As an Executive Director for a bullying advocacy and recovery charity, I have read article after article about the increase in cyberbullying. As our children switched their schooling to exclusively online learning, the bullying left the schoolyards and became more rampant on their screens. With autumn approaching and much uncertainty about schooling as our country is still weathering the pandemic, cyberbullying needs to be addressed.
Cyberbullying is defined as: “willful and repeated harm inflicted through the use of computers, cell phones, and other electronic devices.” It can include name calling, abusive comments, spreading rumors, threats of physical harm, being ignored or excluded, having opinions slammed, online impersonation, being sent rude or upsetting images, or having personal information or images sent or shared with others. This type of bullying does not have a time out. It does not end when the school day is complete and furthermore, the impacts can be devastating.
Any bullying by its very nature involves two things: intent of harm and an imbalance of power. Cyberbullying is not limited to just our children. Open up almost any social media platform, blog or news article and there is a litany of responses from adults. Opinions shared by adults are quite often abusive, demeaning and unkind. How can we expect more from our children? Social media is not the problem, it lies in human behavior and acceptable communication.
According to the Cyberbullying Research Center, almost 40% of all middle-school and high-school students have experienced cyberbullying. Currently, 95% of US teens are online. Taking cyberbullying seriously has been an uphill battle when compared to traditional bullying. Some people feel that there are more serious acts of aggression and bullying to focus attention on. Cyberbullying if ignored will only get worse. The fact is that cyberbullying can be just as or more devastating for the target for the following reasons:
- The victim may not know who is targeting them or why
- The information may go viral where a large number of people can see and participate in it very quickly
- It is often easier for the aggressor to be more cruel hiding behind technology
- Many adults don’t have the technological know-how or time to accurately keep track of their child’s online activity
So, parents, what can we do if we learn that our child is a target of a cyberbully? The first and most important thing we can do for a child who is a target of any bullying is to make them feel safe and offer unconditional support. It is important to not be dismissive and to validate their feelings and perspective. A rational, logical approach with your child is imperative and will build trust as you talk about next steps together. Meeting with the school administrator (if applicable) is a logical next step. Capturing any evidence either by screen shots, photos or working with an ISP, cell phone service or content provider may also become necessary. The police should be contacted when physical threats are involved or a crime has been committed (extortion, stalking, blackmail or sexual exploitation). Parents need to educate their kids about appropriate online behaviors and monitor online activity especially when children are starting their journey into the cyberworld.
Sometimes children are embarrassed or ashamed they are targeted on social media or in texts. They are often very reluctant to tell a parent or an adult of their dilemma. Signs that they may be cyberbullied can include:
- Unexpectantly stops using their device(s)
- Appears nervous or jumpy when using a screen device
- Is uneasy about being at school or outside
- They are angry, depressed or frustrated after texting, chatting, using social media or gaming
- Are abnormally withdrawn
- Avoid discussions about their online activities
Children can also be coached to not be a bystander to cyberbullying whether they or someone else is the target. Many times, someone does not want to get involved due to the hassle it can cause or fear that they may be retaliated against. Doing nothing and being a bystander actually passively encourages the aggressor and their behavior. Standing up to the cyberbully, calling the situation what it is, offering the target encouragement, collecting evidence and reporting the incident can stop the behavior in its tracks. Even just one of these acts sends the message that this behavior will not be accepted.
Lastly, when working with and reporting to a child’s school about cyberbullying, there are things that should be apparent:
- There should be a school-wide cyberbullying policy that includes specific disciplinary policies when there is an infraction
- A positive school climate that encourages kindness and respect has been shown to be a deterrent to bullying and aggressive behavior
- Schools should include education about responsible use of digital devices as part of their regular curriculum