Bullies have been around forever, but technology now gives them a whole new platform for their actions. The old “sticks and stones” saying is no longer true. Both real-world and online name-calling can have serious emotional consequences for our kids and teens.
It’s not always easy to know how and when to step in as a parent. For starters, teens use technology differently than we do. They’re playing games online and on their phones. And many have devices that keep them constantly connected to the Internet. Most are logged in to Instagram or TikTok chatting or texting all day. Even sending an email or leaving a voicemail can seem old-school to them. Their knowledge of the digital world can be intimidating to parents.
But staying involved in your son’s cyber world, just as in their real world, can help parents protect him from its dangers. As awareness of cyberbullying has grown, parents have learned more about how to deal with it. Here are some suggestions on what to do if this modern type of bullying has become part of your child’s life.
What Is Cyberbullying?
Cyberbullying is the use of technology to harass, threaten, embarrass, or target another person. By definition, it occurs among young people. When an adult is involved, it may meet the definition of cyber-harassment or cyberstalking. A crime that can have legal consequences and involve jail time.
Sometimes cyberbullying can be easy to spot — for example, if your son shows you a text, tweet, or response to a status update on Facebook that is harsh, mean, or cruel. Other acts are less obvious, like impersonating a victim online or posting personal information, photos, or videos designed to hurt or embarrass another person. Some teens report that a fake account, webpage, or online persona has been created with the sole intention to harass and bully.
Cyberbullying also can happen accidentally. The impersonal nature of text messages, IMs, and emails makes it very hard to detect the sender’s tone — one person’s joke could be another’s a hurtful insult. Nevertheless, a repeated pattern of emails, texts, and online posts is rarely accidental.
Because many teens are reluctant to report being bullied, even to their parents, it’s impossible to know just how many are affected. But recent studies about cyberbullying rates have found that about 1 in 4 teens have been the victims of cyberbullying, and about 1 in 6 admit to having cyberbullied someone. In some studies, more than half of the teens surveyed said that they’ve experienced abuse through social and digital media.
Effects of Cyberbullying
No longer limited to school or street corners, modern-day bullying can happen at home as well as at school — essentially 24 hours a day. As long as teens have access to a phone, computer, or other device (including tablets), they are at risk.
Severe, long-term, or frequent cyberbullying can leave both victims and bullies at greater risk for anxiety, depression, and other stress-related disorders. In some rare but highly publicized cases, some kids have turned to suicide.
The punishment for cyberbullies can include being suspended from school or kicked off of sports teams. Certain types of cyberbullying can be considered crimes.
Signs of Cyberbullying
a. Being very secretive or protective of one’s digital life
b. Withdrawal from family members, friends, and activities
c. Avoiding school or group gatherings
d. Slipping grades and “acting out” in anger at home
e. Changes in mood, behavior, sleep, or appetite
f. Wanting to stop using the computer or cellphone
g. Being nervous or jumpy when getting an instant message, text, or email
h. Avoiding discussions about computer or cellphone activities
How Parents Can Help
Talking about any bullying experiences you had in your childhood might help your teen feel less alone.
Let your son know that it’s not his fault, and that bullying says more about the bully than the victim. Praise your son for doing the right thing by talking to you about it. Remind your son that he isn’t alone. Reassure your son that you will figure out what to do about it together.
Let someone at school (the principal, or a counselor or teacher) know about the situation. Many schools have protocols for responding to cyberbullying. But before reporting the problem, let your son know that you plan to do so, so that you can work out a plan that makes you both feel comfortable.
Encourage your son not to respond to cyberbullying, because doing so just fuels the fire and makes the situation worse.
Block the bully. Most devices have settings that allow you to electronically block emails, IMs, or texts from specific people.
Limit access to technology. Keep the computer in a public place in the house (no laptops in children’s bedrooms, for example) and put limits on the use of cellphones and games. Most websites and smartphones include parental control options that give parents access to their sons’ messages and online life.
Know your son’s online world. Ask to “friend” or “follow” your son on social media sites, but do not abuse this privilege by commenting or posting anything to your son’s profile. Check their postings and the sites they visit, and be aware of how they spend their time online. Talk to them about the importance of privacy and why it’s a bad idea to share personal information online, even with friends. Write up the cellphone and social media contracts that you are willing to enforce.
Learn about ways to keep your kids safe online. Encourage them to safeguard passwords and to never post their address or whereabouts when out and about.
If your son agrees, you may also arrange for mediation with a therapist or counselor at school who can work with your son and/or the bully.
When Your Son Is the Bully
Finding out that your son is the one who is behaving badly can be upsetting and heartbreaking. It’s important to address the problem head-on and not wait for it to go away.
Talk to your son firmly about his actions and explain the negative impact it has on others. Joking and teasing might seem harmless to one person, but it can be hurtful to another. Bullying — in any form — is unacceptable; there can be serious (and sometimes permanent) consequences at home, school, and in the community if it continues.
Remind your son that the use of cellphones and computers is a privilege. Sometimes it helps to restrict the use of these devices until behavior improves. If you feel your son should have a cellphone for safety reasons, make sure it is a phone that can be used only for emergencies. Set strict parental controls on all devices.
To get to the heart of the matter, talking to teachers, guidance counselors, and other school officials can help identify situations that lead a child to bully others. If your son has trouble managing anger, talk to a therapist about helping your son learn to cope with anger, hurt, frustration, and other strong emotions in a healthy way. Professional counseling also can help improve teens’ confidence and social skills, which in turn can reduce the risk of bullying.
And don’t forget to set a good example yourself. Model good online habits to help your son understand the benefits and the dangers of life in the digital world.