The Origin of Cyberbullying + 5 Ways to Identify and Prevent It


With the rise of social media over the last two decades, cyberbullying has increasingly become a significant issue. It’s now not limited to children but includes teens and adults. Let’s reach back into history and uncover the origin of cyberbullying.

Cyberbullying started in the 1990s as internet-connected, personal computers became widely available on the consumer market. Incident rates increased, with 92% of cyberbullying attacks now attributed to social media. The 2007 Megan Meier case is one of the earliest documented examples of cyberbullying.

If you’re ready to make a difference in someone’s life–or even your own–the next few sections are invaluable resources. We’ll first define cyberbullying then look back at its origin. Then, we’ll turn our attention to discuss strategies to prevent it today.

What is Cyberbullying?

Cyberbullying is defined as the act of harassing another individual online–often anonymously–through messages, comments, or any other form of communication that involves the internet. Cyberbullying is distinct from other forms of harassment in that it happens in a virtual space. However, it can have an enormous impact on a person’s real-world life, often in more detrimental ways than traditional bullying.

How Is Cyberbullying Different from Bullying?

Unlike traditional bullying, which usually has to be done in person, those who are bullied online may find it nearly impossible to have any breaks from their bullies

  • Cyberbullies can remain anonymous behind usernames.
  • Social media networks aren’t supervised or chaperoned.
  • Cyberbullies can reach their victims at any time, day or night.
  • The reach of a cyberbully can be global.

The increased use of social media among young people has only exacerbated this issue. In fact, 45% of children will likely experience some form of cyberbullying and some point.

The Origins of Cyberbullying

Man using 1990s computer browsing forums without worrying about the origin of cyberbullying yet

A common myth around cyberbullying is that it is a new phenomenon that originated from modern social networks. This isn’t exactly true.

While social networks have undoubtedly led to the largest increase in cyberbullying, the problem dates back to the 1990s and some of the Internet’s first forums.  It followed the mobile revolution as text messages and mobile internet became commonplace.

First Documented Cases of Cyberbullying

Though cyberbullying really began in those online forums in the late nineties, the phenomenon didn’t really catch researchers’ attention until the mid-2000s. The first few known cases of suicides that resulted from cyberbullying caught the attention of researchers and advocates alike.

  • Megan Meier: In 2007, a 13-year-old girl tragically died due to harassment on Facebook. The harassment stemmed from a group of neighbors who created a fake profile named Josh Evans with the express purpose of tormenting the young girl.
  • Jessica Logan: One of the first known victims of cyberbullying via mobile phones; 18-year-old Jessica Logan committed suicide after nude photos of her were disseminated by her boyfriend to at least 7 different Ohio schools.
  • Hope Sitwell: Like the Logan case, 13-year-old Hope Sitwell had nude images of her sent out to six high schools in Florida. Unfortunately, this pattern of young women being sexually harassed through the dissemination of sensitive images is a trend that continues to this day.

After the Columbine school shooting, states began to pass anti-bullying laws. As more students began to have access to computers and cell phones, the bullying landscape changed drastically. The number of cases prompted some legislators to attempt to include cyberbullying in those state laws.

Are There Federal Laws That Apply to Cyberbullying?

Currently, there are no federal laws that directly apply to cyberbullying. However, there are some civil rights laws and Department of Education statutes that effectively address cyberbullying handled similarly to traditional bullying:

  • Civil Rights Act of 1963: Protects against harassment of individuals based on protected classes, from LGBTQ+ status to race, religion, and sex.
  • Individuals with Disabilities Education Act: Protects against anything that would prevent a child with disabilities from receiving an education–including harassment.
  • Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972: This explicitly protects students from harassment based on sex, regardless of gender identity.

Cyberbullying Laws Outside the USA

Cyberbullying is a global phenomenon. Therefore, countries around the world have developed laws that address it either implicitly or explicitly.

  • Australia: Under the Federal Nature of Law, cyberbullying crimes in Australia can sometimes face legal consequences. These consequences generally come from three means of prosecution; state intervention, “Articulate Industry of Codes,” or a lawsuit from the victim.
  • Canda: As a facet of Canada’s Education Act, cyberbullies can be suspended or expelled from school.
  • China: China requires that individuals register under their own names online.
  • Philippines: The Philippine government requires individual schools to create and enforce their own cyberbullying policies under the Under Republic Act 10627.
  • Sweden: Sweden is known for being one of the first countries to adopt anti-bullying laws. They require that schools have policies to combat all forms of bullying. Schools that do not comply can be taken to court.
  • United Kingdom: Depending on the severity of the offense, cyberbullying can lead to six months in jail and/or a hefty fine under the Malicious Communications Act. Schools are also required to have their own anti-bullying policies in place to receive funding.

