As the use of digital technologies continues to grow, people around the world who would otherwise never meet can now make contact, share ideas, form communities, and become friends. However, the digital world not only provides the opportunity to meaningfully connect with one another; it has also become a vehicle for harassing and harming others, often anonymously.

Cyberbullying can be defined as the use of the internet, online games, mobile phones, or any other digital technology by a person or group of people to threaten, tease, upset or humiliate someone else, either deliberately or passively.

Cyberbullying has increasingly attracted public attention in recent years as cases of suicide or attempted suicide by teenagers who have suffered at the hands of online bullies receive widespread media coverage.

Increasing prevalence of cyberbullying

According to Reuters Health, although previous studies have linked bullying to an increased prevalence of suicidal thoughts and attempted suicides, fewer studies have examined the role of cyberbullying.

Researchers at the Institute of Education and Child Studies at Leiden University in the Netherlands published an article in the March 2014 issue of JAMA Pediatrics in which they argue that thoughts of suicide are more strongly linked to cyberbullying than to traditional face-to-face bullying, but the researchers caution that this finding is based on data from only a handful of studies.

In a statement to Reuters Health, Mitch van Geel, the article’s lead author, said, “At this point, this [finding] is speculative and more research is definitely needed on cyberbullying.”

He added, “It could be, however, that cyberbullying victims feel belittled in front of a wider audience and may relive the attacks because they are stored on the Internet.”

In a presentation to the International Conference on Cyberbullying in 2012, the results of a survey of 23,420 children from across Europe found that 9 percent of all respondents had been bullied via mobile phone or on the internet in the previous 12 months. That’s more than 2,000 victims of bullying in one year. Although most young people (62 percent) recovered immediately, 31 percent remained upset a few days after the bullying incident and 6 percent remained upset a few weeks later.

Since the publication of this survey, ChildLine, a private and confidential telephone, email and online chat service for children and youths in the UK, has seen a sharp rise in the number of young people suffering from cyberbullying.

The charity reported 4,507 cases of cyberbullying in 2012-2013, up from 2,410 in 2011-2012, with an 87 percent increase in ChildLine operator exchanges with young people experiencing online bullying, a 41 percent increase in exchanges about self-harm, and a 33 percent increase in exchanges about suicidal thoughts and feelings.

Esther Rantzen, who founded ChildLine in 1986, said in a press release, “This report is a real wake-up call. Far too many of the nation’s children seem to be struggling and in despair. It’s so important that we support children to talk about issues and look out for signs that they’re not able to cope.”

Peter Wanless, CEO of the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC), which ChildLine joined in 2006, added, “The issues facing children today are very different from those that faced us as children. Stranger danger, for example, rarely comes up in contacts to ChildLine but depression, self-harm, online bullying and even suicide contacts are increasing exponentially.”

Comparing child well-being across countries

Last year, UNICEF released the findings of a decade-long study about child well-being in 29 of the world’s industrialized countries with advanced economies. The Netherlands is the clear leader in terms of overall child well-being, with Norway, Iceland, Finland, and Sweden rounding out the top five. The UK and Canada ranked 16 and 17, respectively, and the United States came in at 26, in front of only Lithuania, Latvia, and Romania.

The UNICEF report card found that in the first decade of the 2000s, the great majority of countries included in the study saw declines in teenage fighting and bullying. This finding, however, does not distinguish between online and offline bullying, so it is not clear if this can be fruitfully compared to the other reports of increases in the prevalence of cyberbullying.

It may suggest that more targeted studies of cyberbullying are needed to properly understand the extent of this problem. Combining online and offline bullying into one category may skew the findings and fail to take into account the impact that digital technologies are having on the lives of young people today.

Preventing cyberbullying through policy making

In Canada, anti-bullying legislation that specifically addresses cyberbullying have been tabled or adopted by the majority of provinces and territories over the past two years, and the federal government launched a television and online campaign called Stop Hating Online at the beginning of 2014 to raise awareness about cyberbullying and its possible legal consequences. In November 2013, the federal government introduced a wide ranging bill designed to make it illigeal to distribute “intimate images” without consent and easier to remove such images from the internet.

Similarly, in the U.K. an amendment to the criminal justice bill is currently being discussed in parliament that would allow for greater penalties for cyberbullies: up to two years in prison and a longer period of time available for authorities to build difficult cases against online offenders.

According to the Cyberbullying Research Center in the United States, all American states have anti-bullying laws except Montana, and 19 of them specifically address cyberbullying. There is currently no specific anti-bullying legislation at the federal level, although the federal government does run a national anti-bullying campaign (stopbullying.gov).

As suicides and suicide attempts by teenagers who have been victims of online bullies receive widespread media attention, preventing cyberbullying and protecting the well-being of young people in the era of digital technologies has become more pressing than ever before.