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Cyberbullying and internet addiction: causes, signs, and prevention

Reading time: 15 mins
monitor that says Internet

Cyberbullying is the act of performing bullying behavior via the use of digital devices. It can occur on social media, messaging, or gaming platforms. It involves using technology to harass, threaten, intimidate, or harm individuals.

Signs that someone might be experiencing cyberbullying include emotional distress, depression and anxiety, social withdrawal and isolation, changes in behavior, decline in academic or work performance, loss of interest, changes in sleep patterns, physical symptoms, obsession with online activity, self-esteem issues, suicidal thoughts, secrecy, and hiding, disruptions in dietary habits, and a decrease in self-esteem.

On the other hand, signs that someone may be an abuser (cyberbully) encompass frequent aggressive online behavior, the creation of multiple fake profiles, an obsession with a specific target, a lack of empathy or remorse for their actions, deriving satisfaction from causing harm, and defensive behavior when confronted.  

The causes of cyberbullying include a lack of empathy, a desire for power and control, revenge, peer pressure, deficient digital communication skills, escapism, seeking entertainment, and inadequate regulation. These factors can lead individuals to engage in hurtful online behaviors without understanding the emotional harm they cause. 

Cyberbullying prevention requires an integrated strategy involving education and awareness, healthy online behaviors, parental guidance, privacy and security settings, report and block tools, digital balance, support programs, and professional guidance. Education and awareness initiatives are essential to helping people recognize and understand cyberbullying, its effects, and effective response strategies.

What is internet addiction?

Internet addiction is a behavioral addiction characterized by the excessive and obsessive use of the internet, often resulting in adverse outcomes and actions. These actions lead to adverse consequences or emotional distress, as stated by Martha Shaw and Donald W. Black in the 2008 CNS Drugs issue, titled “Internet addiction: definition, assessment, epidemiology, and clinical management.”

Internet addiction (IA) is also known as internet addiction disorder (IAD), compulsive computer use, pathological internet use, and internet dependence. While not formally acknowledged as a condition in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), the connection between mental health and internet addiction has been a topic of deliberation among professionals. 

Trigo M. highlights this discussion on internet addiction and its parallels to problematic substance use in the article “Internet addiction disorder: When technology becomes a problem,” published in the European Psychiatry Journal in August 2021. The diagnosis of internet addiction is a topic of debate, encompassing discussions about whether it represents a distinct clinical condition or merely emerges as a symptom of other psychiatric disorders.

What is cyberbullying in internet addiction?  

laptop, pencil and notebook

Cyberbullying is bullying that takes place when a person spends too much time online and relies heavily on digital communication tools. According to a study published in the November 2021 issue of Psychiatry Research titled “Cyberbullying victimization and depression among adolescents: A meta-analysis”, cyberbullying encompasses the use of digital communication platforms, such as social media, messaging applications or online gaming groups, as a means to engage in acts of harassment, intimidation, or violence against others. 

Individuals who exhibit addiction to the internet may have an increased vulnerability to engaging in cyberbullying activities as a result of their extended involvement in online environments and the prevalent anonymity provided by the Internet.

In the context of internet addiction, cyberbullying becomes a significant concern due to how it perpetuates and exacerbates addictive online behaviors. Individuals addicted to the internet may spend excessive amounts of time on social media or online platforms, making them more vulnerable to encountering or participating in cyberbullying incidents.

Why is internet addiction associated with cyberbullying?

Internet addiction is associated with cyberbullying due to the heightened online presence and interaction of individuals addicted to the internet, increasing their likelihood of encountering and engaging in harmful cyberbullying behaviors. Individuals addicted to the internet tend to spend extended periods online, particularly on social media platforms, where cyberbullying incidents are prevalent. 

