This October, National Bullying Prevention Month has a greater significance than ever before. We have all heard about cyberbullying and the need to keep children safe while using the internet and cell phones. Children are now experiencing a much larger percentage of their social interactions online compared to a year ago, and the concern about how to protect children from cyberbullying has grown. Reports of cyberbullying have increased by 70% since social distancing measures have begun to take place. As parents, it is important to be aware of what our children are experiencing in their online interactions.
The act of bullying has three main components: unwanted aggressive behavior, observed or perceived power imbalance, and repetition or high likelihood of repetition of bullying behaviors. Cyberbullying is bullying that occurs digitally, and can occur over social media, texting, email, video calls, or even through video games. It can threaten or intimidate, harass, spread lies and rumors, impersonate, or cause embarrassment. Cyberbullying can be just as harmful or even worse than in person bullying because of the permanence of internet content and a more widespread audience.
There are certain groups which are at a higher risk of being bullied, including those with special needs or disabilities, members of racial, ethnic, and religious minority groups, and members of the LGBTQ community. Most recently, there has been a growing concern about bullying of individuals of Chinese descent, which has spread to others of Asian descent as well, due to anger and upset about the coronavirus. Girls are more likely than boys to be victims of cyberbullying, as well as more likely to be cyberbullies. Cyberbullying can occur for a multitude of reasons, including anger, revenge, peer pressure, or even boredom. The nature of cyberbullying provides anonymity that can give individuals the courage to harass others online when they would not normally do so in person.
The negative consequences of cyberbullying can have a negative effect on all involved parties. Victims of bullying can experience social, emotional, academic, and physical consequences. These include depression, anxiety, isolation, academic decline, headaches, trouble sleeping, or even suicide. Victims of bullying are also at risk for becoming bullies themselves. Bullies are more likely to experience substance misuse, academic problems, and violence. The evidence of cyberbullying can be difficult to fully remove from the internet, especially once it has spread to others. This can continue to cause problems many years down the road as victims apply for college or employment if part of the process is searching for them online. Stopping cyberbullying early on will help to minimize its negative impact on everyone.
As parents, there are several important things that we can do to protect our children from becoming cyberbullies or their victims. While we cannot stop every instance of cyberbullying from taking place, we can take steps to lessen the risk. We need to educate them about cyberbullying and what to do if they experience or witness cyberbullying. Children need to learn about digital citizenship and what behaviors are not acceptable or unsafe. This includes not sharing personal information, using privacy controls, and pausing to think before posting anything. A good rule of thumb is don’t post anything that you wouldn’t want your grandmother to see. Parents need to be aware of what their children are doing online and look for indications that their child may be a bully or a victim. They should have an ongoing conversation about what their expectations and rules are for using the internet and what behaviors could be considered cyberbullying.
Children who experience or witness cyberbullying need to be empowered to speak up and ask for help. Bullies on social media can be blocked, unfriended, and unfollowed, both by the victim and by those who want to show that they will not tolerate bullying behavior. Many social media platforms have policies prohibiting bullying and will take action when it is reported. Instead of responding to online threats or harassment, children should let an adult know what is going on. It may be necessary to get the school or even police involved, depending on the nature and severity of the cyberbullying. Kids need to know that help is available and the bullying is not their fault.
As parents, it is our job to educate ourselves and our children about proper internet and cell phone use, as well as potential dangers and consequences. This should be an ongoing discussion as our children spend more time online and have new experiences. There should be limits and guidelines, as well as trust and respect. Your child should be comfortable coming to you with any problems or concerns about what happens while they are on the internet. And most of all, we need to model appropriate online interactions to our children.