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Understanding and Preventing Cyberbullying
Many of us have dealt with bullying at some point in our lives. For kids today, however, bullying is more pervasive than ever, thanks to rapidly advancing technologies and like mobile devices and social media platforms.
Bullying used to take the form of harsh words on the playgrounds, shoves in the hallways, or notes passed in study hall. Today, it can be done from and to anywhere — often anonymously.
In the US, nearly 34 percent of middle and high school students report being victims of cyberbullying. In the UK, over half of teens and adolescents say they’ve been cyberbullied. What’s worse, more than 11 percent of US teens admit to having cyberbullied another person.
What is Cyberbullying?
The term “cyberbullying” includes a range of aggressive behaviors committed via modern technology. The goal of cyberbullying is to harass, demean, intimidate, or taunt another person with the intent to hurt or embarrass them. The most common forms of cyberbullying are offensive name-calling or the spread of false or harmful rumors.
Cyberbullying vs. Face-To-Face Bullying
In contrast with in-person threats, cyberbullying makes use of internet technologies, mobile devices, video games, and social media. Much our children’s lives are conducted across virtual communication systems like Facebook, Instagram, and Youtube. Texts, chats, email, and online games are also rife with opportunities to cyberbully.
Whereas a playground bully must face their victim (and risk witnesses), it’s much easier to engage in cyberbullying behind an anonymous screen. This distance often emboldens bullies to act or say things they would never do in person.
The biggest difference between cyberbullying and face-to-face bullying is that the internet is available 24/7 and “connected” technology is highly pervasive. Consequently, cyberbullying means that hurtful comments, images, or video can:
- Reach a vast audience in a matter of seconds
- Be repeatedly shared over time
- Never be truly erased from the internet
- Be spread anonymously
Although many dismiss cyberbullying as simple name-calling on Facebook, today’s bullies have a wide array of technology to choose from. Kids spend a large portion of their days using computers, mobile phones, and tablet devices. A Pew Research study showed that teens send about twice as many text messages as adults do, sometimes over 100 messages per day.
Over 81 percent of kids admit that it is easier to get away with aggressive behavior online.
In addition to stalking, rumor-spreading, and harassment, cyberbullying behavior can also include:
- Impersonating a child online by creating a false identity or by password theft
- Using text messages or chat apps like WhatsApp and Snapchat to bombard their victim with threats or harassment
- Tricking a victim into thinking the bully is someone else to harass them
- Creating entire websites, Instagram accounts, or Facebook pages designed to humiliate a target
- Taking or spreading embarrassing or compromising photos or video, whether real or fake
- Hacking attacks that deposit malware, steal passwords, or take control of their victim’s computer
- Attacking behavior aimed at sexual, racial, physical, or weight-based humiliation of the victim.
Impact of Cyberbullying on Victims
The effects of cyberbullying can be devastating — both physically and emotionally. Victims of cyberbullying have trouble adjusting at school and they’re twice as likely as non-bullied kids to suffer from anxiety, sleep difficulties, and depression. Bullying victims are also more likely to suffer from physical ailments like stomach aches and headaches.
In the US, at least 30,000 children per day stay home from school for fear of bullying. Skipping school can lead to poor grades, social setbacks, low self-esteem, and other ramifications that can affect a student’s life for years after the bullying has stopped. Bullied kids may also be leery of forming friendships and could become wary and untrusting of others.
Even children who merely witness bullying can experience negative effects. They can suddenly no longer want to go to school and they may carry excessive guilt for not being able to help the victim.
Bullies themselves often grow up to have problems of their own. Cyberbullies are at increased risk of drug abuse, academic issues, and violent behavior (and reaping its consequences).
Cyberbullying can be life-threatening. Although the press tends to feature high-profile cases of suicide as a common response to bullying, according to Yale University, only 7-9 percent of bullied victims are more likely to consider committing suicide than those who hadn’t been bullied.
However, the Centers for Disease Control lists suicide as one of the leading causes of death among kids aged 15-19 years. In the UK, half of youth suicides are sourced to bullying.
These statistics are particularly sobering when you consider that bullying can be prevented.
Cyberbullying even affects parents. In some states, parents can be held legally responsible for their children who bully others and be subject to civil lawsuits.
Signs of Cyberbullying
Most children won’t admit to being cyberbullied; only 10 percent of victims tell their parents. Their silence can be due to threats made by the bully (“If you tell anyone, I’ll hurt you”) or desire to avoid the shame of admitting they’ve gotten themselves into a dangerous situation, even if it’s through no fault of their own. That means you’ll need to do some proactive observing to keep your kids safe from bullies.
Kids at Risk of Being Cyberbullied
Unfortunately, some kids are more at risk for being cyberbullied than others. According to a 2016 study published in the journal BioMed Central, cyberbullying victims represent a different set of demographics than other kinds of bullying victims.
- Black and Hispanic children are less likely to be cyberbullied than other ethnicities.
- Children who are already struggling with depression or suicidal thoughts are more likely to be cyberbullied.
- Kids outside of mainstream social cliques are at greater risk of being bullied overall.