While cyberbullying was initially regarded as an extension of traditional bullying utilizing digital means, its definition has remained a subject of ongoing debate and reevaluation. In the 2010 edition of Computers in Human Behavior titled “Following you home from school: A critical review and synthesis of research on cyberbullying victimization”, Robert Tokunaga defined the core concept of cyberbullying as the persistent use of electronic or digital means by individuals to repeatedly convey hurtful or aggressive messages aimed at causing discomfort or harm to others. Internet addiction can play a role in this dynamic by providing individuals with a platform for constant online interactions and a sense of anonymity that can encourage harmful behavior.

People addicted to the internet might find it easier to engage in cyberbullying due to their perceived detachment from real-world consequences and their ability to remain hidden behind a screen. Their constant online presence can lead to increased opportunities for cyberbullying, as they may become more involved in online conflicts or might target others for entertainment or personal satisfaction.

How does social media addiction relate to cyberbullying?

two laptops on a desk and hands typing on one of them

Social media addiction relates to cyberbullying through increased exposure and interactions on digital platforms, amplifying both the risk of encountering cyberbullying and the potential for individuals to engage in harmful behaviors.

According to the study by Whittaker and Kowalski conducted in 2014 “Cyberbullying Via Social Media”, which was published in the Journal of School Violence, social media platforms serve as one of the primary avenues for cyberbullying. Individuals tend to spend excessive time on social networking sites, creating an environment where cyberbullying is more likely to occur. Social media addiction tends to be more prevalent among younger age groups, making them more susceptible to cyberbullying on these platforms.

Kircaburun et al. supported this statement in the study titled “Problematic online behaviors among adolescents and emerging adults: Associations between cyberbullying perpetration, problematic social media use, and psychosocial factors”, published in the International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction in 2019. The findings suggested that cyberbullying involves intentional and repetitive hostile behavior. Social media addiction can fuel obsessive behaviors and compulsive use of online platforms, making individuals more likely to engage in repetitive cyberbullying actions as they seek to maintain their online presence and dominance.

How does internet addiction influence cyberbullying?

Internet addiction influences cyberbullying in the ways listed below.  

  • Increased exposure to online platforms: Increased exposure to online platforms refers to the growing amount of time individuals spend engaging with digital media, where cyberbullying can occur. In the research titled “The Relationship Between Internet Addiction, Cyberbullying and Parental Attitudes,” published in the 2022 edition of The Journal Of Pediatric Research, a bidirectional connection between cyberbullying and internet use was identified, suggesting an increased likelihood of cyber victimization among youths engaged in cyberbullying behaviors leading to the expression of hostility and aggression.
  • Disinhibition effect: The disinhibition effect occurs when people feel less restricted and more open online than in person. This effect can contribute to cyberbullying tendencies because the internet provides anonymity and detachment from consequences. Individuals might engage in cyberbullying, assuming they are anonymous, but their actions can be traced back to them.
  • Social skills deficits: Social skills deficits refer to difficulties or inadequacies in an individual’s ability to effectively and appropriately interact with others in social situations. Due to reduced face-to-face interactions, internet addiction might lead to a lack of well-developed social skills. In a study titled “Correlational study on cyberbullying and social abilities in intercultural teenagers,” published in the July 2022 edition of the Frontiers in Psychology journal, a team of specialists found that intercultural teenagers who lack adequate social skills tend to be involved in cyberbullying incidents that revolve around racist or xenophobic encounters.
  • Escapism and anonymity: Escapism refers to the tendency to escape from the challenges, responsibilities, or realities of everyday life by immersing oneself in alternative activities, environments, or fantasies. A study titled “Escapism and excessive online behaviors: A three-wave longitudinal study in Finland during the COVID-19 pandemic” published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health in 2022, investigated the relationship between escapism and excessive online behaviors, such as gambling, gaming, and internet use. Escapism was identified as a key driver behind these behaviors. 
  • Echo chambers and group norms: An echo chamber refers to a situation in which individuals or groups are exposed only to information, opinions, or ideas that reinforce and echo their existing beliefs, values, and perspectives. DiGi CyberSAFE’s survey results showed some startling statistics, including the fact that 27% of children had experienced online bullying. In comparison, 13% reported being bullied daily, as reported in the January 2021 issue of the Asian Journal of University Education (AJUE), Volume 17, titled “Cyber Aggression-Victimization Among Malaysians Youth”. 
  • Compulsive behaviors: Internet addiction is characterized by compulsive behaviors, and this impulsivity can extend to cyberbullying. According to  the 2020 issue of Frontiers in Psychology, titled “Cross-National Associations Among Cyberbullying Victimization, Self-Esteem, and Internet Addiction: Direct and Indirect Effects of Alexithymia”, compulsive internet users are socially isolated and lack social support and bonding; therefore, they attempt to mitigate for these social deficiencies by engaging in excessive cyberbullying activities.
  • Emotional desensitization: Emotional desensitization refers to a process in which individuals become less sensitive or responsive to emotions over time, contributing to cyberbullying as they do not fully grasp the harm they are causing to others. In a 2020 study published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, titled “Relationship between Emotional Intelligence, Social Skills and Peer Harassment, A Study with High School Students”, experts revealed a noteworthy correlation between lower levels of emotional intelligence and heightened occurrences of aggressive and criminal behavior in high school students. 
  • Reinforcement of negative behaviors: Reinforcement of negative behaviors refers to the concept where undesirable and harmful actions are strengthened or amplified by subsequent consequences. In the article titled “Cyberbullying as a Learned Behavior: Theoretical and Applied Implications” the author, Christopher P. Barlett, Department of Psychological Sciences, Kansas State University, claimed that cyberbullying is a learned behavior that becomes automated over time via experience and reinforcement. If an individual receives attention or validation for cyberbullying behaviors, they might be inclined to continue such actions to maintain that reinforcement.

