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Sexual Cyberbullying Research Summary



Sexual cyberbullying is any sexually aggressive or coercive behavior facilitated by electronic media. Professionals who support youth experiencing the child welfare and/or juvenile justice system, homelessness, and/or disconnection from school and work (i.e., opportunity youth) identified a need for research-based information and resources to support their work with young people who may experience sexual cyberbullying. Sexual cyberbullying may have a detrimental effect on youth who have prior experiences with trauma,1-3 unstable living arrangements,4 and/or a lack of supportive adults in their lives.5,6 Furthermore, some of these youth may rely on digital platforms to stay connected with family and friends from whom they have been separated, increasing their risk for being victims of sexual cyberbullying.[a],7,8

This research summary:  

  1. Defines various forms of sexual cyberbullying 
  2. Reports what we know about the prevalence of these online behaviors 
  3. Discusses the factors that increase the risk for or protect youth against sexual cyberbullying as well as the potential consequences of experiencing sexual cyberbullying 
  4. Reviews what is known about preventing sexual cyberbullying 
  5. Shares information about relevant laws and resources for youth-supporting professionals who want to help youth who may experience sexual cyberbullying[b]

    Overview and Implications

    • Definitions of sexual cyberbullying are inconsistent. Youth-supporting professionals should be aware of the inconsistent definitions of sexual cyberbullying and the different forms that sexual cyberbullying can take.9  
    • The risk for and prevalence of sexual cyberbullying varies by gender identity, sexual orientation, and age.10-12 Youth-supporting professionals should keep gender, sexual orientation, and age-related differences in sexual cyberbullying in mind when working with young people with diverse characteristics and experiences.  
    • Sexual cyberbullying involving minors is illegal in all jurisdictions; however, laws are inconsistent across jurisdictions.13 Youth-supporting professionals who want to help youth who have experienced or been accused of sexual cyberbullying should familiarize themselves with the laws in their state.  
    • Few sexual cyberbullying prevention programs are evidence-based.14 Because there are few prevention programs and/or curricula focused on sexual cyberbullying, youth-supporting professionals may need to rely on programs focused on cyberbullying broadly, in-person sexual harassment, or in-person stalking for information related to sexual cyberbullying. Evaluations of these types of prevention programs suggest that skill and knowledge-building components should be used to reduce sexual aggression.15,16
  • Definitions

Prevalence of Cyberbullying

This section of the research summary focuses on what we know about the prevalence of cyberbullying in general and certain forms of sexual cyberbullying (sexting and cyberdating abuse). Unless otherwise specified, the prevalence rates are based on general population samples of U.S. teens. Hence, they may underestimate the prevalence of cyberbullying among populations likely to be at elevated risk such as youth who experience the child welfare and/or justice systems, homelessness, and/or disconnection from school and work.

  • Cyberbullying

  • Sexting

  • Cyberdating abuse

Risk and Protective Factors

Identifying risk and protective factors specific to sexual cyberbullying is challenging because research on sexual cyberbullying is limited and often fails to distinguish between (1) sexual cyberbullying and cyberbullying that is nonsexual in nature or (2) behaviors that occur in-person and those that occur online. Consequently, this section provides an overview of factors that increase young people’s risk for or protect them against cyberbullying in general (Figure 1) and specific forms of sexual cyberbullying.

Furthermore, little sexual cyberbullying research has focused on youth who have experienced the child welfare and/or juvenile justice system, homelessness, and/or disconnection from school and work. However, given their increased risk for in-person sexual violence,33-35 these youth may also be at increased risk for sexual cyberbullying. Therefore, youth-supporting professionals should be aware of the risk factors for sexual cyberbullying and in-person sexual violence.

When thinking about these risk and protective factors, it is important to consider other things that might be happening in young people’s lives, such as unstable living situations or unhealthy relationships that might play a contributing role, putting them at risk for cyberbullying.