- For example, kids who do drugs, are sexually active, are significantly overweight or underweight, have asthma, or play a lot of video games can be tempting targets for cyberbullies.
On the plus side, the study also identified some protective behaviors that can help keep kids from being easy targets:
- Eating breakfast daily
- Physical activity
- Belonging to sports teams
- Reduced internet and computer use.
Signs of Cyberbullying
Although there is no one telltale indication that someone is being cyberbullied, both parents and children should become familiar with its signs. Knowing what to look for can help parents and caregivers protect their kids as well as enabling teens to spot warning signs in their friends or siblings.
- Misplaced, damaged, or lost belongings
- Unexplained physical injuries
- Secrecy around mobile devices or computer accounts
- Increased reticence to attend school, calling in sick, or skipping school
- Changes in academic performance or group activities
- Stealing money from friends and family
- Negative mood changes, insomnia, or appetite problems
- Self-destructive behavior.
Behavior of Cyberbullies
Most parents can’t imagine their child could be a cyberbully. Bullies don’t generally think of themselves that way, either.
Many cyberbullies think that bullying others online is funny, akin to watching slapstick where someone gets a pie in the face. The humor results from the bully feeling detached from the victim or thinking that the victim deserved to be punished.
However, there are behaviors correlated with bullying in general that can help parents determine if their child might be engaged in cyberbullying.
- Aggressive behavior in general
- Encouraging the behavior of other bullies (including adults or fictional characters)
- Repeat visits to the principal’s office or detention
- Unexplained new belongings or money
- Dodges responsibility for their actions
- Excessive competitiveness
- Obsession with social popularity
What to Do If You Suspect Cyberbullying
Kids can feel powerless and trapped by threats from cyberbullies. In fact, a common tactic of bullies is to threaten harm to loved ones if their behavior is reported. Also, in many cultures, “tattling” or “ratting” out someone’s bad behavior is seen as “dishonorable” and can incur heavy social penalties. With these types of powerful forces at work, it takes a lot of courage for a child or a teen to admit they’re being cyberbullied.
If you’re a kid and you feel that you or one of your friends is being bullied (cyber or otherwise), you aren’t alone and you aren’t powerless. Here are some things you can do to help yourself or your friend:
- Don’t reply to any form of cyberbullying. Bullies are often craving attention and can back down if ignored.
- Talk to an adult you trust like your parents, your school principal or guidance counselor, or another grown-up. The best defense against the demand for secrecy is sharing the secret with someone who has more power than the bully.
- Keep an offline diary. Print emails, take screenshots of text or social media messages, and take notes about the days, times, and people involved in the bullying incidents. If you don’t know their real name, note the fake names they use.
- Block or mute cyberbullies. Most social platforms, online forums, and mobile devices have methods for blocking unwanted messages. Blocking is the best option but if you’re afraid of retaliation, muting can be a good strategy. Muting protects you from seeing their messages but, unlike blocking, a muted person usually doesn’t know they’ve been muted. If you don’t know how to block and mute, ask an adult.
- Put down your devices. Spending less time on the internet gives you more time to make friends and have fun away from people who are hurtful.
How to Prevent or Stop Cyberbullying
Protecting your child from cyberbullying requires vigilance on the part of parents and caregivers, but kids can help their friends too. Here are some prevention strategies everyone can use — including time-tested anti-bullying methods and recommendations for helpful technologies.
What Parents and Caregivers Can Do
Even if you don’t think your child is being bullied online, talking to them about the subject is a great first step.
- Discuss what cyberbullying is.
- Ask if they know anyone who is being or has been cyberbullied.
- Discuss what your child should do if they notice someone being bullied online.
- Encourage your child to tell you or someone else they trust if they receive a threatening message.
- Reassure them that they won’t be in trouble for this and won’t have their cell phone or computer confiscated.
React to Cyberbullying in the Right Way
Finding out that your child has been bullied is incredibly difficult. However, the way you react to this knowledge is incredibly important.
- Don’t overreact. Don’t berate them for not telling you sooner.
- Be understanding and supportive. Work together to resolve the situation and reinforce the idea that you and your child are a team.
- Emphasize that your child isn’t to blame if they’ve been bullied.
- Don’t underreact. Don’t tell your child to “just deal with it.” Take what they say seriously.
- Never tease them about being bullied and don’t dismiss their experiences.
Document Cyberbullying Incidents
If your child is being cyberbullied, it’s important to document and report every incident. In addition to taking the steps above, you should:
- Save threats and document them, including threatening texts, sexually explicit pictures, or harassing messages
- Report incidents of cyberbullying to the website used, the cell phone company, and the ISP involved.
- Block the bully’s mobile number or email address on your child’s devices. Consider blocking the website that’s being used to commit the cyberbullying.
- Contact the school or parents of the bully, if you can identify them. However, always check with your child first to gauge their comfort level with contacting the parties involved.
Monitor Your Child’s Technology Use
One of a parent’s most effective tools for preventing cyberbullying is to monitor their usage of mobile phones and computers. Your kid won’t necessarily like it, but you can explain to them that having a powerful adult ally can make sure they’re protected from bullies.