How does social media affect cyberbullying?

Social media affects cyberbullying by providing a conducive environment for the anonymity, disinhibition, and rapid spread of harmful content. 

The ways in which social media affects cyberbullying are listed below.

  • Anonymity: Social media platforms offer perpetrators a veil of anonymity, making it easier for them to engage in hurtful behaviors without immediate consequences
  • Disinhibition: The lack of face-to-face interaction and the relative anonymity can give people the confidence to behave in ways they wouldn’t in offline situations.
  • The rapid spread of content: The speed at which content spreads on social media can intensify the impact of cyberbullying, as hurtful messages or content can rapidly reach a large audience, causing emotional distress and psychological harm to victims.

How common is cyberbullying on the internet?

guy holding a tablet

Over 30% of students worldwide have experienced bullying, with one in ten falling victim to cyberbullying, as claimed in UNESCO’s report titled “Behind the numbers: Ending school violence and bullying,” published in 2019 by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization. Notably, in countries like India, the reported prevalence of cyberbullying reached as high as 37% in 2018.

According to the UNICEF report from September 2019, cyber violence on the internet affected more than 50% of adolescents in the Philippines between the ages of 13 and 17, with prevalence rates for males (44%) and females (43%) being nearly equal.

How common is cyberbullying among teenagers on the internet?

Around 50% of American teenagers have experienced online bullying or harassment, according to the Pew Research Center’s report, “Teens and Cyberbullying 2022“. The study highlighted that the most commonly recorded type of mistreatment is name-calling, with approximately 32% of teens reporting that they have faced offensive name-calling through the internet or on their mobile devices. Furthermore, smaller percentages of those surveyed mention instances of encountering false rumors spread about them online (approximately 22%) or receiving explicit images without their consent (around 17%).

From 2007 to 2019, the percentage of individuals who have encountered cyberbullying at some point in their lives more than doubled, rising from 18% to 37%, as stated in the Bullying Statistics by Pacer’s National Bullying Prevention Center in 2020. Middle school students are the most likely to report cyberbullying, followed by high school students and primary school students. Approximately 15% of students aged 12–18 reported bullying online or by text. The prevalence of cyberbullying has witnessed a significant increase over the years.

What are the types of cyberbullying on the internet?

The types of cyberbullying on the internet are listed below.