Figure 1. Risk factors for being a victim of and perpetrating cyberbullying

Cyberstalking and cyberdating abuse are two forms of sexual cyberbullying; girls are more likely than boys to be the victims of both.50 Youth-supporting professionals should be particularly attentive to supporting girls and young women who have experienced this type of violence. Youth-supporting professionals should consider the societal factors, such as gender-based violence, that contribute to girls and women being more at risk and be sure not to blame them or insinuate they did anything to elicit the behavior. Risk factors for being a victim of cyberstalking include using multiple social media accounts and engaging in other risky online behavior such as socializing with strangers.51,52 Risk factors for being a victim of cyberdating abuse include having a jealous romantic partner and engaging in sexting.53,54

In-person sexual violence and sexual cyberbullying are distinct experiences but youth who experience one may also experience the other, as has been found to be the case with traditional bullying and cyberbullying.55 Moreover, although in-person and cyberstalking victimization are related, the relationship may be different for women than for men.56 For example, females who are cyberstalked first are less likely to be subsequently stalked in-person, but males who are cyberstalked first are more likely to be subsequently stalked in-person. Lastly, females who are stalked in-person are more likely to be stalked online as well.57

Community, family, and individual protective factors may buffer youth against cyberbullying broadly. Furthermore, many of the factors that protect against cyberbullying broadly, such as parental monitoring and peer support, also protect against non-consensual sexting, a form of sexual cyberbullying.58 However, there is limited research on protective factors for specific forms of sexual cyberbullying beyond sexting.

Factors that protect against being a victim of cyberbullying include a positive and safe school climate,59,60 positive parental interactions and higher levels of parental monitoring,61,62 and higher levels of peer support and sense of “fitting in.”63,64


  • Prevention strategies for youth-supporting professionals

  • Prevention program components

Laws on Sexual Cyberbullying

The legal landscape around sexual cyberbullying is complicated and evolving quickly. At the time of publication, we are unaware of any federal statutes that criminalize cyberbullying,90 but all states have various laws that apply to bullying behaviors, and the laws in all but two states include provisions related to “cyberbullying” or “online harassment.”91

Legislating what individuals are allowed to do with sexual images or content online is challenging because sharing sexual images and discussing sexual activities online are not inherently illegal. When legislating the sharing of sexual images, states must consider the age of the sender, the intentions of the sender, and the relationship between the sender and recipient.92 Additionally, legislation to protect victims of online sexual violence varies widely across states. This brief does not place value nor assess the effectiveness of any legislation intended to regulate any cyberbullying behavior. Rather, it encourages youth-supporting professionals and youth to be aware of the laws and understand that those behaviors can be illegal and carry potentially serious consequences.

      • Sexting is generally legal unless it involves sexual harassment and/or a minor.93 Sexting is not covered by any federal laws, but as of 2022, 27 states [d] had “sexting” laws.94
      • Disseminating sexual photos is not illegal unless it involves a minor or occurs without the sender’s consent.95 As of 2022, 47 states had laws against “image-based sexual abuse,” which involves sending explicit images without consent to cause emotional harm to the original sender.[e], 91 In some states, this is a misdemeanor; in other states, it is a felony.96
      • Forty-seven states[f] have laws to address “electronic” or “digital” stalking, but only six use the term cyberstalking in their statutes.97

Summary and Resources

The information in this research brief is designed to help youth-supporting professionals familiarize themselves with research about sexual cyberbullying to better support youth, especially youth who may be more vulnerable to sexual cyberbullying such as youth who experience the child welfare and/or justice systems, homelessness, and/or disconnection from school and work. To supplement the research, Table 1 provides resources related to sexual cyberbullying that youth-supporting professionals can use to support youth. Table 1 includes state and national resources that are youth specific, such as hotlines, and that can be useful to youth-supporting professionals.

Table 1. Sexual cyberbullying resources

  • Methods

Suggested citation: Schlecht, C., Griffin, A.M., & Rosenberg R. (2024). Sexual Cyberbullying Research Summary. Child Trends.


[a] Sexual cyberbullying research does not, in general, focus on these youth. Therefore, this brief includes research about sexual cyberbullying among the overall population of adolescents as well as research on sexual cyberbullying specifically among youth who have experienced the child welfare and/or justice system, homelessness, and/or disconnection from school and work.

[b] The 2023 Activate Needs Assessment, discussions with Research Alliance members, and multiple literature scans led to the decision to focus this review on sexual cyberbullying.

[c] The term “cyber” may be outdated and not relevant to youth. However, we are using it here because it is still used in the literature. Youth-supporting professionals should consider using other terms such as online or electronic or just asking youth how they refer to cyberbullying.

[d] States with sexting laws: AZ, AR, CO, CT, FL, GA, HA, IL, IN, KS, LA, NE, NV, NJ, NM, NY, ND, OK, PA, RI, SD, TN, TX, UT, VT, WA, WV.

[e] States without revenge porn laws: ID, MA, SC

[f] States without cyberstalking laws: MO, NE, NY

  • References

  • Acknowledgements and About the Authors