Bullies have always been around. But whereas bullying used to happen mostly on school campuses and in classrooms, it’s now followed students to their remote and virtual lives.
As children and teens go to classes online, and their main line of communication is via social media, it’s important to know that, as a parent, there are steps you can take to educate yourself and your child and better protect them.
What Is It?
Cyberbullying is the use of technology to intentionally humiliate, intimidate, embarrass, threaten, or harass another person. It can include online threats, aggressive messages, or posts of photos or videos meant to humiliate. Cyberbullies often share personal or private information about their targets (often called doxing), or post false, harmful, or negative information, all designed to cause embarrassment or intimidation. Some cyberbullying crosses the line into unlawful behavior.
Cyberspace: Where Anything Goes
The expansion of social interaction into the virtual space means that cyberbullying is:
- Persistent – The 24/7 nature of our virtual world means bullying can happen anytime and anywhere.
- Permanent – Once something is shared on the internet, it can be hard to delete. And even if it is removed, it can already have caused immense damage while live.
- Hard to detect – The online nature of cyberbullying makes it much harder for adults to detect than when it happens in person.
- Anonymous – Victims of cyberbullies might not even know who is targeting them, adding anxiety, mistrust, and confusion to an already hurtful interchange. And as anyone familiar with trolls knows, anonymity often breeds an extra layer of viciousness.
- Can spread to a large audience – Attacks can reach a very large audience in a short period of time, making it difficult to contain the spread.
Where Does It Occur?
Cyberbullying can happen wherever there is online social interaction. The most common places are:
- Social media such as Facebook, Tik Tok, Twitter, Snapchat, and Instagram
- Direct messaging, instant messaging, and online chatting on various platforms
- Text messaging on mobile devices, online apps, or tablets
- Online gaming communities
- Online chat rooms, message boards, and other forums
What You Can Do
As a parent, you have tools at your disposal to help protect your child.
- Talk about it. Have the cyberbullying conversation early – communication is key in detecting and addressing it. Kids may be reluctant to talk but making sure they know you’re available and ready to help may allay their fears. Make sure to help them set expectations, know what to look for, and be alert to red flags.
- Set rules. Just as you protect them in the physical world, make sure you’re establishing guidelines and boundaries in the virtual world. Stress the importance of privacy protection, password security, and discernment of who to friend or not. Set hours that technology can be used and when it should be turned off.
- Set parental controls – Set up parental access for your kids’ cell phones, social networking sites, text history, etc. As your child gets older, re-evaluate the rules and restrictions. Keep communication open and provide guidance in helping them become a critical thinker.
- Stay involved – Check in regularly. Even if your child is not being bullied themselves, they may well be a witness to it. It’s important to stay engaged, not just for teachable moments but for the possible need to bring bullying behavior to teachers’ or school administrators’ attention.
- Documentation – If you suspect your child is being bullied, document the evidence. Record details, including: saving URLs where bullying occurred; printing emails, posts, or webpages; taking screenshots of bullying, and saving texts or messages.
Victim, Witness, or Bully?
Cyberbullying affects not only the bully and their victim, but also witnesses. Here’s some final advice to help your kid no matter where they are in the dynamic.
- If your child is being bullied – In addition to the tips above, remember to offer a safe and supportive space for them to share their feelings and experience. Let them know that it is not their fault, they are not alone, and bullying is never okay. Work with their teacher and school administrators and ask about the school’s bullying prevention policy and protocol.
- If your child has witnessed bullying – Let them know they can make a difference by: not engaging in bullying behavior (no matter how “minor” it seems), reporting it, and reaching out to and supporting the victims. Remind them they can trust parents, teachers, school counselors, and other adults, and should reach out to them right away.
- If your child is being a bully – First, remember that bullying is a behavior, and behaviors can be changed. You’ll need to talk with them, ask about their feelings, and explore reasons for their behavior. You may wish to involve a school counselor or a children’s therapist. Discuss expectations and consequences, and practice positive feedback and patience as your child works on their behavior.
While the virtual world offers kids new, meaningful ways to interact and opportunities to learn, share, and grow, it also, unfortunately, provides fertile ground for bullying. By keeping lines of communication open with your child and setting guidelines and expectations, you can help protect them. If you’re a teacher, check out these tips for preventing bullying in the classroom – many of which can be applied virtually.
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