Sadly, cyberbullying is nothing new. Kids growing up in any generation have always dealt with bullies, but kids growing up in the cyber age deal with cyberbullying too. Prolonged or severe bullying at any age can lead to mental health issues such as depression, anxiety and low self-esteem, so it’s nothing to brush off as mere “playground politics.” There are ways to help your child prevent cyberbullying by making sure they understand cyberbullying and teaching them what they can do to stop it.
What is cyberbullying?
Bullying can take place in various forms:
- Physical bullying includes pushing, kicking, hitting or destruction of belongings.
- Verbal bullying includes name-calling, teasing, intimidation or insults/verbal abuse.
- Social bullying includes spreading rumors, lying, or encouraging others to reject the target.
Now, with more widespread connected devices and proliferation of social media platforms, cyberbullying has become a fourth type, which combines verbal and social bullying and takes it online.
- Posting hurtful public statements, either true or untrue, on social media visible to peers and classmates;
- Sending harassing or intimidating private messages or emails; or
- Spreading rumors, gossip, or harmful images online.
How common is cyberbullying?
According to the Pew Research Center, 59% of boys and 60% of girls have been bullied online. Cyberbullying is more prominent than traditional bullying, because it’s easier for kids to engage in such behaviors from a distance. It allows kids who would never shove another kid into the lockers or call a kid names at school to taunt passively from behind the safety of their own screen.
Based on a survey of over 1,000 parents last year, nearly 75% of kids have their own personal smartphone by the age of 13. And by that same age, kids are reported as spending an average of an hour a day on social media apps. The more time kids spend on social media or online gaming, the more likely they are to encounter bullying. In fact, Instagram, Facebook and Snapchat are the top platforms where kids report bullying.
Kids in certain groups may be more vulnerable to bullying than others. This includes those who are in minority ethnic or religious groups, those from lower-income families and those with special needs or learning disabilities. Those who identify (or are labeled) as being gay, lesbian or transgendered (LGBTQ) and girls, in general, are twice as likely to be cyberbullied or bullied physically and verbally at school.
What are the effects of cyberbullying?
The targets of all kinds of bullying can experience the effects in many aspects of their lives. They’re more likely to experience mental, physical, social, and emotional health issues, and bullying can also harm academic performance and focus. Depression and anxiety are common, as are changes in sleep and eating patterns. It can also lead to serious eating disorders if the target is shamed for their weight. Even after the cyberbullying stops, it can impact kids in the long-term, contributing to substance abuse, self-harm, or causing Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). It may also impact their ability to form meaningful and trusting relationships throughout life.
Those who perpetrate cyberbullying are also more likely to have negative consequences. They may abuse alcohol and other substances, drop out of school, or have difficulties maintaining a job. They are also more likely to be domestic abusers to their future spouses or children or to have increased criminal convictions.
What can parents do to prevent cyberbullying?
It’s important for parents to help educate and coach kids on how to be safe and responsible users of digital platforms — both in responding to potential cyberbullies and in avoiding perpetrating cyberbullying behavior themselves, either intentionally or unintentionally.
Use a combination of gentle guidance and concrete rules to teach your child online responsibility. You may need to implement rigid limits on the aspects that you consider non-negotiable, such as the kind of language they use online or sites they are allowed to visit. It may be helpful to have an overall media plan for all the members of your household, to set parameters around how much time they spend online.
You can also use parental controls or set various security measures on different devices and online platforms/apps. Any device your child uses with internet access, including phones, tablets and computers (and even smart TVs and game consoles) should be monitored closely and have parental controls in place.
Coaching your child to be a good cyber-citizen and help prevent cyberbullying
It’s tempting for young people to get pulled into social drama, and to want to retaliate online to anything they perceive as unfair treatment. Cyberbullying can often lead to more cyberbullying in response, starting a destructive cycle. Young people can and should be taught to deal with social conflicts offline as much as possible. Help them understand the difference between acting in a passive-aggressive manner versus being assertive and up-front with friends and peers about any conflict, small or large.
Teach kids about the consequences of posting online to prevent cyberbullying
Teach your kids to think very carefully before they post anything on social media. Hurtful words said in passing can fade with time — but those posted online, even if deleted later, can be saved and kept forever.
Old posts made on social media can come back to haunt kids, affecting them as adults. Numerous celebrities or sports stars have recently come under fire for things they posted on social media when they were teenagers, which included racist and/or homophobic statements. What kids post on social media can also affect their job prospects, as 70% of employers research candidates on social media. Of those employers, 57% have found content that caused them not to hire someone.
Make sure your child knows that the internet is forever — and to post wisely. Teach your child to only say things online that they would say in person or in front of a teacher or parent.
Keep an eye on your child’s friends
Influence from peers could lead your child to send unkind messages, or to join in a group cyberbullying campaign against another kid. Encourage your child as much as possible to spend time with friends who don’t attract conflict, and who are kind and respectful to others. The influence of peers is powerful, and kids are 7 times more likely to be bullied by a friend than a stranger.
Keep tabs on your child’s online friends as much as you would their in-person friends. Help them learn to distinguish between a true friend and just a friendly stranger. Make sure they know not to ever share their school location, home address, or arrange an in-person meeting with a friend that they only know online, unless guardians are involved as well.
What if your child bullies someone else?
As much as parents don’t like to admit it, their children could become the instigators of cyberbullying. Be on the lookout for actions from your child that could be interpreted as bullying. Not only could they get in trouble or cause harm, but they could also become a target of cyberbullying themselves down the road.
If you do see behavior from your own child that you think is inappropriate, be careful not to jump to label them as “a bully.” Remember that kids can become targets or perpetrators of cyberbullying at different times. Instead, talk to them about “cyberbullying behavior” and how to make good choices. After all, cyberbullying is a subjective term. Your child might think he or she is “just joking” or trying to appear cool or funny to go along with their friends. Help them to understand what is acceptable and what is not.
Understanding cyberbullying for your child and yourself
One of the most powerful things you can do to help your child is simply to listen and be supportive. Help them acknowledge if they do feel betrayed, ashamed or angry about being cyberbullied, even though they may deny being affected by their peers’ actions. Then guide your child to deal with those feelings in a healthy way.
Make sure your child knows the difference between tattling and reporting. Often kids don’t want to “tell on” other kids but help them understand that tattling is meant only to get another kid in trouble, whereas reporting is when you need to get help to keep yourself or someone else safe.
Talk about it to prevent cyberbullying
You may find it useful to refer to resources created by experts, including scripts for talking to your child, glossaries and guides to educate you, so that you can discuss cyberbullying more confidently with your child.
In case your child doesn’t feel comfortable sharing everything with you, make sure they know they can seek out support from other sources, such as the Stomp Out Bullying help chat, a school counselor, a therapist, or another trusted adult.
If you’re worried that your child is being cyberbullied, be sure to catch the next part of our cyberbullying guide for parents: 5 ways to handle cyberbullying.