Bullies and mean girls have been around forever, but technology now gives them
a whole new platform for their actions. The old "sticks and stones" saying is no
longer true — both real-world and online name-calling can have serious emotional
consequences for our kids and teens.
It's not always easy to know how and when to step in as a parent. For starters,
most kids use technology differently than we do. They're playing games online and
sending texts on their phones at an early age, and most teens have devices that keep
them constantly connected to the Internet. Many are logged on to Facebook or Tumblr
and chatting or texting all day. Even sending email or leaving a voicemail can seem
old-school to them. Their knowledge of the digital world can be intimidating to parents.
But staying involved in kids' cyber world, just as in their real world, can help
parents protect them from its dangers. As awareness of cyberbullying
has grown, parents have learned more about how to deal with it. Here are some
suggestions on what to do if this modern type of bullying has become part of
your child's life.
What Is Cyberbullying?
Cyberbullying is the use of technology to harass, threaten, embarrass, or target
another person. By definition, it occurs among young people. When an adult is involved,
it may meet the definition of cyber-harassment or cyberstalking,
a crime that can have legal consequences and involve jail time.
Sometimes cyberbullying can be easy to spot — for example, if your child
shows you a text, tweet, or response to a status update on Facebook that is harsh,
mean, or cruel. Other acts are less obvious, like impersonating a victim online or
posting personal information, photos, or videos designed to hurt or embarrass another
person. Some kids report that a fake account, webpage, or online persona has been
created with the sole intention to harass and bully.
Cyberbullying also can happen accidentally. The impersonal nature of text messages,
IMs, and emails make it very hard to detect the sender's tone — one person's
joke could be another's hurtful insult. Nevertheless, a repeated pattern of emails,
texts, and online posts is rarely accidental.
Because many kids are reluctant to report being bullied, even to their parents,
it's impossible to know just how many are affected. But recent studies about cyberbullying
rates have found that about 1 in 4 teens have been the victims of cyberbullying,
and about 1 in 6 admit to having cyberbullied someone. In some studies, more than
half of the teens surveyed said that they've experienced abuse through social
and digital media.
Effects of Cyberbullying
No longer limited to schoolyards or street corners, modern-day bullying can happen
at home as well as at school — essentially 24 hours a day. Picked-on kids can
feel like they're getting blasted nonstop and that there is no escape. As long as
kids have access to a phone, computer, or other device (including tablets), they are
Severe, long-term, or frequent cyberbullying can leave both victims and bullies
at greater risk for anxiety, depression, and other stress-related disorders. In some
rare but highly publicized cases, some kids have turned to suicide. Experts say that
kids who are bullied — and the bullies themselves — are at a higher risk
for suicidal thoughts, attempts, and completed suicides.
The punishment for cyberbullies can include being suspended from school or kicked
off of sports teams. Certain types of cyberbullying can be considered crimes.
Signs of Cyberbullying
Many kids and teens who are cyberbullied don't want to tell a teacher or parent,
often because they feel ashamed of the social stigma or fear that their computer privileges
will be taken away at home.
Signs of cyberbullying vary, but may include:
being emotionally upset during or after using the Internet or the phone
being very secretive or protective of one's digital life
withdrawal from family members, friends, and activities
avoiding school or group gatherings
slipping grades and "acting out" in anger at home
changes in mood, behavior, sleep, or appetite
wanting to stop using the computer or cellphone
being nervous or jumpy when getting an instant message, text, or email
avoiding discussions about computer or cellphone activities
How Parents Can Help
If you discover that your child is being cyberbullied, offer comfort and support.
Talking about any bullying experiences you had in your childhood might help your
child feel less alone.
Let your child know that it's not his or her fault, and that bullying says
more about the bully than the victim. Praise your child for doing the right thing
by talking to you about it. Remind your child that he or she isn't alone — a
lot of people get bullied at some point. Reassure your child that you will figure
out what to do about it together.
Let someone at school (the principal, school nurse, or a counselor or teacher)
know about the situation.Many schools, school districts, and after-school clubs have
protocols for responding to cyberbullying; these vary by district and state. But before
reporting the problem, let your child know that you plan to do so, so that you can
work out a plan that makes you both feel comfortable.
Encourage your child not to respond to cyberbullying, because doing so just fuels
the fire and makes the situation worse. But do keep the threatening messages, pictures,
and texts, as these can be used as evidence with the bully's parents, school, employer,
or even the police. You may want to take, save, and print screenshots of these to
have for the future.
Other measures to try:
Block the bully. Most devices have settings that allow you to
electronically block emails, IMs, or texts from specific people.
Limit access to technology. Although it's hurtful, many
kids who are bullied can't resist the temptation to check websites or phones to see
if there are new messages. Keep the computer in a public place in the house (no laptops
in children's bedrooms, for example) and put limits on the use of cellphones and games.
Some companies allow you to turn off text messaging services during certain hours.
And most websites and smartphones include parental control options that give parents
access to their kids' messages and online life.
Know your kids' online world. Ask to "friend" or "follow" your
child on social media
sites, but do not abuse this privilege by commenting or posting anything to your
child's profile. Check their postings and the sites kids visit, and be aware of how
they spend their time online. Talk to them about the importance of privacy and why
it's a bad idea to share personal information online, even with friends. Write up
cellphone and social media contracts that you are willing to enforce.
Learn about ways to keep your kids safe
online. Encourage them to safeguard passwords and to never post their
address or whereabouts when out and about.
If your son or daughter agrees, you may also arrange for mediation with a therapist
or counselor at school who can work with your child and/or the bully.
When Your Child Is the Bully
Finding out that your kid
is the one who is behaving badly can be upsetting and heartbreaking. It's important
to address the problem head on and not wait for it to go away.
Talk to your child firmly about his or her actions and explain the negative impact
it has on others. Joking and teasing might seem harmless to one person, but it can
be hurtful to another. Bullying — in any form —
is unacceptable; there can be serious (and sometimes permanent) consequences at home,
school, and in the community if it continues.
Remind your child that the use of cellphones and computers is a privilege. Sometimes
it helps to restrict the use of these devices until behavior improves. If you feel
your child should have a cellphone for safety reasons, make sure it is a phone that
can be used only for emergencies. Set strict parental controls on all devices.
To get to the heart of the matter, talking to teachers, guidance counselors, and
other school officials can help identify situations that lead a kid to bully others.
If your child has trouble managing anger, talk to a therapist about helping your son
or daughter learn to cope with anger, hurt, frustration, and other strong emotions
in a healthy way. Professional counseling also can help improve kids' confidence
and social skills, which in turn can reduce the risk of bullying.
And don't forget to set a good example yourself — model good online
habits to help your kids understand the benefits and the dangers of life in the digital