still more prevalent in today’s world, cyberbullying has become an increasing threat. 

A leading reason why cyberbullying has become commonplace is that its online environment and sense of anonymity protect bullies from the consequences of their actions. It takes less than a minute for anyone to create an anonymous account by simply adding an email and making a password.

Cyberbullying spiked during the pandemic

Cyberbullying increased dramatically during the pandemic as more children and teens spent time at home and on their phones. A  study by L1GHT, a company that specializes in analyzing and filtering cyberbullying online, reported there was a “70% increase in hate between kids and teens in online chats” as well as a “40% increase in toxicity on popular gaming platforms” during the pandemic. 

As accusations against China for starting COVID-19 grew, L1GHT noted a spike in online hate towards the Chinese community – a whopping 900% increase in hate speech directed towards China and the Chinese community on Twitter.

Mental health impact

But hate speech isn’t harmless. Often, people simply discount cyberbullying and overlook the reality of its negative impact on teens by saying. “A single text message doesn’t mean anything,” Speaking from experience, most teenagers do think it means something. 

In a study of over 15,000 respondents, nearly 64% of students who experienced cyberbullying felt that it heavily impacted their capacity to feel safe and learn at school. In 2017,  Ditch the Label, an annual bullying survey, reported that after being cyberbullied, 26% of respondents had suicidal thoughts and 25% self-harmed. 

Cyberbullying messaging in schools – the reality

So what are schools doing about this scary but truthful reality? I’m sure that school students  have sat through “Digital Citizenship” lessons and watched videos on the “Impacts of Cyberbullying.” But despite these lessons, people don’t seem to care. AT ALL. Each time I’ve been through this unit in school, people roll their eyes, sleep off, or laugh during the videos. Even if people actually listen to the information, cyberbullying still occurs. 

I reached out to three high school students to understand why students don’t pay attention to the cyberbullying unit during the school year. One said, “They’re boring.” Another echoed that sentiment, “They were boring and weren’t really entertaining, so I thought they didn’t really matter.” The third explained that they “didn’t care,” adding, “I’m not getting cyber bullied and I’m not bullying anyone so it doesn’t affect me.” 

So what should be done? How should schools work to make sure students actually understand why these units matter? 

To fix the accusation that the lessons are “boring”, schools need to develop more modern videos. At my school, the video’s date from the early 2000s or 2010s. They are low-quality videos and use outdated references. Schools need to rotate the videos and lessons. I’ve watched the same exact YouTube videos and answered the same Digital Citizenship tests from the government for years – I’ve basically memorized the entire script and every answer!

Why should we care?

There’s only one way to make students actually care. Attach a grade. Students equate the day-long cyberbullying unit to a free period. By making it a graded unit, schools could incentivize students to listen. 

Cyberbullying victims face a dilemma. Schools urge them to tell a trusted adult, but it can often feel embarrassing. I get that. Personally, I feel that victims shouldn’t have any responsibility or be held accountable for not speaking up about what’s going on. Instead, it’s up to educators and parents to foster a close enough connection to a child or teenager, so that they can reach out for help without hesitation.

Ryan did not feel comfortable enough to reach out to a trusted adult for help. He explained that he “waited out” the situation for over a month before his peers didn’t care about the incident anymore.

 Kids like Ryan should not have to deal by themselves with the mental health struggles inflicted by cyberbullying. I hope we can reach a point one day where cyber bullies are held accountable for the damage they do.

Photo by Adrian Swancar on Unsplash

This resource is supported in whole or in part by funding provided by the State of California, administered by the California State Library in partnership with the California Department of Social Services and the California Commission on Asian and Pacific Islander American Affairs as part of the Stop the Hate program. To report a hate incident or hate crime and get support, go to CA vs Hate.

Kaashvi Mittal is a rising sophomore at Saint Francis High School. Her interests include computer science, AI, and writing!