From “The Karate Kid” to “How to Train Your Dragon” to “Little House on the Prairie,” bullying is a common theme that reflects the real issues children and young adults face when peers begin a campaign of hate. And because learning how to subdue a rare dragon or perform a threatening karate kick isn’t effective (or even realistic) in social settings, parents have struggled to find the best way to explain bullying and give their children the tools necessary to combat — or simply survive — the unwanted attention.
Even more confusing is the rise of cyberbullying — something most teachers, parents, or other adults have little experience with and may be unaware of as the exploitation occurs on private online networks or is hurled by anonymous users. This can’t be ignored, however. Nearly one in five children who use social networking sites is the victim of cyberbullying, according to a recent study by children’s charity NSCPP.
Hannah Smith, a 14-year-old girl living in England, was one victim of online bullying. Gabrielle Molina was teased and taunted online and in the classroom. Both of these young girls’ deaths have been linked to cyberbullying. Most recently, a 17-year-old boy living in Scotland took his life after communication with a person he believed to be a teenage girl turned out to be someone extorting money. Stalking and bullying online are serious threats to our children, and they require parents to remain vigilant in monitoring their children’s online habits.
Recognizing the Abuse
The signs of cyberbullying are similar to those of “traditional” bullying. A bullied child will tend to be withdrawn, agitated, and reluctant to share conversation. He might suffer from loss of appetite, a decline in the quality of his schoolwork, general worry, or emotional upsets like crying for no apparent reason.
Many times, the victim does not even know who the abuser is due to anonymous comments or user profiles. This leaves the child feeling paranoid, wondering who is making his life miserable and whether he knows the person in real life.
Unfortunately, the effects of cyberbullying aren’t limited to digital spaces. While the perpetrator might not attend the same school — or even be the same age — the child’s peers can read the comments online and bring them to life in the “real world.”
Why is cyberbullying so harmful? Many children have self-doubt, fear, and imposed beliefs that they are “no good,” and a few unkind words displayed on a message board can turn these common insecurities into total desperation. These messages can be reviewed again and again, and the hateful comments tend to be much harsher as abusers act more brazenly when sheltered by a screen.
Because it’s so difficult to stop or monitor online activity, parents need to support, guide, and help their children develop skills to combat the abuse and deal with the psychological aftermath.
How to Fight Back
For many parents, their first reaction to an instance of bullying is to take away the cell phone, the Facebook account, and any online privileges. No cyber life means no cyberbullying, right?
However, this tactic can actually make things worse. For many children and young teens, having hundreds or thousands of contacts, Facebook friends, or Twitter followers is a measure of popularity and self-worth. The phone is a portal to their world. While some negativity and abuse might be coming through, closing the door entirely is not the answer. Taking privileges away can feel like a punishment during a time when the child really needs trust, support, and open communication with his parents.
That said, there are some steps a parent can take to make a child’s digital world safer right away:
- If the abuse is happening through SMS, change the child’s cell phone number or block the abuser’s number.
- Shut down any profiles or accounts where users are anonymous, such as Ask.fm. These sites attract users who prey on youthful insecurities.
- Have an honest conversation about how to respond to hateful messages and how to understand the other person’s motivations.
If Things Get Worse
Bullying can become an unmanageable issue, especially if a child’s abusers attend the same school or participate in the same activities. Often, a child being bullied is viewed by other bullies as an easy target, and this results in a vicious cycle of hateful comments, teasing, and threats, both online and at school.
Create a team to address the issue. Include teachers, other parents, and siblings. Provide a supportive environment where the child can talk openly about the abuse and how he feels. If a young adult is uncomfortable discussing these issues with a parent, a coach or therapist could help him work through the bullying, regain his confidence, and reaffirm his values.
If threats have been made, you should immediately contact the police — even if it’s an online issue. Technology has become more sophisticated, and police departments may have the ability to track down the abuser through his or her digital signature. Hiring a lawyer or working with social services are also options for families or children who have experienced serious disruptions because of a cyber bully.
Having an online presence is a natural part of a young adult’s life today, so the most important thing you can do for your child is to instill in him the belief that he can discuss anything with you — including mistakes made online. If you make discussing online behavior and interactions a regular event, you can build a relationship in which online teasing, bullying, or even coercion are issues you fight together.