  • Harassment: Harassment refers to the act of repeatedly sending hurtful, offensive, or threatening messages to the victim to cause distress.
  • Flaming: Flaming refers to the act of engaging in heated online arguments or debates, often using aggressive language to provoke emotional responses.
  • Exclusion: Exclusion refers to the act of deliberately excluding an individual from online groups, chats, or activities to isolate and ostracize them.
  • Outing: Outing refers to the act of sharing someone’s private or embarrassing information, photos, or videos online without their consent to embarrass or humiliate them.
  • Doxing: Doxing refers to the act of revealing and disseminating personal information about someone, such as their address or contact details, with malicious intent.
  • Impersonation: Impersonation refers to the act of creating fake profiles or using someone else’s identity online to spread false information or engage in harmful behaviors.
  • Cyberstalking: Cyberstalking refers to the act of persistently tracking and following an individual online, often through various platforms, to instill fear and anxiety.
  • Trolling: Trolling refers to the act of posting inflammatory or offensive comments with the intention of provoking emotional reactions from others.
  • Cyberthreats: Cyberthreats refer to the act of sending threats of physical harm, violence, or even death through digital channels.
  • Catfishing: Catfishing refers to the act of creating a fake online persona to deceive and manipulate others emotionally.

What are the most common ways cyberbullying happens on the internet?

The most common ways of cyberbullying on the internet are listed below.

  • Harassment: Harassment is a form of cyberbullying that includes engaging in harassment through text attacks or conflicts, in which a group of individuals sends hostile messages to a victim.

According to the 2021 Pew Research Center survey of U.S. adults, titled “The State of Online Harassment”, about 41% of Americans have personally experienced some form of online harassment. A growing number of Americans report experiencing more severe forms of harassment, including physical threats, stalking, sexual harassment, and constant harassment. In 2014, 15% of Americans experienced such issues, and the statistics slowly rose (18%) by 2017. 

  • Impersonation: Impersonation refers to the act of pretending to be someone else in a manner that can be harmful or malicious, often through the unauthorized use or distribution of personal content or information online. This may involve sharing explicit images on photo-sharing platforms, making them accessible to a broad online audience. Another form of impersonation is sending out mass emails or text messages containing nude or demeaning pictures of the victim, often with malicious intent. 
  • Video shaming: Video shaming refers to posting or sharing embarrassing, explicit, or private video content without consent. This content may be intended to shame or humiliate the victim.  Sharing a video with the victim via mass email or text message to humiliate and disgrace them happens quite often, too.

What are the causes of cyberbullying on the internet? 

The common causes of cyberbullying on the internet are listed below.

  • Lack of empathy: Lack of empathy is the inability to understand and share the feelings of others, and it can cause cyberbullying by enabling individuals to engage in hurtful online behaviors without recognizing or caring about the emotional harm they inflict on their victims.
  • Desire for power and control: Desire for power and control is the motivation to exert dominance or authority over others, and it can cause cyberbullying by driving individuals to use online platforms to manipulate, intimidate, and harm others, fulfilling their need for control and superiority in the virtual realm.
  • Revenge: Revenge refers to seeking punishment for a perceived injustice or harm, and it can lead to cyberbullying when individuals use online platforms to harm, harass, or seek vengeance against someone they believe has wronged them, often without considering the repercussions of their actions.
  • Peer pressure: Peer pressure refers to the phenomenon where individuals within a particular social group influence one another to conform to certain norms, behaviors, or expectations. In the context of cyberbullying, it can lead individuals to engage in online harassment or bullying to fit in or gain social approval within their peer group.
  • Digital communication skills: Digital communication skills refer to the ability to effectively and respectfully communicate in online environments. The absence of those skills can contribute to cyberbullying by enabling individuals to engage in hurtful, disrespectful, or offensive behaviors when interacting with others online.
  • Escapism: Escapism is the desire to escape actual life by means of mental or emotional activity. It can contribute to cyberbullying when individuals use online platforms as an outlet for their own frustrations, projecting their negative emotions onto others in a harmful way.
  • Entertainment: Entertainment involves fun and pleasure. It can cause cyberbullying when people insult, harass, mock, or humiliate someone for fun.
  • Inadequate regulation: Inadequate regulation refers to a need for more practical rules, policies, or oversight in the online environment. It can cause cyberbullying by creating an environment where harmful behaviors can thrive without consequences.

