Bullies and mean girls have been around forever, but technology has given them a whole new platform for their actions. As adults, we're becoming more aware that the "sticks and stones" adage no longer holds 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, our kids tend to use technology differently than we do. Kids and teens today start playing games online and sending texts on their cell phones at an early age, and most teens have smart phones that keep them constantly connected to the Internet. Many are logged on to Facebook and chatting or sending text messages all day. Even sending email or leaving a voice mail seems "so old-school" to them. Their knowledge of the digital world can be intimidating, but if parents stay involved in their kids online world, just as you do in their real world, you can help protect your kids from online dangers.
Fortunately, our growing awareness of cyberbullying has helped us learn a lot more about how to prevent it. Here are some suggestions on what to do if online 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 cyber-stalking, 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 message, 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, web page, 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, text messages, and online posts is rarely accidental.
A 2006 poll from the national organization Fight Crime: Invest in Kids found that 1 in 3 teens and 1 in 6 preteens have been the victims of cyberbullying. As more and more youths have access to computers and cell phones, the incidence of cyberbullying is likely to rise.
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. As long as kids have access to a phone, computer, or other device (such as an iTouch), they are at risk.
Severe or chronic cyberbullying can leave victims at greater risk for anxiety, depression, and other stress-related disorders. In some rare but highly publicized cases, some kids have turned to suicide.
The punishment for cyberbullies can include being suspended from school or kicked off of sports teams. Certain types of cyberbullying also may violate school codes or even anti-discrimination or sexual harassment laws.
Signs of Cyberbullying
Many kids and teens who are cyberbullied are reluctant to tell a teacher or parent, often because they feel ashamed of the social stigma, or because they fear their computer privileges will be taken away at home.
The signs that a child is being cyberbullied vary, but a few things to look for are:
- signs of emotional distress during or after using the Internet or the phone
- being very protective or secretive of their digital life
- withdrawal from friends and activities
- avoidance of school or group gatherings
- slipping grades and "acting out" in anger at home
- changes in mood, behavior, sleep, or appetite
How Parents Can Help
If you discover that your child is being cyberbullied, talk to him or her about any experiences you have had in your childhood. This can 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. Talking to teachers or school administrators also may help, but take cues from your child.
Many schools, school districts, and after-school clubs have established 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, as he or she could have concerns about "tattling" and might prefer that the problem be handled privately.
Other measures to try:
- Block the bully. Most devices have settings that allow you to electronically block emails, IMs, or text messages 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 limit the use of cell phones and games. Some companies allow you to turn off text messaging services during certain hours. And, most websites and phones provide the option for parental controls, which provide parents with access to their children’s messages and online life.
- Know your kids' online world. 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. Encourage them to safeguard passwords. Write up cell phone and social media contracts that you are willing to enforce.
- Look to the web for resource and support information about cyberbullying.
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 inappropriately 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 OK, but it can hurt people's feelings and lead to getting in trouble. Bullying — in any form — is unacceptable; there can be serious (and sometimes irrevocable) consequences at home, school, and in the community if it continues.
Remind your child that the use of cell phones 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 cell phone for safety reasons, make sure it is a phone that can only be used for emergency purposes. Insist on strict parental controls on all devices if there is any history of your child making impulsive decisions when they are online.
To get to the heart of the matter, sometimes 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 often helps kids learn to deal with their feelings and improve their confidence and social skills, which in turn can reduce the risk of bullying. If you're tech-savvy yourself, model good online habits to help your kids understand the benefits and the dangers of life in the digital world.
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