Cyberbullying is becoming more prevalent among children and teens, as young people now spend more time on phones, computers and digital devices. About 6 in 10 teens have been bullied or harassed online, according to Pew Research Center. Cyberbullying can occur via social media, text, email, instant messages and gaming platforms. It also frequently happens anonymously, making it even more difficult to address and prevent.
Yet the consequences of cyberbullying are serious: a recent study published in the medical journal Pediatrics found that several online risks factors, including cyberbullying, were associated with higher suicide-related behavior in young people. Suicide is the second leading cause of death among people aged 10 to 18 years in the U.S., with rates increasing nearly 62% from 1999 to 2018.
Historically, it’s been up to human moderators to manually censor offensive content—on social media platforms, for instance—but this is time-consuming and unreliable. Now, many platforms are using algorithms powered by artificial intelligence (AI) to detect and censor harmful content. Read on to find out more, and what parents, teachers and young people themselves can do to combat cyberbullying.
Examples of Cyberbullying and Who Is at Risk
Cyberbullying can be hard to pin down, since some young people may not consider name-calling or other common behaviors bullying. Also, some may be reluctant to report being bullied online, due to embarrassment or fear of repercussions.
The Pew study measured six specific incidents that teens might face online that the researchers considered cyberbullying:
- Offensive name-calling
- Being sent explicit images without their consent
- Having explicit images of themselves shared without their consent
- Having someone other than a parent constantly asking where they are, what they’re doing or who they’re with
- Physical threats
According to data published in October 2021 by the Cyberbullying Research Center, cyberbullying tends to peak at around 14 to 15 years old. Research on the relationship between gender and cyberbullying has been inconclusive, however, transgender teens report a higher incidence of cyberbullying. Males are more likely to be the perpetrators of cyberbullying.
Statistics show that cyberbullying frequently takes place on social media. According to Security.org, kids are the most likely to be cyberbullied on the following social media platforms:
These are just a few of the platforms that children and teens use, however. Here’s a more comprehensive list of popular social media apps and sites as of September 2021, according to StopBullying.gov. The more digital platforms a person uses, the more opportunities there are to encounter cyberbullying.
How Can Artificial Intelligence Combat Cyberbullying?
The TechTalks blog reports that AI is being used to address bullying and offensive content online, taking the burden off of human moderators. Specifically, social media companies are using machine learning, or software that learns from examples. Many companies are creating and training algorithms to detect hate speech and abusive language online.
According to the TechTalks blog, “the advantage such algorithms have over parental control software and keyword-spotting blockers is that they should recognize subtle and sarcastic comments—a task that the former solutions can’t cope with. Besides, the use of machine learning is necessitated because slurs and insults can often be, intentionally or not, misspelled.”
Meta, formerly Facebook, is one company that’s invested heavily in AI for content moderation, reported Fast Company.
“This AI resides in hundreds of servers in the company’s data centers. Complex neural networks trained to recognize toxic user content are called upon whenever a new post appears anywhere on Facebook, and asked to determine if the content violates any of the company’s community guidelines. Some look for hate speech, some look for misinformation, others look for bullying or nudity, and so on. While much of the inappropriate content is sent to human moderators for further action, some of it can be analyzed and then removed by AI alone.”
According to Fast Company, the company has made significant progress: In the second quarter of 2020, Facebook reported that it took down 104.6 million pieces of content that violated its community standards. That includes removing more than 22 million pieces of hate speech, compared to just 2.5 million hate posts two years prior. But the progress Facebook has seen in its natural language AI has not transferred over to similar progress in its computer vision AI’s ability to detect such content—meaning that images and multimedia cannot yet be effectively monitored.
How to Address Cyberbullying
While technology shows promise in helping to combat cyberbullying, there are many things young people, parents and teachers can do to address the problem as well.
Tips to Prevent Cyberbullying for Children and Teens
- IGNORE. It’s not easy, but don’t respond or react to negative comments or interactions online. According to StopBullying.gov, retaliating or trying to get revenge can escalate things or backfire and get you in trouble.
- RECORD. DitchTheLabel.org recommends documenting the bullying by taking screenshots, saving the chat log or keeping a record of the incident(s) in some other way in case the offending content is taken down by the bully before you report it.
- REPORT. Report bullying or abuse to your internet service provider, website moderator or social media platform. If you don’t get a response or resolution, you can report it to DitchTheLabel.org. The organization claims that it can have most abusive content removed within 48 hours.
- BLOCK. UNICEF points out that many platforms have created various options for users to restrict others from accessing their full profiles or commenting on their social media. Users should familiarize themselves with the options and use them if necessary.
Tips to Prevent Cyberbullying for Teachers and Educators
- StopBullying.gov encourages educators to be on the lookout for warning signs that a student is being cyberbullied, including noticeable increases or decreases in device use, showing emotional responses (laughter, anger, etc.) to what is happening on their device and hiding their screen when others are near.
- If you think a child is being cyberbullied, the website also encourages speaking to them privately to ask about it and/or reach out to their parent(s). Serve as a facilitator between the child, parent and the school if necessary.
- Request that students sign an Internet safety pledge promising that they will not cyberbully or share their personal information.
- Establish acceptable Internet use and anti-cyberbullying policies in school; many teens who are victims of cyberbullying know their victimizers from school.
- Advise parents to establish Internet use rules for their children, which should include tangible consequences.
Tips to Prevent Cyberbullying for Parents
- Talk with your children about some of the risks and benefits of the Internet, giving examples of inappropriate incidents which teens may view as harmless or normal (e.g., a stranger initiating a conversation regarding pictures your child has posted of themselves online).
- Check out websites, social media platforms and apps that your children use frequently to see what they encounter online.
- Communicate rules and responsibilities for online behavior and enforce consequences for inappropriate behavior.
- Tell your children or teens that it’s not their fault if they become victims of cyberbullying, but it is important for them to tell you if they are targeted. The main reason kids don’t disclose cyberbullying to adults is fear that their Internet privileges will be taken away.
- Help victims keep a record of bullying incidents in case the situation escalates and law enforcement needs to intervene. If cyberbullying involves threats and harassment or frequent cyberattacks, call the police to ensure your child’s safety (PDF 156 KB).
- ConnectSafely.org: A Parent’s Guide to Cyberbullying
- Cyberbullying Research Center
- Ditch the Label: Global Youth Charity
- Enough is Enough: Making the Internet Safer for Children and Families
- National Crime Prevention Council: Cyberbullying Information, Training and Resources
- Security.org: Cyberbullying Statistics and Resources