What are the risks of cyberbullying and internet addiction? 

The risks for the victims of cyberbullying and internet addiction are listed below.

  • Psychological and emotional effects: Psychological and emotional effects refer to the impact that specific experiences and events can have on a person’s mental and emotional well-being, causing severe mental distress for the victims of cyberbullying and internet addiction. UNICEF’s report on “Perils and Possibilities: Growing Up Online” from June 2016 highlighted cases where cyberbullying led to severe psychological distress among adolescents, with some instances of teenagers experiencing depression, anxiety, and even suicidal thoughts due to online harassment.
  • Isolation and loneliness: Isolation and loneliness refer to being socially disconnected and emotionally isolated from others, leading to feelings of solitude and emptiness. Isolation and loneliness can be risk factors for cyberbullying by making individuals more vulnerable to negative online experiences and more susceptible to engaging with potential cyberbullies.
  • Impact on academic and professional life: Cyberbullying can disrupt a person’s ability to concentrate and perform well in school or at work. A 2016 book on “Preventing Bullying Through Science, Policy, and Practice”, published by the National Academies Press (US) indicates that victims of bullying have lower academic performance, whether assessed through grades or standardized test results, on days when they were bullied. 
  • Physical health concerns: Individuals might experience headaches, chest pain, back pain, nausea, or fatigue due to stress caused by cyberbullying or internet addiction.
  • Self-harm and suicidal thoughts: In extreme cases, victims of cyberbullying might contemplate self-harm or suicide as a way to escape the torment. A study published in 2014 by the JAMA Pediatrics journal, “Cyberbullying Victimization and Mental Health in Adolescents and the Moderating Role of Family Dinners”, found that adolescents who were victims of cyberbullying were more likely to report self-harm behaviors and suicidal thoughts. 
  • Difficulty in reporting and addressing: Victims of cyberbullying might find it challenging to report and address the issue, especially if they fear retaliation or if the platforms are not responsive. This can prolong the period of victimization and exacerbate its effects.
  • Revenge and escalation: Revenge and escalation refer to cases where victims retaliate against their bullies or become bullies themselves to cope. This can lead to a cycle of revenge and escalation, perpetuating harmful behaviors.
  • Family and peer relationships: Cyberbullying can strain relationships with family members and friends, particularly if they do not understand the severity of the issue or how to provide support.

Can cyberbullying lead to adverse mental health effects?

girl sitting in front of laptop with her head on it.

Yes, cyberbullying can lead to adverse mental health effects. Research on “Bullying, Cyberbullying, and Suicide” in the 2010 issue of the Archives of Suicide Research sheds light on the link between cyberbullying and mental health. In their study, the researchers, Sameer Hinduja and Justin W. Patchin, found a concerning association between cyberbullying, mental illness, and, in severe cases, suicidal ideation among adolescents, making it evident that cyberbullying is not a mere online nuisance but a serious threat to mental health.

They revealed that victims of cyberbullying were more likely to experience thoughts of self-harm and suicide. The prolonged stress and humiliation that cyberbullying causes can exacerbate mental illness, which includes a variety of conditions affecting an individual’s emotional and psychological well-being. Such experiences can contribute to the development or worsening of conditions like depression, anxiety, and even post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

What are the symptoms of internet cyberbullying?

The symptoms of internet cyberbullying exhibited by victims are listed below.

