Approximately 1 in 4 teenagers reported experiencing cyberbullying before graduating high school. As a parent in the age of the Internet, it can be difficult to know how to have a conversation around a sensitive topic like cyberbullying, but it is an important issue to discuss with your child. To guide you in such conversations, Dr. Bridget Green, Adjunct Faculty at George Washington University’s Graduate School of Education and Human Development, who has studied and researched traditional bullying and cyberbullying, answers questions and provides conversation starters to help you initiate a dialogue about cyberbullying with your child.
1. What is the best way to start the conversation about cyberbullying with my child?
Conversations about cyberbullying can occur at any time, and regardless of where the conversations occur, it is imperative that these talks happen. To support communication and the learning process, express to your child your opinion and/or view of the topic and the potential consequences you will implement if she/he participates in cyberbullying as the cyberbully.
When you talk to your child, it is important to ensure that he or she feels comfortable talking and asking questions about cyberbullying. Ask your child to define cyberbullying and if you feel the need to add to the definition, begin your response with the part of the definition in which you both agree. A potential exchange could be:
Parent: How would you define cyberbullying?
Child: One person being mean to another person on the computer.
Parent: Good point. I agree that cyberbullying is being mean to another person through the use of computers and cell phones. I would also say that being mean online has to occur more than once because some people just have bad days and say things they don’t truly believe. If you see that someone is being mean to a specific person again and again, you get the idea that they are trying to hurt that person’s feelings.
In doing this, you are providing an opportunity to understand how your child defines and perceives cyberbullying. This interaction also assists in building empathy skills for your child when you explain that others may say things because they are sad, frustrated, or stressed. Empathy training can prevent your child from immediately interpreting and reacting to something he or she thought might be cyberbullying.
2. Where are common places my child might experience cyberbullying?
As your child spends more time online, he or she increases the chance of experiencing cyberbullying. On popular social media sites like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, teens can post pictures, videos, and comments, and send private, direct messages to peers. While these three social media sites attach an identity to a user, there are also apps (e.g. Yik Yak, Burn Book, and Secret) that allow users to be anonymous. Cyberbullying occurs on public sites and anonymous apps; therefore, it is important to discuss cyberbullying with your child before he or she uses technology.
While cyberbullying occurs on various social media sites, gaming, and anonymous apps, it is important to constantly communicate and reinforce positive online behavior with your child. Review news articles about cyberbullying with your child to better prepare him or her to respond to cyberbullying. Finally, remind your child that he or she should talk to you if any conversation makes them uncomfortable.
3. What are the signs my child is being cyberbullied?
There are emotional and behavioral signs that can be related to cyberbullying. Individuals who have experienced cyberbullying expressed that they felt anxious, sad, and at times, felt depressed after using a smartphone, computer and/or smartpad. You may notice your child becoming quiet, distant, or tearful after using the computer. Your child may also suddenly close out of websites when you enter the room, and avoid conversations about online activity. Victims of cyberbullying may also refuse to go to school, refuse to use technology, and participate in traditional bullying on or off of school grounds themselves.
4. What should I do if my child is a victim of cyberbullying?
It is important to be aware of how you respond to hearing that your child is a cybervictim and to effectively handle the cyberbullying, as your reaction will influence your child’s future conversations with you. Do not take your child’s computer and/or smartphone, and do not tell your child to “just turn off the computer if the words bother you.” If you take away your child’s technology because they disclosed to you that they were receiving cyberbullying-like messages, you are punishing them for appropriately responding to an event. To a teenager, simply turning off technology does not remove the potential social exclusion he or she may be feeling. It is important to discuss your child’s emotions relating to the aggressive messages.
When your child confides to you that he or she is experiencing cyberbullying, ask to review the content with him or her. After reading the content, reinforce your child did the right thing by showing the text to you. Next, ask your child how he or she is feeling after reading the posts and how he or she would like you to handle the situation. While the decision how to address the cyberbullying is up to you as the parent, it is recommended that you provide your child with an opportunity to have a say in how to address the cyberbully. Ask your child if he or she responded to or deleted any of the posts, and remind him/her to not respond to aggressive behavior online. If the cyberbully attends the same school as your child, alert the school as all states have adopted anti-bullying policies and traditional bullying can expand past the school and into cyberspace. Finally, it is important that you always take screenshots of the cyberbullying in case the posts are deleted.
5. What should I do if my child is a cyberbully?
While it is important to know how to respond to potential victimization, it is also imperative that you teach your child not to cyberbully.
If you discover that your child is cyberbullying others, it is important to stay in control of your emotions and not react in an aggressive manner. Review the posts, threads, or messages with your child. Ask them why they sent the messages, and how they would feel if these messages were directed towards them. This will build empathy skills, which can improve how your child interacts online. Finally, it is recommended that your child write the cybervictim an apology letter for his or her behavior.
6. What is the best way for me to scan my child’s online activity without feeling like I’m intruding?
While you may not want to intrude on your child’s life or development, you do want to ensure he or she is safe on and offline.
Consider this real-life example:
A mother takes her 15-year-old daughter and seven of her friends to an amusement park. The group arrives at the park at 10:00 am. After they enter the park, the mom reviews the amusement park map with the girls. The mother decides there will be a check-in at lunch, and while the mom is at the end of the table, she asks the girls if they are having fun and hears stories about what happened while she was away. While the mother was not involved in every activity that her daughter and her friends participated in, she was able to ensure the girls were safe and not in any harm during their time at the amusement park.
Parents should apply a similar check-in mentality to online activities. Online check-ins can be difficult because online communication cannot always be overheard or accessed by an adult. Some parents perform online check-ins by befriending their child on social media. While this is a great first step, a lot of communication will be missed through direct messages or private group chats. Constant communication with your child can assist in protecting them from aggressive, online language.
This article contains information compiled from Hinduja, S. & Patchin, J.W. (2015). Bullying beyond the schoolyard. Preventing and responding to cyberbullying (2nd ed). Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press. Please find more information on this topic at Cyberbullying.org.