As children and teens spend more time online, it's easier than ever for them to experience cyberbullying – and the effects can be serious. The mental toll of enduring unkind comments, cruel memes or untrue rumors can add up, leaving victims of cyberbullying feeling depressed and isolated.
"Cyberbullying is not something kids get through overnight," says Alice Ann Holland, Ph.D., ABPP, Research Director of the Neuropsychology Service at Children's Health℠ and Associate Professor at UT Southwestern. "Children and teens can get so wrapped up in their social worlds that it can be hard for them to distance themselves and ask for help."
Dr. Holland explains how parents can spot the signs of cyberbullying and steps they can take to help prevent it.
What is cyberbullying?
Cyberbullying is bullying that takes place on computers, cell phones or other digital devices. It typically involves repeated, negative comments or posts by someone intentionally trying to do harm.
The widespread use of text messaging and social media platforms can make it easy for bullies to harass or belittle someone with the click of a button. Examples of cyberbullying can range from online posts that threaten physical harm or encourage the victim to harm themselves, to more subtle posts that mock the victim's appearance, interests or social status.
How common is cyberbullying?
Research on bullying suggests that 1 in 5 girls and 1 in 10 boys will experience cyberbullying in their lifetimes. A 2019 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that 15.7% of high school students reported being electronically bullied in the previous 12 months alone.
What are signs of cyberbullying?
Parents should be mindful of any sudden or dramatic changes in their child's behavior, as these could be warning signs of online bullying. "Be particularly aware of changes in kids' social activities, such as withdrawing from a former friend group, as well as changes in their academic performance," Dr. Holland says.
Signs that your child is being cyberbullied may include:
- Abrupt shifts in typical sleep, exercise and/or eating routines
- Decline in attention to self-care and hygiene
- Rapid closing of screens when a parent enters the room
- Sudden struggles with schoolwork
- Unusual outbursts of anger, anxiety or sadness
- Withdrawal from friends and family
- Changes in friend group
How can you prevent cyberbullying?
To help prevent cyberbullying, parents should have ongoing, open conversations with their children about how to use technology in a responsible way. Explain the importance of never posting comments that could harm or embarrass others – especially since these posts have the potential to last online forever. Make sure kids understand that their social posts can be shared widely on digital platforms, sometimes in ways they never intended. For example, even private text messages can be easily screenshot and posted online.
Dr. Holland notes that adolescents may be prone to impulsivity, because the areas of the brain that control inhibition and emotional regulation are some of the last to fully develop. This means that tweens and teens may be more likely to post harmful messaging online, even if it's something they would never say in person.
Remind your child to follow simple rules of digital etiquette, such as:
- If you wouldn't say something in person or in front of a wide audience, don't say it online
- Never post negative or private information about someone else
- Don't talk to anyone online whom you don't know in real life
- Never share your personal information online or share your passwords with others
Most importantly, set up a "digital safe harbor" policy and encourage your kids to come to you if they ever experience cyberbullying, either as a victim or a bystander. A digital safe harbor policy means that you agree as the parent not to punish your child for breaking any household internet rules if they are telling you about cyberbullying or other unsafe content they may encounter online. This will ensure your child feels comfortable reporting cyberbullying no matter what the circumstances – even if that means they were using social media platforms without permission.
"It's really important for preteens and teens to feel honest and open when it comes to cyberbullying," Dr. Holland explains. "So as parents, it's part of a trade-off, an understanding that if our kids open up about cyberbullying they've experienced, they won't face punishment."
What should you do if you think your child is being cyberbullied?
If you suspect your son or daughter may be the victim of cyberbullying, don't rush to react. Have an honest conversation with your child to better understand the severity and scope of the bullying. In this way, you can help your child navigate the situation appropriately.
If the cyberbullying is relatively minimal, help your child brainstorm proactive ways to remove themselves from the source of the bullying or to ignore it entirely.
"If you're dealing with less severe examples of cyberbullying, such as kids calling each other names online, empower your child to make good choices about their friend groups," says Dr. Holland. "It's important in cases like these to help kids see that these may not be the people they want to be socializing with."
If the cyberbullying is more consistent or extreme, or if it entails threats of violence or harm, consider reporting the situation to the appropriate school or local authorities. It can also be helpful to seek outside assistance, either in the form of a teacher, guidance counselor or therapist, who can help your child deal with the negative emotional effects of the experience.
Valuable resources for cyberbullying prevention are also available at StopBullying.gov.
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