  • Emotional distress: The victim may experience heightened levels of stress, anxiety, depression, or even panic attacks due to cyberbullying.
  • Social withdrawal and isolation: Victims might start isolating themselves from online and offline friends and family to avoid further exposure to bullying.
  • Changes in behavior: Victims of cyberbullying might exhibit noticeable changes in behavior, such as becoming more irritable, moody, or overly sensitive.
  • Decline in academic or work performance: Cyberbullying can impact a person’s ability to concentrate, leading to a decrease in school or work performance.
  • Loss of interest: The emotional toll that cyberbullying has taken on the victim may cause them to lose interest in past hobbies.
  • Changes in sleep patterns: Cyberbullying can disrupt sleep, leading to insomnia, nightmares, or other sleep-related disturbances.
  • Physical symptoms: The stress and emotional toll of cyberbullying can lead to physical symptoms like headaches and stomachaches or even exacerbate pre-existing health issues.
  • Obsession with online activity: In an attempt to monitor the bullying, victims might become overly focused on their online presence, constantly checking messages, comments, or posts.
  • Self-esteem issues: Cyberbullying can significantly blow up self-esteem and self-worth, causing the victim to question their value and contributions
  • Suicidal thoughts: In severe cases, victims may experience thoughts of self-harm or suicide. It is essential to take any such threats seriously and seek help immediately.
  • Secrecy and hiding: Victims might hide their online activity or emotional state from parents, teachers, or friends.

Does cyberbullying impact mental health?

Yes, cyberbullying impacts mental health. The 2014 research by Nixon CL titled “Current perspectives: the impact of cyberbullying on adolescent health published in Adolescent Health, Medicine and Therapeutics Journal” indicated that cyberbullying is closely linked to severe mental health challenges among adolescents, leading to substantial effects on their depression, anxiety, self-esteem, emotional well-being, substance use, and suicidal tendencies.

How to prevent cyberbullying and internet addiction?

To prevent cyberbullying and internet addiction, it is necessary to create a safer and more respectful online environment. Strategies for preventing cyberbullying and internet addiction are listed below.

  • Education and awareness: Providing information about cyberbullying, its effects, and how to identify and respond to it is crucial. UNESCO has instituted the International day against violence and bullying at school, including cyberbullying to be observed on the first Thursday of November annually, as stated in UNESCO’s November 2020 press release
  • Healthy online behaviors: Encouraging responsible and respectful communication online and fostering empathy and kindness among internet users is essential for creating a safer online environment.
  • Parental guidance: Involving parents in their children’s online activities, setting rules, and promoting open communication within the family are effective measures to protect children from cyberbullying and internet addiction.
  • Privacy settings and security: Teaching individuals to use privacy settings, strong passwords, and secure online practices is essential to reduce their vulnerability to cyberbullying and online threats.
  • Report and block tools: Empowering users to report cyberbullying incidents and block offenders on various platforms can help create a safer online space.
  • Digital balance: Promoting a healthy balance between online and offline activities is vital to reduce the risk of internet addiction and its associated problems, including cyberbullying.
  • Support programs: Creating support networks where peers can help each other address cyberbullying and internet addiction provides a valuable resource for those in need.
  • Professional guidance: Offering counseling and therapy for individuals struggling with both cyberbullying and internet addiction can provide them with the necessary support to overcome these challenges.

Is raising awareness about cyberbullying and internet addiction effective in prevention?

woman with glasses sitting in front of computer

Yes, raising awareness about cyberbullying and internet addiction is effective in its prevention. While it might not completely eradicate these issues, it is crucial to mitigate their impact and foster a safer online environment. 

Ideally, comprehensive strategies like education in schools, counseling services, and involving technology companies in promoting safer online spaces should go hand in hand with raising awareness. Ultimately, awareness campaigns initiate a positive chain reaction that leads to informed decisions, supportive communities, and a healthier digital landscape.

A 2020 study published in the Trauma, Violence, & Abuse journal and titled “The Effectiveness of Educational Interventions on Traditional Bullying and Cyberbullying Among Adolescents: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis” focused on the impact of an awareness and prevention program on cyberbullying behaviors among adolescents. The researchers implemented a program that aimed to increase students’ awareness of cyberbullying’s consequences, promote empathy, and enhance coping strategies.

The study results showed that students who participated in the program reported lower levels of cyberbullying perpetration and victimization compared to those who did not participate. This suggests that raising awareness about the consequences of cyberbullying and providing strategies to address it can effectively reduce its occurrence.