Cyberbulling: What Parents Need to Know
This article is intended to educate parents and families about a serious issue affecting adolescents known as cyberbullying. My hope is to provide information, highlight some of the emotional issues that arise from cyberbullying, and offer suggestions regarding what families can do to communicate with their children and to address this problem.
Adolescents today are growing up online. Kaiser Family Foundation studies show that almost every school child has been online, and three-quarters of young people can access the Internet from their homes. The National Crime Prevention Council reported in 2011 that cyberbullying is a problem that affects almost half of all American teens.
According to The Cyberbullying Research Center, cyberbullying is defined as bullying by electronic means, and usually occurs through social-media websites, text/picture messaging, chat rooms, gaming sites and email. A cyberbully can be a person who the victim knows or an online stranger. A cyberbully can be anonymous and can solicit involvement of other people online who do not even know the target. The National Crime Prevention Association lists tactics often used by teen cyberbullies:
- Pretend they are other people online to trick others
- Spread lies and rumors about victims
- Trick people into revealing personal information
- Send or forward mean text messages
- Post pictures of victims without their consent
Studies on the psychosocial effects of cyberspace have begun to monitor the impacts cyberbullying can have on victims, and the consequences it can lead to. Among the destructive consequences of cyberbullying are lowered academic achievement and aspirations, increased anxiety, loss of self-esteem and confidence, depression and post-traumatic stress, general deterioration in physical health, self-harm and suicidal thinking, feelings of alienation in the school environment, such as fear of other children, and absenteeism from school. (www.thehill.com, Davis, 5/11/2011) If you are aware that your child is experiencing any of these symptoms, it would be a good idea to consult a psychologist, school counselor or other mental health professional.
Many teens that are cyberbullied online are overwhelmed by the emotional pain due to either the continuity or intensity of the harassment. Therefore, responding to the cyberbully’s attacks in a productive manner often seems extraordinarily difficult. The anticipatory anxiety often prevents a teenager from reporting the bully. Since the distress seems unbearable, the victim cannot muster up the strength to confide in a trusted adult. Of course, there is always the fear that a victim may be labeled a “tattletale.” However, if the victim attempts to cope with the bullying without external assistance, the intensity and frequency of the bullying online can increase. Victimized teens first must realize they are not to blame for the way they have been treated. No one deserves to be harassed in any environment, whether it is on the Internet or in the real world. They need to know effective strategies that can be implemented to help fend off cyberbullies.
Here are suggested tips that can be shared with children who are victims of cyberbulling to help them stand up for themselves:
- Any communication from the bully should be printed out immediately and shown to an adult. Keep evidence of cyberbullying. Record the dates, times, and descriptions of instances when cyberbullying has occurred. Save and print screenshots, emails, and text messages. Use this evidence to report cyberbullying to an organization that can help or law enforcement.
- Block the account that the sender uses. That way the child can’t see what is being sent to them.
- Do not reply to them or forward the messages. That gives them no power over the victim, even if they keep bullying.
- Alert the appropriate law enforcement if a child is in immediate danger caused by cyberbullying. There are ways to impose consequences for the cyberbully. The California laws can be accessed at www.stopbullying.gov.
Cyberbullying may be difficult for both parents and children to discuss, but it is very important to keep the lines of communication open. Parents and children can agree to clear family rules about what constitutes acceptable and unacceptable behavior on a cell phone or other wireless device. Developing a written contract is sometimes helpful in order to make these rules clear and be able to refer to them as needed. For example, be clear about what sites they can visit and what they are permitted to do when they’re online.
Children need to feel comfortable talking with parents about messages and images that are sent and received on cell phones or other wireless devices. It can be hard for parents to react appropriately to a cyberbullying situation without a complete understanding of all sides of the situation. So it is important for parents to know the facts before reacting.
Help children to be smart about what they post or say. Tell them not to share anything that could hurt or embarrass themselves or others. Remind them that once something is posted, it is out of their control, whether someone else forwards it or not. Encourage children to think about whom they want to see the information and pictures they post online. Tell them to keep their passwords safe and not share them with friends. Sharing passwords can compromise their control over their online identities and activities.
There are other ways to support children if they are cyberbullied. Help them to participate in activities, interests, and hobbies they like such as volunteering, playing sports, singing in a chorus, or joining a youth group or school club. These activities give young people the opportunity to have fun and meet others with similar interests that can build self-confidence and friendships that will help to protect them from cyberbullying.
Finally, parents can model how to treat others with kindness and respect. Children learn from adults’ actions. By treating others with kindness and respect, adults show their children that there is no place for bullying. Even when it seems like they are not paying attention, children are watching how adults manage stress and conflict, as well as how they treat their friends, colleagues, and families.
We need to teach our children that silence, when anyone is being hurt, is not acceptable. If they don’t allow the cyberbullies to use them to embarrass or torment others, cyberbullying will quickly stop. It’s a challenging task, but in the end, our children will be safer online and offline. We will have helped children to control the technology instead of their being controlled by it.