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How Does Cyberbullying Work, in Detail?

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How Does Cyberbullying Work, in Detail?

Once it is determined that the action or communication constitutes “cyberbullying,” it falls into one of three categories. Cyberbullying involves direct attacks, cyberbullying-by-proxy attacks, and public posts and broadcasting of humiliating information or images.

Direct Attacks

  1. Instant Messaging/E-mail/Text Messaging Harassment
  2. Kids may send hateful or threatening messages to other kids without realizing that, even if not said in real life, unkind or threatening messages are hurtful and very serious.
  3. Warning/Report Abuse/Notify Wars—Many Internet Service Providers offer a way of reporting or “telling on” a user who is saying inappropriate things. Kids often engage in “warning wars” which can lead to kicking someone offline for a period of time. While this should be a security tool, kids sometimes use the Warn/Notify/Report Abuse buttons as a game or prank.
  4. A kid/teen may create a screen name that is very similar to another kid’s name. The name may have an additional “i” or one less “e.” It might use a lowercase “L” instead of the number “1.” They may use this name to say inappropriate things to other users while posing as the other person.
    • Text wars, text-bombs, or text attacks occur when kids gang up on the victim, sending thousands of text messages to the victim's cellphone or other mobile device. The victim is then faced with a huge cellphone bill and angry parents.
    • Kids send death threats using IM and text messaging as well as photos/videos (see below).

Stealing Passwords

  1. A kid may steal another child’s password and begin to chat with other people, pretending to be the other kid. He/she may say mean things that offend and anger this person’s friends or even strangers. Meanwhile, the others won’t know it is not really that person they are talking to.
  2. A kid may also use another kid’s password to change his/her profile to include sexual, racist, and inappropriate things that may attract unwanted attention or offend people.
  3. A kid often steals the password and locks the victim out of their own account.
  4. Once the password is stolen, hackers may use it to hack into the victim’s computer.
  5. A stolen password can allow the cyberbully to steal points, loot, and game “gold.”


Blogs are online journals. They are a fun way for kids and teens to post messages for all of their friends to see. However, kids sometimes use these blogs to damage other kids’ reputations or invade their privacy. For example, in one case, a boy posted a bunch of blogs about his breakup with his ex-girlfriend, explaining how she destroyed his life and calling her degrading names. Their mutual friends read about this and criticized her. She was embarrassed and hurt, all because another kid posted mean, private, and false information about her. Sometimes kids set up a blog or profile page pretending to be their victim and saying things designed to humiliate them.


  1. Children used to tease each other in the playground; now they do it on websites. Kids sometimes create websites that may insult or endanger another child. They create pages specifically designed to insult another kid or group of people.
  2. Kids also post other kids’ personal information and pictures, putting those people at a greater risk of being contacted or found.

Sending Pictures Through E-mail and Cellphones

  1. There have been cases of teens sending mass e-mails to other users that include nude or degrading pictures of other teens. Once an e-mail like this is sent, it is passed around to hundreds of other people within hours. There is no way of controlling where it goes.
  2. Many of the newer cellphones allow kids to send pictures to each other. The kids receive the pictures directly on their phones and may send them to everyone in their address books. After viewing the picture at a website, some kids have actually posted these often pornographic pictures online for anyone to see, spread, or download.
  3. Kids often take a picture of someone in a locker room, bathroom, or dressing room and post it online or send it to others on cellphones.

Internet Polling

Who’s hot? Who’s not? Who is the biggest slut in the sixth grade? These types of questions run rampant on the Internet polls, all created by yours truly—kids and teens. Such questions are often very offensive to others and are yet another way that kids can bully other kids online.

Interactive Gaming

Many kids today are playing interactive games on gaming devices such as Xbox 360 and Sony PlayStation 3, Nintendo DS, and Sony PSP. These gaming devices may allow students to communicate with anyone they find themselves matched with in an online game or people within a certain defined physical area. Sometimes the kids verbally abuse the other kids, using threats and lewd language. Sometimes they take it further, locking them out of games, passing false rumors about them, or hacking into their accounts.

Sending Malicious Code

Many kids will send viruses, spyware, and hacking programs to their victims. They do this to either destroy their computers or spy on their victim. Trojan horse programs allow the cyberbully to remotely control their victim’s computer and can be used to erase the victim's hard drive.

