Cyberbullying: When the internet becomes a nightmare

What is cyberbullying and how can I know whether my child is affected? What should you do if it happens, and what motives do the bullies have? The expert Catarina Katzer explains the answers and much more in an interview


What is cyberbullying?

Catarina Katzer: Cyberbullying is when someone is targeted and harmed, ruined, marginalised or mentally worn down. The main difference between traditional bullying and cyberbullying is that the latter does not happen in everyday real life, but online through computers and smartphones.

What do cyberbullies do?

Bullying of this kind used to be restricted to text messages, but smartphones have since turned videos and photos into weapons for bullies. For example, compromising pictures might be shared with countless other people using apps like WhatsApp or Instagram without the permission of the person shown. Additionally, the current trend of selfies has made young people even more vulnerable, encouraging revealing and even sexist forms of self-presentation. At the same time, it is not uncommon on social networks like Facebook for fake profiles to be created with made-up information or for existing accounts to hacked. Cyberbullies sometimes create ‘hate groups’ on these networks in order to mock and humiliate their victims.

How many young people are affected by cyberbullying?

According to a study that I carried out for the Alliance Against Cyberbullying, it is fair to say that around 20% of 14- to 16-year-olds have been victims of cyberbullying.

What are the main differences between bullying in person and cyberbullying?

Unlike with traditional bullying, it is not ‘only’ a class or school that is involved in cyberbullying, but the whole online world. Victims have nowhere to take refuge, either. Bullies can enter their bedrooms using computers, mobile phones and other new technology. You can’t delete what happens in cyberspace, so there is endless victimisation. Content that causes problems can always resurface, even if it has been removed from the original plat-form. Another difference is that cyberbullies are unable to see their victims when they send their taunts, which means they cannot gauge the effects of their actions. It is worth noting that this factor plays a major role in the online world not only for young people but also for adults: as soon as we go online or enter a virtual space, we act differently and consider our own actions to be transgressive much less frequently.

Is that why the words used by cyberbullies are often very violent?

Yes, because such ‘disembodied’ actions cause people to lose their inhibitions and sense of empathy. Offenders cannot see their victims crying, but the tears are still very real. Another point is that virtual voyeurism means that Internet users have fewer scruples and can therefore be tempted to take part much more quickly.

What motivates the bullies? What do they get out of it?

Cyberbullying is related to traditional bullying. In most cases, play-ground bullying is extended to the online world. At other times, young people who are bullied at school become cyberbullies themselves in order to exact revenge. Studies show that many cyberbullies act out of boredom or even simply enjoy picking on others. Additionally, many users become copycats. They hope that imitating a popular person will result in a reward in the form of likes.

How can I tell if my child is affected?

It is very important to keep an eye on altered behaviour. For example, if children change their daily routine or eating habits or stop meeting up with their friends, parents should sit up and take notice. Naturally, many changes are linked to puberty, but it is also important to talk to your child about these.

What can parents do to combat cyberbullying?

One of the worst ways to respond is to apportion blame or ban children from using the Internet and their mobile phones. Parents need to look for solutions together with their children. It is important to contact the parents of the offender. If the situation doesn’t improve after this dialogue, it is possible to involve the school and teachers. As a final resort, you can discuss whether police action should be taken. Victims should also be given psychological support. Cyberbullying is a great mental burden for young people. Many of those affected later experience problems and anxiety when it comes to making new friends.

What preventative action can parents take?

Parents have to establish trust with their children, who should never feel that they are being interrogated only to have things for-bidden or confiscated. Instead, parents must understand that modern technology and new forms of communication are an in¬tegral part of life for their youngsters. This means they have to get their heads around issues concerning social networking. Children might be more au fait with the technology, but parents have life experience. Everything that happens online has a par¬allel in real life. For that reason, it is very important not to leave children alone without support or advice before they enter this dimension of the adult world.


Dr. Catarina Katzer  is a social psychologist and one of the world’s leading researchers in the field of cyberbullying and sexual violence online. She is an expert and works for various Council of Europe committees, the German Bundestag and government institutions in Germany and abroad. She is also a co-founder of the association Bündnis gegen Cybermobbing e. V.

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