5 Reasons Youth Don't Report Cyberbullying—and What Parents Can Do About It

Youth are spending more time online due to COVID-19, both for school and for connecting with friends. Along with adjusting to learning and interacting with friends virtually, many young people may be feeling new emotions such as anxiety or isolation. This unprecedented time, combined with more time spent online, have the potential to increase cyberbullying.

For parents, as most of our children’s world is online right now, it’s more important than ever to be talking about cyberbullying. Cyberbullying is unique from traditional bullying, in that it has a larger audience and 24/7 access, which can complicate why children might not tell an adult about the situation. Here are five reasons why youth might not report cyberbullying to an adult, and what parents can do to help:

They are worried about their devices being taken away.

Remember it’s the bullying, not the technology, that needs to be addressed.

The online world offers youth a place to engage with their friends and peers outside of school. Technology allows young people to connect in a meaningful way, express creativity, and explore their interests. Because of the important role the online world plays, especially now, children may be hesitant to share the details of cyberbullying with an adult because they are afraid the adult response will be to take away their access to technology.

Let your child know that you recognize being connected online is a significant part of their lives, but you also want them to be safe and know how to handle cyberbullying. Make it clear that if they ever experience anything hurtful online and share that information with you, your response will be to work together to help them stay connected to peers while making their online world a safer place. 

They don’t view the online behavior as cyberbullying.

Help your child recognize the difference between “online conflict” and “cyberbullying.”

For some students, it can be hard to tell the difference between conflict and bullying, especially when it happens online. Youth might not want to report an online bullying situation to an adult because they think it’s just drama that will work itself out or they don’t recognize that mean behavior that happens on their phone is still bullying.

Talk about the difference between conflict and bullying with your child. Conflict is a disagreement or argument in which both sides express their views, whereas bullying is a negative behavior directed by someone in order to exert power and control over another person. A simple way to help your child understand the difference is by explaining that if someone is continually hurting them online, purposefully, then it’s likely cyberbullying.

Sharing examples can also help your child understand these different behaviors. Online conflict could include a misinterpreted emoji or a mean comment that was sent in the heat of the moment. Cyberbullying could include sharing an embarrassing photo without permission or constantly targeting someone in an online game. Even with definitions and examples, it’s still not always easy to tell the difference. Explain that if something hurtful is communicated online, it is important that they tell you so that you can work through the situation together.

They don’t know how to talk about it.

Make it comfortable for your child to talk about bullying.

Kids are told that if they see bullying or are being bullied, they should tell an adult. That is great advice, but it’s not something every child is prepared or able to do. It can be hard to talk about something emotional and serious with an adult. Some children can talk very directly about what’s happening, while others need time and encouragement.

Open-ended questions will help the child talk about their situation. Begin with questions that address the child’s environment. For example, “How was your bus ride today?” or, “Have you ever seen anyone being mean to someone else on the bus?” Then, move on to questions that directly affect the child such as, “Are you ever scared to get on the bus?” or, “Has anyone ever been mean to you on the bus?” Once they tell you, reinforce that talking about was the right thing to do and that, together, you will work to keep them safe.

The reason they are being bullied is very personal.

Be empathetic, and let your child know they are not alone and you are there for them.    

In our digital world, every movement can be recorded and shared. When that’s combined with our children’s decision-making skills, which are still maturing, the result may be your child being bullied because of something they did that was inappropriate or embarrassing. With the often-exponential pace of online sharing, the embarrassing moment has the potential to reach a much wider audience. It’s not easy to talk to parents about bullying, especially if a child is also struggling with feelings of remorse or guilt.

Kids make mistakes, and when others publicly ridicule and hurt someone for those errors in judgment, that’s a hard place for a child to be. If your child is being bullied because of their actions, know this: no one deserves to be bullied. Your first steps should be supportive and reinforce that you will be there for them. Rebuild their self-esteem and self-confidence while making a plan to address the bullying; then, address the behavior or actions that led to the bullying.

They think they should be able to fix it on their own.

Empower youth with self-advocacy skills.

One of the hallmarks of bullying is an “imbalance of power” between the person who is bullying and the target of the bullying. Examples in cyberbullying include an elevated social status, anonymity, or a group against an individual, which are all very difficult situations to resolve without adult intervention. While adult support is critical, it’s equally important to involve youth in the solution. 

Encouraging your child to learn self-advocacy skills—expressing their wants and needs—is an important life skill, which recognizes that while it’s never the responsibility of youth to stop bullying from happening to them, it’s important for them to be involved in how the situation is handled. This skill is important and helps children identify what they would like to happen, involves them in the decision-making process, and invests them in the solution. The Student Action Plan Against Bullying is a self-advocacy resource for students, with a helpful guide for adults.

Written by

PACER's National Bullying Prevention Center

Founded in 2006, PACER's National Bullying Prevention Center actively leads social change to prevent childhood bullying, so that all youth are safe and supported in their schools, communities and online. PACER provides innovative resources for students, parents, educators, and others, and recognizes bullying as a serious community issue that impacts education, physical and emotional health, and the safety and well-being of students.