Sending Porn and Other Junk E-mail and IMs

Cyberbullies often will sign up their victims for e-mail and IM marketing lists, lots of them, especially porn sites. When the victim receives thousands of e-mails from pornographers, their parents usually get involved, either blaming them (assuming they have been visiting porn sites) or making them change their e-mail or IM address.


Posing as the victim, the cyberbully can do considerable damage. While posing as the victim, they may post a provocative message in a hate group’s chatroom or on their forum pages, inviting an attack against the victim, often giving the name, address, and telephone number of the victim to make the hate group’s job easier. They often also send a message to someone saying hateful or threatening things while masquerading as the victim. They may also alter a message really from the victim, making it appear that they have said nasty things or shared secrets with others.

Social Networking Attacks

Most teens (and many preteens) are using social networks such as MySpace and Facebook. They build a profile and share whatever they want to share with the world or their close friends. They post pictures and videos (especially on video networks like YouTube), pass rumors, exclude those they want to target, create quizzes and polls, and use anonymous networks (such as or applications such as Honesty Box to attack their victims. They impersonate their victims, take over their accounts, or report them to their school, parents, or the police.

Aside from cellphones, social networking is the technology of choice for cyberbullying and harassment.

Misappropriation of Cellphones

While the predominant method used to cyberbully someone through a cellphone is texting and prank calling, students are lifting an unattended cellphone and reprogramming it to do their dirty work. (See The Big Six, for more information about how cellphones are misused.)

Cyberbullying by Proxy (Third Party Cyberharassment or Cyberbullying)

Often people who misuse the Internet to target others do it using accomplices. These accomplices, unfortunately, are often unsuspecting. They know they are communicating irate or provocative messages, but don’t realize that they are being manipulated by the real cyberharasser or cyberbully. That’s the beauty of this type of scheme. The attacker merely prods the issue by creating indignation or emotion on the part of others, and can then sit back and let others do their dirty work. Then, when legal action or other punitive actions are taken against the accomplice, the real attacker can claim that they never instigated anything and no one was acting on their behalf. They claim innocence and blame their accomplices, unwitting or not; their accomplices have no legal leg to stand on.

It’s brilliant and very powerful. It is also one of the most dangerous kinds of cyberharassment or cyberbullying. Children do this often using AOL, MSN, or another ISP as their “proxy” or accomplice. When they engage in a “notify” or “warning” war, they are using this method to get the ISP to view the victim as the provocateur. A notify or warning war is when one child provokes another until the victim lashes back. When they do, the real attacker clicks the warning or notify button on the text screen. This captures the communication and flags it for the ISP’s review. If the ISP finds that the communication violated their terms of service agreement (which most do), they may take action. Some accounts allow several warnings before formal action is taken, but the end result is the same. The ISP does the attacker’s dirty work when they close or suspend the real victim’s account for a terms of service violation. Most knowledgeable ISPs know this and are careful to see if the person being warned is really being set up.

Sometimes children use the victim’s own parents as unwitting accomplices. They provoke the victim and, when the victim lashes back, they save the communication and forward it to the victim's parents. The parents often believe what they read and, without having evidence of the prior provocations, think that their own child “started it.”

This works just as easily in a school disciplinary environment.

Students may not understand that their attacks, if designed to hurt someone’s reputation, may be defamatory and subject them to discipline, lawsuits, and in some cases harassment charges. They may not understand that they can be tracked quite easily most of the time and held accountable for their actions. They may not understand that their actions may be a terms of service violation and cost them (or their family) their online accounts. They may repeat rumors and take action based on false information, and then find themselves facing liability when the person who started it all hides behind them. They should know that repeating lies, even if you read them online, is no excuse under the law.

WiredSafety advises not to respond to cyberbullying. So, it is important that we caution to all who believe things without confirming their accuracy not to confuse silence or failure to defend or rebut any rumors with an admission of guilt or confirmation that a lie told by someone is true. Sometimes silence is smarter, especially when the real fight may not occur online at all. The smarter ones don’t fight their battles in public online, not when defamation, cyberbullying or harassment is involved.

Just a reminder to teach students to thinkB4uClick. Otherwise they have become what they say they are fighting. They have become a cyberharasser or cyberbully themselves. Teach them not to be used. Teach them to use their heads.