What Are the Real Causes of Cyberbullying?

June 14, 2023 • Zachary Amos


The real causes of cyberbullying are tied to mental health issues and toxic aspects of the Internet like anonymity and hate speech. Cyberbullying affects people of all ages and includes celebrities as well as everyday people. It can occur on any social media site as well as messaging platforms, live streaming sites and on multiplayer video games. 

What drives cyberbullying today? How have bullies’ tactics changed from one social media site to another? 

5 Real Causes of Cyberbullying

Cyberbullying can happen to people of any age or background, ranging from children to celebrities. What causes cyberbullying, though? Specific bullies have unique reasons for attacking others online, but most cyberbullying cases come back to one of a few core causes. 

Cyberbullying is fueled by many factors, including mental health challenges, online anonymity, social media addiction, discrimination and offline bullying.

1. Mental Health Challenges

One of the most common real causes of cyberbullying is mental health challenges. Usually people think of the victim as the person experiencing mental illness in cyberbullying incidents. While this is often true, it’s also important to understand the psychology that drives cyberbullies to become bullies in the first place. 

Many bullies are driven by some type of insecurity or low self-esteem. For example, a boy who is secretly gay might vent his internalized homophobia by bullying a classmate who is gay. Similarly, teens might harass each other in online video games because they are insecure about their own skills in the game. 

In cases like this, cyberbullies are often trying to distract others and themselves from things they privately feel insecure about. This may be conscious or unconscious behavior. For example, a girl with body image issues might not realize why she feels angry looking at another girl’s post on Instagram, but she still posts hateful comments about the other girl’s appearance nonetheless. 

On the other hand, one of the less-talked-about, yet real causes of cyberbullying is a lack of empathy for others. When people don’t understand the impact that their actions have on others, they are more likely to engage in cyberbullying. It’s difficult to say exactly what causes bullies to lack empathy, although it may be connected to a rise in overall hateful content online. Some cyberbullies may see widespread hateful rhetoric on social media as normalizing harassment and other negative behaviors. 

2. Online Anonymity

The Internet is a popular tool for bullying because people can hide behind anonymous usernames. As a result, many cyberbullies feel empowered to say and do things they wouldn’t have the nerve to do in real life. This problem is often compounded by the misconception that online content can disappear. 

For example, a college student might take an embarrassing photo of someone he doesn’t like at a party and post it on Snapchat. Even if his friends know he’s the one who posted the photo, he believes it doesn’t really matter since Snapchat posts “disappear” after 24 hours. However, any user could take screenshots of these “temporary” posts and continue sharing them. 

The concept that the Internet is an anonymous void where things can go unnoticed drives many cyberbullies to vent anger or frustration on victims. After all, how can bullies face consequences if no one can trace their behavior or content back to them in real life? This issue makes it especially difficult to deal with cyberbullying among kids and teens since parents and teachers can’t trace cyberbullying activity. 

3. Social Media Addiction

People who have a social media addiction may be more likely to engage in cyberbullying for a few reasons. Social media addiction can cause mental health complications, such as depression or self-image issues, which may drive cyberbullying behaviors. At least 30% of Americans experience social media addiction today.

Excessive time on social media increases exposure to negative content, which cyberbullies may try to mimic. As the saying goes, every bully has a bully. People who are harassed, “trolled” or berated online may return the favor by becoming cyberbullies to others. 

An addiction to social media can also make it difficult to separate real-world relationships and self-worth from online activity. As a result, cyberbullies use social media to seek validation, power, confidence, popularity or other qualities they may be lacking in the real world. 

4. Racism, Sexism and Homophobia

Sadly, one of the most common real causes for cyberbullying is hate for certain groups of people. Cyberbullying content often includes examples of racism, sexism or homophobia. Bullies may attack someone purely based on an unalterable aspect of their identity or they may use the victim’s identity as cannon fodder. 

A perfect example of this is the cyberbullying actress Kelly Marie Tran faced in 2017 after the release of Star Wars: The Last Jedi. The film was poorly received and thousands of people placed the blame on Kelly Marie Tran’s character. She faced a flood of comments and posts online attacking her based on her gender, race and appearance. Tran ultimately deleted all of her Instagram posts and left social media due to the mass cyberbullying she faced. 

Instances like this are sadly common. Of course, the average person would usually not face the sheer volume of cyberbullying that an actor or public figure does. However, the impact of cyberbullying powered by racism, sexism or homophobia is no less damaging. It targets people who are already marginalized for traits that are beyond their control. 

5. Offline Bullying

Not all cyberbullying begins online. It can be easy to forget, but one of the real causes of cyberbullying is offline bullying. This is particularly true for kids and teenagers. A teen who is bullied in school may also face harassment online and vice versa. 

In cases like this, bullying is more likely to be tied to some real-life social factor or incident. For example, a girl might wear an outfit to school that some of her classmates don’t like. Those classmates tease her in person then take to social media to continue their bullying. 

Cyberbullying can also amplify offline bullying activity. People who were too scared to engage in offline bullying might have no problem participating through cyberbullying. This is due to the anonymity of the Internet. Kids might be nervous about getting in trouble for offline bullying, so they move the conversation to social media where they can hide behind usernames. 

How Common is Cyberbullying Today?

Cyberbullying is becoming increasingly prevalent as more people engage with social media. This is especially true for Gen Z and Gen Alpha, who are using social media at younger ages than Millennials. As of 2021, 38% of kids ages 8 to 12 use social media along with 84% of teens 13 to 18 years old. 

Certain apps are more popular for different age groups than others. For example, tweens and teens are more likely to use TikTok than Facebook. This impacts the type of cyberbullying behavior people are likely to be exposed to. People can also face cyberbullying in multiplayer video games, on streaming sites like Twitch or on messaging platforms like WhatsApp or Discord. 

Studies show that cyberbullying is more common on certain websites and apps than others. For example, 79% of kids and teens on YouTube report being cyberbullied along with 69% of kids and teens on Snapchat. TikTok and Facebook are also among the most high-risk sites for cyberbullying. At least 36% of teens aged 12 to 17 have been cyberbullied at some point in their lives. 

Cyberbullying Tactics

What tactics are cyberbullies using today? Cyberbullying has changed over the years as social media has evolved. However, the standard methods prevail, including mean comments or posts about others. These posts can include photos or videos targeting the victim, including offensive memes meant to make fun of the victim. 

Some new forms of cyberbullying have also appeared over recent years. For example, bullies on TikTok may encourage others to mass-report a victim’s account in an attempt to get it suspended or removed unjustly. 

Teen actress Leah Sava Jeffries faced this form of cyberbullying in 2022. Jeffries was cast as Annabeth in Disney’s Percy Jackson and the Olympians, a role that was previously played by a white actress. Some people were angry that a black actress was cast in the role and reacted by mass-reporting Jeffries’s TikTok account, temporarily getting it deactivated. 

Another new form of cyberbullying is “doxing”, which involves posting a victim’s real-life personal information online. This can include the victim’s real name, address, phone number, social security number or other personal details. Doxing is usually a form of revenge for something the target said or did online that the cyberbully didn’t like. 

Understanding What Causes Cyberbullying

The real causes of cyberbullying are varied and complex, but often connected to common root issues. Cyberbullying doesn’t just affect teenagers anymore, either. Tweens, adults and celebrities can all face cyberbullying, as well. Cyberbullying can be driven by mental health issues, peer pressure, a lack of real-world consequences or hate targeting specific groups of people.