- Restrict mobile device and computer usage to a common area of the house that everyone can access.
- Put data limits on your child’s mobile phone.
- Turn off text messages during certain hours if your mobile provider offers the option.
- Make use of the filtering options on your child’s internet browsers on their computer and phone.
- Turn on parental controls for:
- Gaming networks like Xbox Live and PlayStation Network.
- Other computer games like MMOs or mobile games. (Note that kids may use multiple browsers on laptops or computers to get around filters.)
- Your child’s social media sites like Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Youtube, and Instagram.
- Both Android devices and iPhones allow parents to set controls on apps.
- You can also find third-party apps that control what kids can do with their mobile devices.
- Insist that your child divulge all their passwords. Using a password sharing tool like LastPass can help.
- Keep abreast of text messaging acronyms. This may just be a question of asking your children.
- Check contacts listed on your kid’s social networks and ask them to explain who each of them is.
Use Celebrities as Inspiration
Children are heavily influenced by celebrities, even more so than previous generations, in part due to their relatively easy access via social media. Fandoms — like comic book heroes or pop groups — can also be a way to positively inspire kids.
Check out your child’s idols. Many singers, professional athletes, and actors support initiatives to stop cyberbullying. Some celebrities (like Taylor Swift and many others) have experienced cyberbullying themselves and can provide excellent proof against the idea that bullying is somehow cool.
Build a Positive Environment
Cyberbullying victims often feel demoralized, alone, and afraid. It’s crucial that parents and caregivers help kids restore their self-respect and regain a positive perspective.
Each child is different in how they want to respond to difficult situations. Some kids may want to stand up to the bully while others may not. Regardless of how your child reacts, it’s important to support them as they heal so you can reach a positive outcome.
School staff can do a lot to help prevent cyberbullying. Teachers can work with parents via meetings, the school’s website and forums, or newsletters to encourage parents to discuss cyberbullying.
Understand the Laws on Cyberbullying
Depending on the type of cyberbullying taking place, the actions may breach stalking, sexual harassment, and anti-discrimination laws or violate school codes. In many cases, cyberbullying violates the terms of service for many social sites.
Here are a few things to keep in mind:
- In the US, cyberbullying can result in a charge of juvenile delinquency or a misdemeanor cyber-harassment charge.
- Identity theft, password theft, or hacking can violate state and federal laws.
- In some states, “sexting” or even forwarding on a “sext” (text messages of a sexual nature) is punishable as possessing or distributing child pornography. If convicted, a sexter may be required to register as a sex offender, even if they’re a minor.
- If an adult perpetrates or allows cyberbullying, they can be arrested for cyber-harassment or cyberstalking, which can result in felony or misdemeanor punishment.
- In the UK, online harassment and cyberbullying can violate various laws like the Defamation Act 2013, Communications Act 2003, Protection From Harassment Act 1997, and others.
What Kids and Teens Can Do to Fight Back Against Cyberbullying
Although kids may not be aware of it, their own behavior can have an impact on their peers. To create a unified message against cyberbullying, enlist the help of other students as well as teachers and parents by creating an anti-bullying mindset at your school.
For example, you can encourage kids to speak up about cyberbullying through a reporting system that’s monitored by the school and parents. You can also request that your school promote suicide hotlines.
Prevent Cyberbullying Before It Starts
It’s not possible to predict or prevent every form that cyberbullying can take, but your kids can follow some general guidelines that help prevent it.
- Don’t forward any type of bullying messages or images.
- Use peer pressure to ensure your friends consider cyberbullying off-limits.
- Don’t share personal information of any kind — including addresses and phone numbers.
- Never share your passwords with anyone except your parents.
- Talk to your parents or another trusted adult if you aren’t sure about someone’s behavior toward you.
- Never post or text anything that you wouldn’t feel comfortable sharing with all your classmates.
- Don’t post angry!
- Treat people the way you’d want to be treated yourself.
Raise Awareness of Cyberbullying
Another great prevention tactic is to raise the awareness of cyberbullying. Parents and teachers can also help raise awareness. A good general tip is not to use scare tactics. People respond better to positive suggestions rather than negative ones.
Taking the Right Steps If Your Child Is a Cyberbully
It’s incredibly difficult to discover your child has been actively bullying others, but there are actions you can take to stop this negative behavior from continuing.
- If your child has been cyberbullied, find better ways for your child to deal with it than bullying people back.
- If your child is struggling to cope with their emotions, you may find a therapist can help them deal with their stress a more productive manner.
- Set a good example at home because cyberbullying can stem from learned behavior. Avoid aggressively negative actions like swearing at other drivers when you’re in the car or gossiping about others.
Cyberbullying, like all aggressive behaviors, is a systemic issue and that can’t be changed with one action or by one person alone. That’s why each of us, adults and children alike, must take responsibility for creating a kinder world where bullying has no place.
- Parents’ Guide to Blogging Safety
- Statista Cyberbullying Statistics
- Pew Research – Teens and Mobile Phones
- UK National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children