Layer Cakes Can Prevent Cyberbullying

“R U gay, Robbie? I think you are!” “No one likes you,” “Stop skipping school pretending to be sick, just go kill yourself.”                   

Each week, Robert looks at his phone and finds 10 to 20 abusive text messages like these. He finds similar messages on Instagram and Snapchat calling him a loser. After months of keeping everything inside, one night he breaks down in tears in front of his mom at the dinner table. 

His mother, astonished, asks if he’s ok. Robert holds himself together enough to tell her he’s fine. He realizes that the only way to deal with the problem is to join in. He grabs his phone, pulls up an anonymous profile on Yik Yak, and pecks out a stream of insults to random users.

Cyberbullying has led to an increase in depression and suicide among young children. It’s a tremendous public health problem, but tweens and teens often don’t even realize they’re cyberbullying others. In addition, it’s a difficult problem to diagnose because children don’t like to talk about their online lives. So, how do we stop cyberbullying among youth?

In one study, researchers gave questionnaires to 2,186 middle and high school students. The aim of the study was to examine how frequently students were involved in cyberbullying and to understand the factors that contribute to bullying behavior. More specifically, the authors wanted to distinguish between three groups: victims, bullies, and bully–victims (i.e., students who reported both cyberbullying someone and being the victim of a bully).

Cyberbullying is a relatively new field of research, so it’s notable that this study included thousands of kids. What did the authors find?

First, a lot of students participate in cyberbullying! More than 30% of the participants identified as being a victim or a bully. More surprisingly, one in four students identified as being both a bully and victim during the previous three months.

When we look at these findings more closely, a few things are worth noting. First, in traditional bullying, bully–victims are usually the smallest group of concern, but in this study it was the most common group of students. Second, the authors found that girls were more often bully–victims. And finally, the three groups of children had some shared risk factors, including whether they shared passwords with their friends.

Other studies show that cyberbullying is practically an epidemic: 42% of teenagers with tech access reported being cyberbullied in the past year, and 81% of teens say bullying online is easier to get away with. As an adult, it can be easy to dismiss these statistics: spats usually erupt over trivial things like celebrities or gossip, and fights are sometimes forgotten the day after they begin. But it’s important to remember that cyberbullying often leads to face-to-face confrontations and some students become afraid to go to school.

So, what do these findings mean for parents and teachers? As soon as kids start controlling digital devices on their own, talk with them about the potential risks and rewards of online communication. As they grow older and more proficient with technology, you can add other elements to your talks. I refer to this as the “Layer Cake Method” of online education. For example, you can start with a base-layer talk about netiquette and then move on to topics like online predators, identity theft, and Internet porn. During these talks, it’s important to emphasize that anonymity makes it easier to be a bully, and that respect in online communication is just as important as it is in real life. Finally, being more open about the dangers of cyberbullying may help reduce the risk of young girls reciprocating with bullying behavior.  

Cyberbullying poses a serious challenge, but there are many resources available if you feel overwhelmed. Most importantly, there’s a clear protocol to follow when cyberbullying happens. Research shows that victims rarely share their experiences, so it’s up to authority figures to be aware of the fact that schools, technology providers, and local governments have policies in place that can help resolve problems before they get out of hand.

Sean Young PhD

Sean Young, PhD, MS is the Executive Director of the UCLA Center for Digital Behavior. I'm a scientist, innovator, and UCLA medical school professor. I study the science behind human digital behavior (see for more info about this field of research).I also assemble technology teams and solutions to improve UCLA Family Medicine patient care. For more info or to contact me: