Parents give their children lessons and rules to stay safe in the real world — look both ways before crossing the street, don’t talk to strangers, always wear a helmet.
Yet when it comes to the online world, many parents are essentially putting their child behind the wheel of a car without instruction or supervision. So it’s no surprise that many children and even adults are unprepared to deal with the realities of cyberbullying.
Cyberbullying is generally defined as bullying or harassment that takes place over digital devices like computers, cellphones or tablets. It can happen over text, email, social media or gaming platforms. While some consider any incidence of online harassment to be cyberbullying, the Cyberbullying Research Center says that, like in-person bullying, cyberbullying is characterized by harm that is “willful and repeated.”
How Common Is Cyberbullying?
A Pew Research Center survey in 2018 found that 59% of U.S. teens had experienced some form of online harassment, including receiving physical threats and being the victim of false rumors. But cyberbullying can begin long before high school.
Amy Riley, a school counselor for 16 years at Mercer County Intermediate School in Harrodsburg, Kentucky, says cyberbullying has been a near-daily concern among the students she works with in grades three through five.
“There wasn’t a week that went by where there wasn’t some accusation of cyberbullying we had to get involved in,” Riley says of the 2021-2022 school year. “We have kids who have reported someone telling them how ugly they are, someone who told them to kill themselves online. I’ve heard from other counselors about kids who have created fake accounts just to bully other kids.”
Some research indicates that cyberbullying decreased during the course of the pandemic. That could be because cyberbullying often occurs in tandem with face-to-face bullying, experts say. But as students return to in-person learning with higher levels of anxiety and other mental health challenges, parents and schools need to be prepared to support students facing online bullying and harassment.
What Parents Need to Know
In many ways, cyberbullying is even more insidious for young people than in-person bullying, according to Jennifer Greif Green, an associate professor at Boston University’s Wheelock College of Education & Human Development.
“Students can’t get away from it,” says Green, who specializes in mental health and bullying prevention. “Cyberbullying is available 24 hours a day, and has this permanent quality where things get circulated and don’t disappear. Oftentimes, it’s also hidden and adults aren’t aware in the same way they are of in-person bullying.”
While a decade ago cyberbullying might have been confined to texts and emails, the proliferation of technology and social media use — including at younger ages — has made it far more pervasive. Parents should especially keep an eye on new social media platforms and apps, experts say.
“We find the biggest problems on emerging apps that become popular in a short amount of time and don’t have the capacity to deal with all the people using it,” says Justin Patchin, co-founder and co-director of the Cyberbullying Research Center and a professor of criminal justice at the University of Wisconsin–Eau Claire. “Young people are going to be drawn to these new places and there are going to be problems — that’s the nature of the beast.”
How Parents Can Help
Many children experiencing cyberbullying might not tell an adult that it is happening, so parents should look out for a number of warning signs. According to the Cyberbullying Research Center, a child might be the victim of cyberbullying if certain behaviors are displayed, including:
— Being nervous, sad or angry during or right after being online.
— Becoming noticeably withdrawn from family or friends.
— Losing interest in previously enjoyed activities.
— Exhibiting changes in relationship to school, including a decline in grades, wanting to stay home or frequent requests to leave school because of illness.
Experts suggest that parents make conversations about online behavior a regular activity with their child. Asking questions, listening closely and refraining from judgment are important to developing open communication.
If your child is experiencing cyberbullying, the first step is to collect evidence by taking screenshots of the posts in question. Parents should also use the tools of the website or app where the bullying is happening. “Cyberbullying goes against all the rules of an app, so report it, and then block the person,” Patchin says.
On the other hand, if parents discover their child is the one doing the cyberbullying, that may require an entirely different conversation.
“It’s even more difficult to deal with those cases because it’s hard for you to imagine your kid would do that,” Patchin says. He recommends that parents approach these conversations calmly and with an open mind to get to the bottom of why a child engaged in bullying. In many cases, children may not realize the harm their actions can cause.
“They think it’s joking around, so it is important to express to kids how it could be significantly impacting another child,” Patchin says.
Parents have a number of tools they can use, from limiting screen time and which apps are accessible to their child to social media monitoring software. But most experts don’t recommend spying on children.
“Instead of putting software on the device, have a network of friends and family that are hanging out online with your kids,” Patchin says. “If I see you’ve posted something inappropriate on Instagram, I’ll let your mom know. It really does take that real-life network to keep track.”
How Schools Handle Cyberbullying
All 50 states legally require schools and districts to have anti-bullying policies, and almost all states now include cyberbullying in their legislation. But just because there’s a policy doesn’t necessarily mean there will be a guaranteed answer when it comes to cyberbullying.
“If the behavior is disrupting a student’s ability to learn, or if a student isn’t comfortable being in school, the school has the responsibility and authority to intervene,” Patchin says.
But beyond that, how a school should get involved is tricky. And while there is a long history of case law surrounding in-person bullying, Patchin says there have not been many cyberbullying cases. “We know schools can intervene,” he says. “We just don’t know if they are required.”
In school counselor Amy Riley’s district in Kentucky, for example, the policy on cyberbullying applies only to abuse that occurs on school grounds or on school technology.
“It’s really hard for us at the school level because when something happens outside of the school, we don’t have a lot of power to discipline. The only way we can is if it’s brought into the school,” Riley says. Even then, the school is often limited to simply notifying parents.
School counselors like Riley are often a school’s first line of defense for identifying cyberbullying, but many are overwhelmed with huge volumes of students. Riley was the sole counselor for 600 students at her school for 16 years, until the school recently hired a second counselor.
That deficit highlights the need for more counselors and mental health professionals in school settings, but Riley also believes having a social-emotional learning curriculum — even if led by teachers — is key to helping children understand responsible online behavior. She has partnered with local organizations, like the 4H, to offer schoolwide lessons on cyberbullying.
Along with the rise in cyberbullying, Riley says her district also saw an uptick in suicide threats. A study from Swansea University found that young victims of cyberbullying are twice as likely to attempt self-harm, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warn of the increased risk of depression, anxiety and other mental health problems related to all forms of bullying.
Experts say school staff should be trained to recognize danger signs, which include students acting more reserved and withdrawn or not socializing during free time, like at recess. Riley also says adults need to take student comments about harm seriously.
“When kids say they are down and want to kill themselves, there can be a tendency to minimize those comments,” Riley says. “In the cases we saw of those who made suicide threats, in almost every one there was some underlying issue and we were able to connect them to resources, which is so essential.”
Resources for Parents and Students
For more information, check out these resources:
— StopBullying.gov, managed by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, provides a good overview of the different forms of cyberbullying and approaches parents can take.
— The Cyberbullying Research Center offers extensive information on cyberbullying prevention and support, including laws related to cyberbullying across the United States.
— The National Bullying Prevention Center has a host of cyberbullying resources, including tips for parents.
— Local public school districts often offer their own tools. For example, Boston Public Schools provides a hotline to report incidents of bullying.
— Students looking for support can also reach out to a school counselor, librarian, or a trusted teacher.
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