If you have a preadolescent, moody, hormonal kid, also known as a teenager, pre-teen, or “tween”, you should be aware of cyberbullying. In our digital, mobile, and social world, cyberbullying is a very real issue and a concern for parents. Cyberbullying is much more than just a modern version of the good-old-fashioned schoolyard bullying. In general, “cyberbullying” is the term used to describe online activities between minors that can range anywhere from text messages of a teasing nature, to digital harassment, and even threats of physical harm. Usually it’s deliberate and repeated behavior with the intent of causing physical, psychological, or emotional harm to the victim by way of computers and cell phones.
“Egads!” One more thing for parents to worry about! As if there aren’t already plenty of social minefields that parents need to help Junior traverse during his teenage-angst years, now it’s necessary to know how to recognize when he may be the victim of a digital bully?
Indeed! And it’s precisely that picture parents typically associate with cyberbullying — protecting their little angel from the harm of online meanies. Most parents are working hard to raise a “good” kid, who’s kind and considerate of others. But all kids, even good ones, make mistakes and bad choices. They need our guidance. It’s important for parents to realize that a child is just as likely to be the cyberbully as they are to be the victim of one. Parents need to be aware of this possibility, even as heartbreaking and devastating as it could be to learn that your kid is the one behaving badly. Sometimes the child has no clue their actions could be classified as cyberbullying. Kids can also switch between roles, from victim to bully and back again, as part of a digital exchange. Whatever the case, parents need to address the issue head-on and not wait for it to just go away.
It’s anyone’s guess why your offspring might get caught up in the role of the cyberbully. Surely contributing factors are the ubiquitous and oh-so-easy-to-use digital toys of today, which make for an abundance of opportunity. Because communications are merely typed online and not face-to-face, kids can feel less encumbered, making them much more likely to write shocking or mean things they wouldn’t ordinarily say in person. The writer feels a sense of detachment and anonymity, making the comments seem not so personal.
But why would any kid, especially your child, bully another online, regardless of ease and opportunity? The reasons are many and varied:
- Attention – Looking for laughs , trying to be funny or look “cool.” Attempting to elicit some sort of reaction from the intended target or onlookers.
- Power-Hungry – Harassing others is a cheap and easy way for a kid to boost their ego.
- Mob Mentality – It’s easy to pile on or be a “me too” when you can get lost in the crowd. It’s safer, especially if a kid knows the behavior is questionable in first place.
- Mean Girls – It’s a way for kids to establish or improve their social standing in a group or clique. Reinforces the cyberbully’s place in social circles.
- Entertainment – It could be as simple as boredom. Too much time on their hands, not enough to do, and too many tech toys available to them.
- Revenge, Frustration, or Anger – It can start as “vigilante justice” defending themselves from bullies or standing up for others.
- Vicarious Tough Guy – It’s an easy way to be the tough guy or gal.
- Accident – Let’s face it, a kid could mistakenly send a message to the wrong recipient or not think something through before they sent it.
So what are the signs that a child might be doing the cyberbullying?
- Uses several online accounts or ones that are not their own.
- Avoids talking about their online activities or what they’re doing on the computer.
- Quickly switches screens, minimizes windows, or closes programs when someone approaches or walks by.
- Appears to always want to hide their cell phone or computer from you.
- Uses the computer excessively or late at night.
- Becomes angry, upset, or irritated when they’re denied use of a computer, cell phone, or mobile device.
- Displays increased levels of aggression.
- Is unwilling to accept responsibility for their behavior.
- Laughs excessively while using the computer or other electronic devices.
What’s a parent to do if and when they discover their child is a cyberbully? Do you use the old potty training for dogs technique of rubbing their nose in it by cyberbullying your own child? Although that might teach them empathy for the cyberbully victim, it’s probably not the most constructive method. Besides, if two wrongs ever do make a right, this probably isn’t the time. Try the following:
- Talk to your kids about the power of words and how damaging and hurtful they can truly be.
- Talk to your child firmly about his or her actions and explain the negative impact it has on others.
- Force your child to really reflect on what they did, why they did it, giving serious thought to what the actual impact was on their victim.
- Try to find out if they themselves have ever been bullied.
- Require your child to do research on cyberbullying and the long-term damage and trauma it can cause people.
- Consider restricting your child’s cell phone and Internet privileges until behavior improves and then monitor their activities closely. Remind your child that the use of cell phones and computers is a privilege.
- Consulting with your child’s teachers, guidance counselors, and other school officials could help you understand why your kid would bully another.
- If your child has trouble managing anger, talk to a therapist about helping them handle strong feelings in a constructive manner.
- Also consider seeking professional counseling to help your child combat the urge to harm or harass others.
- A final next step could be to consider reparations, which take into account the victim and possibly their family. (Keep in mind that a victim of bullying may not be able to readily accept an apology right away. The victim might question the sincerity of the apology or may suspect an ulterior motive. Sometimes the apology is best made several months after the incident.)
The time to address cyberbullying with your kids is before it occurs. Talk to them about what cyberbullying actually is and what forms it can take. Give examples and explain to them that joking around and teasing might seem like good clean fun, but it can hurt people’s feelings and lead to serious consequences. Also, don’t rely on the school system to educate or intervene when it comes to cyberbullying. There is limited guidance available about whether schools should intervene, or whether they legally can, in bullying situations that occur off-campus, outside of school hours, and/or that involve digital or electronic communications. Further complicating matters, cyberbullying occurs most often on weekends, when kids have more time and opportunity to be online.
Bullying in any form is unacceptable. It can have severe and long-lasting consequences. When one kid bullies another, it can be devastating. When dozens of kids bully another, the emotional damage can last a lifetime. The more involved you are as a parent, the greater your ability will be to recognize cyberbullying and put a stop to it. Tech-savvy parents can model good online behavior and help their kids understand the benefits and the dangers of life online in the digital world.