Protecting your child from cyberbullying
Social media and technology have changed how tweens and teens interact with each other — including how they bully. Bullies still harass kids in person, but now they can use cyberbullying to intimidate peers from a distance.
One in four kids is cyberbullied at some point. One in six kids uses technology to bully someone else. Among high school students, cyberbullying is now more common than in-person bullying, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). It can also potentially be more harmful because it’s hard for the targets of bullying to escape and challenging for their parents to detect. Cyberbullies may also use fake accounts, making it hard to know who’s doing it or how many are involved.
But like anything else, knowledge is power. Here’s what you need to know about cyberbullying and how to manage it with your kids:
What is cyberbullying?
Cyberbullying is using technology to target, harass and cause pain to another person. It may involve:
- Openly excluding someone
- Sharing embarrassing or inappropriate photos
- Spreading gossip
- Threats and intimidation
It can occur in any online setting, including social media, video games, text messaging and online boards or chats. The bully and the victim often know one another from school, sports or other social settings.
Cyberbullying typically checks four boxes. It tends to:
- Include intentional, aggressive behavior
- Occur repeatedly
- Reflect unequal power between the bully and the victim
- Happen online or using technology
Effect of cyberbullying on kids
Cyberbullying can leave tweens and teens feeling angry, isolated and powerless. When the bullying is ongoing, it can cause:
- Anxiety, which tends to be worse after cyberbullying than after traditional bullying
- Depression, especially in girls and older teens
- Emotional distress, including low self-esteem or suicidal thoughts in extreme cases
- High stress levels, with some researchers measuring increased cortisol (stress hormone) levels in victims of cyberbullying
- Increased participation in risky behaviors, such as substance abuse and self-harm — often used as coping mechanisms
- Physical symptoms affecting sleep, eating and digestion
- Poor academic performance, which may include lower grades, reduced class participation or the need to repeat the class or level
Experts don’t yet know how cyberbullying affects a child long-term. But research shows that traditional bullying may cause poor physical and mental health in adulthood. A study published in Archives of Disease in Childhood found that victims of bullying tend to have trouble making and keeping friends, be worse at financial management and earn less than their peers.
Safeguarding against cyberbullies
Restricting access to all electronic technology is the only surefire way to avoid cyberbullying. But if your child has an online presence — and most teens do — there are still ways to reduce the risk of cyberbullying and the effects it could have. If your child uses any form of technology, take steps to:
- Support your child’s mental health, because some research suggests that children who are anxious or depressed are more likely to be cyberbullied.
- Set rules about who your children can “friend” or interact with online. A good rule of thumb for your child: If you wouldn’t invite the person to your house, don’t give them access to you on social media.
- Monitor your child’s online behavior by asking to “friend” or follow your child on social media with the understanding that you won’t post or visibly be involved.
- Educate your child about cyberbullying so they’ll recognize it and know how to ask for help if it happens.
- Show your child how to report online abuse and block users so they don’t feel powerless. Help them get familiar with what “abuse” means for each platform they use.
- Keep the lines of communication open with regular short chats. Asking your child how things are going each day allows them an opportunity to open up to you.
Signs of cyberbullying
Your child may be involved in cyberbullying — either as the bully or the victim — if you notice:
An increase or decrease in how much they use their device
Reluctance to share what they are looking at on their device (or hiding their screen when you walk by)
Frequent shutting down of social media accounts and adding new ones
Avoidance of social situations
Signs of depression or no interest in once-loved activities
Unexplained changes in mood, appetite and sleep
Sudden drop in academic performance
What to do if your child is involved in cyberbullying
If your child is the victim of cyberbullying, make sure they know it’s not their fault and that the bully’s actions say more about the bully than the victim. Show them your support and tell them they are not alone in this.
To address the cyberbullying:
- Investigate your child’s device and their digital behavior to gain an understanding of the situation.
- Take screenshots and document cyberbullying, which typically includes repeated incidents.
- Stop the cyberbullying by helping your child block the bully and contacting the app or website to remove bullying-related posts.
- Contact a school administrator or teacher if the bully appears to be a classmate or if the situation affects your child’s school performance.
- Report cyberbullying to the police if the bully threatens your child.
Consider reaching out to your child’s primary care provider. They can provide guidance and connect you with appropriate mental health resources. Therapy can help your child work out their feelings and may reduce the risk of depression and anxiety associated with cyberbullying.