By: Sarah Zucker, PsyD

Next month marks the anniversary of something tragic that did not have to happen. On October 10th of 2012, 15-year-old Amanda Todd, from British Columbia, was driven to suicide by years of online abuse, extortion, and cyberbullying. Todd’s YouTube video, which she created about a month before ending her life, is a heartbreaking last attempt at getting help and compassion. The video is still up and tells her story in her own words through a series of notecards. (In seventh grade, Todd succumbed to a year of pressure to flash her breasts to an adult man whom she got to know online, who then tormented her with the photo, making sure anyone he could reach at every new school she transferred to saw the picture and made her pay for her bad choice.) Even after her death, people still leave shockingly cruel comments suggesting Todd deserved what she got.

As therapists, we see plenty of cyberbullying. Way too much in fact. Some victims come to us purely by accident, and the bullying is uncovered during a psychological evaluation for a learning disorder or other academic-related concern. Some of our clients are the perpetrators, but most are the victims. And man is it vicious. Amanda Todd deserves to have her story told, but she is just one of many teens and young adults who have been driven to drastic action as a result of cyberbullying. Todd was, quite literally, bullied to death. With social media and other platforms to anonymously harass only growing, things look grim. So what more can we learn and what can we do about it?

Cyberbullying has become a full-blown mental health crisis. One study conducted in 2011 found that 16% of high school students had been electronically bullied within the last year. Kids who are cyberbullied cannot escape the abuse. Anonymous bullies are able to reach wide audiences instantaneously. These kids are often bullied offline as well, so avoiding technology does not fix the problem, as it is still occurring whether they log on or not. Victims of cyber-bullying are more likely to use alcohol and drugs, skip school, receive poor grades, have lower self-esteem, and have more mental and physical health problems.

The most effective way for parents to combat cyberbullying is to be keenly aware of their child’s activities online and to talk regularly about cyberbullying. This is true for both victims and perpetrators. Witnesses should not engage with the cyberbullies but should instead seek to preserve evidence and keep as detailed of a record of the abuse as possible, including dates and times. Cyberbullying often violates internet providers’ terms of use and should be reported to them, and then the victim should block the perpetrator. The most important step is going to the school and law enforcement, especially when cyberbullying includes these things, as they are crimes: threats of violence, child pornography, a video or photo that was taken without consent in a place where someone should have a reasonable expectation to privacy, and stalking or hate crimes.

Some warning signs that your child or loved one may be being bullied online include any changes in behavior that you find alarming. Listen to your instinct and seek help right away if you think something may be going on. Therapists in San Diego work with many victims (and perpetrators, as the roles are not always clearly defined), and can help you create a safety plan and provide support and tools to the victim, bystander, or perpetrator of bullying. Psychologists can also provide resources and create a plan should you face a mental health emergency, like if you’re worried your child is suicidal. Although most children who are bullied DO NOT consider suicide, if you have any reason to believe your child is thinking of hurting themselves or anyone else, do not wait for your next therapy appointment to get help. Seek help immediately by calling the San Diego Access and Crisis Line at 888-724-7240 or get your child to the nearest emergency room immediately. Therapy can only be helpful when the situation is stable and your child’s life is not in danger.

Preventing cyber-bullying is everyone’s responsibility. Kids are often reluctant to discuss being bullied or witnessing bullying because they fear further retaliation and feel humiliated. It’s not wise to assume it is just kids being kids and that they will eventually work things out on their own. You also don’t have to (and should not) wait until your child is the victim. If you see something, say something.