Bullying is part of the cultural landscape for adolescents today, even as it has been in previous generations. Some teenagers are still bullied in person–a 2014 study found that while in-school bullying among teens has been decreasing over time, ten percent of students have been bullied at school.¹ But methods of bullying have expanded into digital spaces as well. Through texting and social media cyberbullying has grown and become well-publicized. Since we didn’t have to contend with cyberbullying growing up, we need to guard against insensitivity to what kids today consider a major issue. It’s vital that parents understand cyberbullying and find ways to protect children from it.
WHAT IS CYBERBULLYING?
Cyberbullying takes a variety of forms, but it normally includes the use of negative, inappropriate, or threatening text messages and social media posts. Additionally, some cyberbullies impersonate someone, creating posts to cause trouble for them. Others pose as “friends” in order to coax personal information or images from a teen with the intent to broadcast the information in order to embarrass or cause pain. Sadly, victims of bullying often become the people who resort to cyberbullying. Why? While kids who have been physically bullied are often intimidated enough to refrain from retaliating physically, cyberbullying eliminates the intimidation factor.
Cyberbullying is extremely common. A 2014 McAfee study revealed that 87 percent of youths have witnessed cyberbullying and 49 percent of students have regretted something they have posted online.² Girls more often resort to cyberbullying while guys still rule the physical bullying world on playgrounds and in school hallways.³ Because cyberbullying has thoroughly transformed the nature of bullying, it’s important for parents to understand why it is so insidious and harmful.
- Cyberbullying can take place around the clock.
- Cyberbullying is rarely an incident between the bully and the victim only. A bully’s threats, lies, and put-downs can be posted online and passed along to everyone and anyone. There is no safe haven from a bully.
- Cyberbullying is more difficult to stop. When a bully posts something threatening or demeaning, others often redistribute the post which exponentially extends its reach. It’s impossible to completely delete these posts from cyberspace. As a result, victims of bullying live in fear, not knowing when the next incident will take place or who will see the derogatory posts.
- Today, the stakes are much higher for the bullied. It’s not unusual for victims to experience isolation, depression, or even to commit suicide.
- Today, the stakes are higher for bullies. Because of the widespread (and sometimes tragic) damage bullying can inflict, it is not unusual for bullies to be criminally prosecuted for their bullying behaviors.
- Today, the stakes are higher for parents. For parents of bullies, prosecutors may look for circumstances that would allow them to pin criminal responsibility for the bully’s behavior on his or her parents. For parents of bullying victims, the havoc wreaked upon the family can be devastating, especially for those who have lost a child to suicide.
WHAT PARENTS CAN DO ABOUT CYBERBULLYING
- Educate yourself about devices and apps that teenagers use for communication. Take time to learn about texting, messaging apps, and social media. Learn what security measures are available for your teen’s devices and apps to help block unwanted and inappropriate messages from being delivered.
- Set ground rules with your family about digital communications. Give kids clear guidelines on acceptable and unacceptable uses for communicating with devices and apps. Determine what kinds of personal information are acceptable for your kids to share. Have them agree to report to you any inappropriate communications they receive or find about themselves posted on social media sites. Setting expectations for how your kids communicate with others will help prevent your kids from becoming cyberbullies.
- If your child receives or finds a negative message about him or her once, don’t overreact. Any kid can become the object of a one-time prank. Keep your eye on the situation, but don’t overreact unless the message threatens physical harm.
IF YOUR CHILD BECOMES THE TARGET OF REPEATED CYBERBULLYING
- Be sure to talk with your child. See if they know or can guess who is responsible for the cyberbullying. Check with her to see how she is emotionally handling the abuse. Give support and provide help whenever needed. Reinforce your expectation that she is not to retaliate by becoming a cyberbully.
- If you are unable to identify the cyberbully, block messages through device and app settings. If the negative messages are being virally passed online, report the abuse to the social media app’s or website’s management. For example, if an inappropriate image is posted on Instagram, contact Instagram directly about the image’s content and what profile it appears on.
- Notify school officials. Some state and localities now allow schools to address cyberbullying even when it happens off campus. Even if your local school does not, school officials are generally familiar with dealing with cyberbullying on campus. Notification will allow them be attentive to the situation on campus, and it’s possible that they have insights into how to help your specific situation, particularly if they are currently dealing with the cyberbully.
- If cyberbullying includes physical threats, notify local law enforcement authorities. Don’t delay. Print out a copy of the threatening content, and take it with you to give to the authorities. The actual content of cyberbullying will determine where to report the crime. You can visit stopcyberbullying.gov to get the latest information.
- When in doubt, report it! If you are unsure what to do about your child being cyberbullied, report it. Whether you start with social media or other website management, school authorities, or the police, most people will help point you in the right direction if they aren’t prepared or able to help you directly. But if cyberbullying is not addressed, the abuse will likely continue, and this greatly raises the risks to your child—both in their reaction to the abuse and in the potential for retaliation.
In the end, like so many other issues in parenting, you set the pace when it comes to dealing with cyberbullies. Dealing with the issue calmly, intentionally, and in a God-honoring way sets an important example for your teen.
¹J. G. Perlus, A. Brooks-Russell, J. Wang, and R. J. Iannotti, “Trends in Bullying, Physical Fighting and Weapon Carrying Among 6th- Through 10th Grade Students from 1998 to 2010: Findings from a National Study,” American Journal of Public Health 104, vol. 6 (June 2014): 1100-6.
²”2014 Teens and the Screen Study: Exploring Online Privacy, Social Networking and Cyberbullying,” McAfee/Intel Security, June 3, 2014, www.macafee.com/us/about/news/2014/q2/20140603-01.aspx.
³Robin Kowalski, “You Wanna Take This Online?” Time, August 8, 2005.