Cyberbullying has become rampant across the United States. But what exactly is cyberbullying? It’s when someone repeatedly and intentionally harasses, humiliates, mistreats, makes fun of, or threatens another person online or while using cell phones or other electronic devices.
According to a recent Pew Research Center survey, 59% of U.S. teens have experienced at least one of six identified types of abusive online behaviors. Those behaviors include name-calling (42%), having false rumors spread about them on the internet (32%), receiving explicit images that they didn’t ask for (25%), or being the target of physical threats (16%).
The peers of some teens have even posted humiliating web pages or videos, or created embarrassing profiles on social media platforms. Others have taken unauthorized photos or videos in a bedroom, bathroom, or another location considered private, and posted them online for the world to view, rate, share, and discuss.
There are many reasons to monitor your son or daughter’s online behavior and pay close attention to the warning signs. Among the most worrisome, students who experienced bullying or cyberbullying are significantly more likely to attempt to take their own life.
“If your child suddenly has no interest in their electronic devices, appears jumpy or nervous while using their phone, or appears angry, frustrated, or depressed after going online or gaming, then they may be experiencing cyberbullying,” says Sameer Hinduja, Ph.D., co-director of the Cyberbullying Research Center and professor of Criminology at Florida Atlantic University. Also, if your child avoids conversations about what they’re doing online, becomes unusually secretive when it comes to their phone or electronic devices, or makes excuses to stay home from school, they may be the target of online bullying.
Prevention for Protection
To prevent cyberbullying —and if you suspect your child is being cyberbullied— you have the power to help them. Here are ten steps you can take:
1) Educate and investigate.
Just as you teach your son or daughter how to behave appropriately and demonstrate positive character behaviors in everyday life, show them what constitutes appropriate online behavior and how to engage in it. Let them know you’re going to monitor their activities while online—especially early in their exploration of cyberspace. That could include actions such as looking at your child’s phone and computer to see the sites they’ve been browsing, having an open dialogue about what’s appropriate and what’s not, or using apps to track their online activity. “Honest and open monitoring is a part of a healthy parent-child relationship. This can be done informally through active participation in your child’s internet experience, which I recommend most of all, and formally through software.” explains Dr. Hinduja. You can find great examples of parental monitoring software here. Also, let your child know that if they witness someone being cyberbullied, they should not be afraid to tell you or an administrator at their school.
2) Help your teen feel safe.
“The safety and well-being of your child should always be your first priority,” says Dr. Hinduja. “It’s important for parents to convey unconditional support and demonstrate to their children through words and actions that they want the same end result—to stop the cyberbullying and make sure life doesn’t become even more difficult.”
3) Talk with your child.
If you find out your young person is being cyberbullied, do not panic. Take a deep breath and have a meaningful conversation to learn more about what they’ve been experiencing. The calmer you are, the calmer and the more forthcoming your child will be. Also, encourage an open dialogue so that small issues don’t flare up into major situations. “It is critical not to be dismissive of their perspective, but to validate their voice and perspective,” says Dr. Hinduja. Ken Ginsburg, M.D., MSEd, co-founder of the Center for Parent and Teen Communication, agrees. “With any kind of bullying, whether it’s cyberbullying or in-person bullying, your child is receiving a message that they are not good enough in someone else’s eyes,” he says. “The antidote to that is a very clear message from you that you think your child is good enough just the way they are and you will stand by them. When your child is being bullied, it is a challenge to their identity. The worst thing is for them to begin to believe those undermining or defeating words. A parent can be there to make sure their child doesn’t believe those words.”
4) Model resilience.
Staying calm may be more important than you think. Demonstrating poise and strength in this situation will help put your child at ease and teach them how to be resilient in uncomfortable, unpleasant situations. “The skill to bounce back after facing adversity is important to cultivate at this stage of your child’s life,” states Dr. Hinduja. “Instead of swooping in and rescuing them from all of their social and relational struggles, help them hone the ability to deflect, disrupt, dispute, shrug off, or otherwise ignore hurtful things that others say or post.” Dr. Ginsburg also speaks to how parents support their children’s resilience. “The poison of bullying is that it suggests you are not good enough, that you are not normal, and that you don’t fit in. This is potentially dangerous to the development of a healthy identity,” he says. “Your role as a parent is to tell your child ‘You are Ok just the way you are’ and to help them deeply believe that you love them without conditions. That someone recognizes all that is good and right about them. That is always important, but holds an even deeper meaning when a young person is being bullied. ”
5) Work with your child’s school.
Schools in the United States have anti-bullying policies, and these typically include cyberbullying. If the person cyberbullying your teen goes to the same school, Dr. Hinduja suggests scheduling a meeting with school administrators (or a trusted teacher) to discuss the matter. “Your child has the right to feel safe at school, and educators are responsible to ensure this through an investigation and appropriate response,” he says. As tempted as you might be to reach out to the bully’s parents, please don’t. Leave it up to the school. “Some parents confronted with accusations that their child is engaging in cyberbullying may become defensive and not be receptive,” says Dr. Hinduja. “Be judicious in your approach to avoid additional drama and possible retaliation.”
6) Collect the evidence.
Have your teen print out or take screenshots of the conversations, text messages, pictures, videos, or whatever clear proof they have of being cyberbullied, and keep a record of it. This will help in the investigative process for the school. Dr. Hinduja also suggests you keep notes on relevant details like location, frequency, severity of harm, third-party involvement or witnesses, and the backstory.
7) Contact your service provider.
Did you know that cyberbullying violates the Terms of Service of most media content providers? This includes websites, apps, gaming networks, and other social media. Even if your son or daughter cannot identify who is harassing them, you should still contact the relevant provider. And if your child is being bullied through social media platforms like YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, or Twitter, you can set up privacy controls within each platform to block the person doing the bullying from contacting your son or daughter. Also file an online report with the platform describing the incident and details with the companies.
8) Call the police.
If physical threats are being made or a crime—such as extortion, stalking, blackmail, or sexual exploitation of minors—may have been committed, it’s time to get the authorities involved. Most states have laws related to online threats, and law enforcement can be of assistance. However, if your local police department is not helpful, Dr. Hinduja suggests contacting county or state law enforcement officials, as they often have more resources and expertise in technology-related offenses.
9) Seek counseling.
Cyberbullying is often associated with depression, anxiety, and anger. If it is causing your child to be depressed on a regular basis, if they are withdrawn from family or friends, or make statements about suicide, it’s time to reach out to a professional health provider. Ask your child’s pediatrician to recommend a reputable practitioner or check out Psychology Today to find a mental health specialist near you.
10) Nip inappropriate behavior in the bud.
On the flip side, what if it’s your child doing the cyberbullying? As we stated earlier, it’s essential to teach your child how to behave in a responsible manner and what they should and should not do online. This includes not harassing, humiliating, or threatening their peers (or anyone else) online. “If a parent discovers that their child is cyberbullying others, they should first communicate how that behavior inflicts harm and causes pain in the real world as well as in cyberspace,” say Dr. Hinduja. “We must remember that kids are not sociopaths—they are just kids who sometimes lack empathy and make mistakes. Get your child to understand that technology use and access is a privilege, and not a right—and with those privileges comes certain responsibilities that must be respected.”