Tools and Strategies

How Tweens Experience Cyberbullying

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Did you know that “tweens” (pre-teenagers between nine- and twelve-years-old) are increasingly getting and using smartphones, digital devices, social media and gaming apps? Although thirteen is the required minimum age for the major social media platforms (i.e., Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, TikTok), younger children are getting accounts and spending time on these platforms. And they are experiencing, witnessing and engaging in cyberbullying. 

What is Bullying and Cyberbullying?

Bullying is defined as: “Repeated actions or threats of action directed toward a person by one or more people who have (or are perceived to have) more power or status than their target in order to cause fear, distress or harm. (Elementary-age definition is: “When a person or a group behaves in ways—on purpose and over and over—that make someone feel hurt, afraid or embarrassed.”) Cyberbullying is “The intentional and repeated mistreatment of others through the use of technology, such as computers, cell phones and other electronic devices.” In other words, cyberbullying is bullying that takes place in digital spaces. 

Not all mean, rude, unkind or harmful behavior is bullying. To be considered bullying, all three components must be present: (1) repeated actions or threats, (2) a power imbalance and (3) intention to cause harm.  

Oftentimes, both bullying and cyberbullying take place together. This means that someone who is bullied in person is often also bullied online. In the U.S., 22% of students ages 12-18 report being bullied at school (NCES, 2019) and 42.2% of 12-17-year-olds have experienced cyberbullying over the course of their lifetime (Cyberbullying Research Center, 2021). 

Cartoon Network and Cyberbullying Research Center Study

To learn more about tweens’ experiences in digital spaces (social media, gaming, apps, etc.) the Cartoon Network and the Cyberbullying Research Center teamed up in 2020 to conduct a survey about tweens (ages 9-12) and cyberbullying. Before 2020, most of the research on cyberbullying focused on teenagers ages 13 and up.  

The 2020 study found the following information about how much and to what extent tweens are in digital spaces: 

  • Nine out of ten tweens use social media and gaming apps. 

  • The majority of tweens have devices of their own and nine out of ten (90%) have used one or more of the most popular social media and gaming apps in the last year.  

  • Two-thirds of tweens have used YouTube in the last year, while almost half have played Minecraft and Roblox. 

  • About 21% of nine-year-olds have their own smartphone and 68% of 12-year-olds do. 

When tweens spend time in these digital spaces, they have different experiences, including cyberbullying. The survey found that: 

  • One in five tweens have experienced cyberbullying in some form. 

  • Tweens’ experiences with cyberbullying include being cyberbullied themselves, witnessing cyberbullying, or cyberbullying other people.  

  • One in seven tweens have been the target of cyberbullying.  

Tweens that have faced, witnessed or engaged in cyberbullying themselves and have responded have done so in a variety of ways: 

  • Two-thirds of tweens who have seen cyberbullying said they have tried to help in those situations. 

  • The top five helping behaviors include: (1) giving them something (points, money or gifts in a game), (2) helping them in the game, (3) saying something nice, (4) standing up for them or (5) general helping.   

  • The top five ways teens have stopped cyberbullying include: (1) blocking the person that was cyberbullying them, (2) telling a parent of adult, (3) ignoring the person that was cyberbullying them (3) reporting it to the website/app and (5) walking away/taking a break from their device. 

For tweens who have not responded to cyberbullying, their top three reasons were (1) fear they'll make things worse; (2) they don't know what to do or say; or (3) they don't know how to report it online.

In summary, most children in this age group are engaging in digital spaces. As a result, many are experiencing cyberbullying in some form or another. On a positive note, a majority of tweens are trying to help themselves and each other by stopping it or trying to help others. 

Cartoon Network and Cyberbullying Research Center sum up their study as follows: 

“In short, tweens are online and many are experiencing cyberbullying. Parents have a role to play in helping their children navigate these difficult situations. The most important step for parents to take when their child is cyberbullied is to make sure they are safe, and to convey unconditional support. Parents must demonstrate to their children through words and actions that they both desire the same end result: that the cyberbullying stop and that life does not become even more difficult.” 

Acting as an Ally

As we see from the data above, two-thirds of tweens who have seen cyberbullying say they’ve tried to help others. According to the study, only 50% of tweens who have been cyberbullied say they have stopped it by telling a parent. Because many young people do not tell their parents or a trusted adult about the cyberbullying they face, it is important to first encourage them to report it to a trusted adult.  

If they don’t have a trusted adult in their life, we can also help young people by encouraging and teaching them ally behaviors, which can make a difference. “Standing up for” is not the only way to act as an ally online; when children do this, they should make sure it’s safe to do so. Other ally behaviors include: not participating in the cyberbullying; supporting targets whether you know them or not; informing a trusted adult (which doesn’t necessarily have to be a parent or teacher); and getting to know people instead of judging them. 

In addition to talking about, teaching, and encouraging ally behaviors, the adults in children’s lives have a two-fold responsibility. One is to not to engage in cyberbullying and online hate themselves. A 2023 ADL survey on online hate and harassment reveals that 52% of adults report being harassed online over their lifetime. The second is to encourage and model ally behavior, similar to the ally behaviors discussed above. When adults act as allies, sharing that with the young people in their lives will provide inspiration and effective strategies.     

If you want to learn more about the recommended age ranges, guidance and reviews for specific games, apps and other media material, see Common Sense Media.  

Engage in the Conversation


9 and up

Questions to Start the Conversation 

  • What thoughts and feelings came up for you as you learned about this study and tweens’ experiences online? 

  • What did you already know? What was new information for you?  

  • Does this data about tweens, digital spaces and cyberbullying ring true to your experience or not? How so? 

  • Have you witnessed or experienced cyberbullying? What happened?

  • Have you ever tried to help when you saw cyberbullying taking place? What happened and what did you do? 

Questions to Dig Deeper 

(See the Related Content for information that address these questions.)  

  • What is your experience like online? How do you feel when you’re in digital spaces (social media, games, apps, etc.)? 

  • Have you ever acted as an ally to someone being bullied or cyberbullied?  

  • What can we do as a family to support each other around cyberbullying? 

Ideas for Taking Action 

Ask: What can we do to help?  What individual and group actions can help make a difference?  

  • Use this lesson plan to conduct a school-wide survey to learn more about how students in your age group are experiencing cyberbullying. After compiling the results, share them with the school community and explore what you can do about it. 

  • Consider one (or more) of the ally behaviors mentioned above. Commit to learning more about the behavior, practice it and then use it when witnessing cyberbullying.  

  • Learn more about how to report cyberbullying and other biased online behavior to social media and other companies using ADL’s Cyber-Safety Action Guide. Identify ways to make this information available to students in your school.