Many other countries have passed cyberbullying laws at various levels of government. Despite the degree to which laws are in effect, countries worldwide struggle to curb online harassment.

Which Countries Have the Highest Rate of Cyberbullying?

India, Brazil, United States, Belgium, and South Africa are the countries with the highest rates of reported cyberbullying cases.

Comparitech interviewed more than 20,000 over several years. Survey respondents were asked to follow up questions with varying results.

CountryAre you aware of the concept of cyberbullying?Are laws enough to combat cyberbullying?
India63%26%
Brazil79%24%
United States85%30%
Belgium75%21%
South Africa88%29%

The message is clear: While there’s a high level of awareness of cyberbullying, citizens believe their national governments do not provide enough legislation and guidance towards limiting cyberbullying.

In the United States, New Hampshire, Alaska, Iowa, West Virginia, and Michigan had the highest reported rates of cyberbullying, according to Statistica. High school students surveyed reported that most incidents occurred “through chat rooms, instant messaging, websites, or texting.”

Five Ways You Can Identify and Prevent Cyberbullying Today

Teenage boy using smartphone being cyberbullied

Because cyberbullies often lurk behind a username’s anonymity and enjoy the lack of a present authority figure, it can be hard to identify when it is happening. Here are some signs to look for:

  1. Symptoms of emotional unrest, such as depression or anxiety: One out of every five students who experience bullying begin to consider suicide and are three to nine times more likely to attempt it.
  2. Notice sudden changes in smartphone use: Smartphone addiction is so prevalent in young people that when they stop using theirs, it is a sign something is going on.
  3. Notice when someone may be avoiding school or work: When cyberbullying occurs, it is viewable to the victim’s peers, leading to feelings of shame or fear. In fact, more than 50% of students were afraid to face their cyberbully in person in studies.
  4. Keep a strong communication line: Often, a person only becomes a bully when they are themselves in a bad spot emotionally and feel they have no other outlet. Maintaining good communication with your children or friends helps to prevent them from ever feeling that desperate.
  5. Create a positive environment: People in positions of power, like teachers, managers, and parents, have a great opportunity –and some would say responsibility– to create a positive environment. People who feel cared for and connected to others rarely resort to bullying and other antisocial behavior.

The above warning signs are mainly to help you identify a victim of cyberbullying. If you would like to identify a cyberbully, you should watch for antisocial behavior and overly guarded online privacy. Frequently, bullies use accounts that are either under a fake name or pseudonym.

What Are the Long-Term Effects of Cyberbullying?

Cyberbullying poses an increased risk of anxiety, depression, distress, and lower general well-being. The most significant impact occurs during adolescence, where internet-connected technology is at its highest use. Identification and support from family and school teachers have the highest chance of preventing cyberbullying’s harmful and lasting effects on young people.

These findings from an article published The International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, where researchers interviewed 1707 young adolescents.

Other Forms of Cyberbullying

Cyberbullying is an umbrella term that includes all manner of online harassment. Below we have listed seven different methods bullies use to attack their victims in digital spaces.

  1. Trolling: One of the most prevalent forms of cyberbullying, trolling is when bullies use inflammatory language with the full intent of sparking a reaction from their victim. This often happens in comments sections on social media such as YouTube or Facebook.
  2. Doxing/Outing: Doxing is when online bullies find personal information about their victims and publicly release it.
  3. Fraping: Fraping is when an adult takes over a child’s account to post highly inappropriate content.
  4. Cyberstalking: This is a particularly alarming form of cyberbullying. It can sometimes lead to a person being stalked in the real world. However, cyberstalkers will follow their victims’ online activities and use that knowledge to threaten or blackmail them.
  5. Trickery: Trickery is when a cyberbully pretends to be friendly with their victim only to get them to disclose private information that can be fuel for abuse. Members of the LGBTQ+ community have been significantly affected by this kind of bullying.
  6. Masquerading/Impersonating: This is when a person poses as their victim to post material that could get them into trouble.
  7. Flaming: This is when bullies use vulgar and, in some cases, violent language to verbally harass their victims through online messaging.

Final Thoughts

Cyberbullying began with the advent of online communication. As text messages and social networks exploded in popularity, it has affected over 40% of school children. There are currently no American federal laws to directly address cyberbullying. Family, friends, schools, and communities must pull together to limit the impact on victims’ mental health and death.

Together, by identifying both victims and cyberbullies, we can stop cyberbullying.

Mike Chu

Mike is a web developer and content writer living as a digital nomad. With more than 20 years of devops experience, he brings his "programmer with people skills" approach to help explain technology to the average user. Check out his full author bio by clicking here.

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