By Natasha Persaud
When you think of a bully, does the image of a big kid with a balled fist come to mind? It’s time for an update. Today, your child may be dealing with an anonymous aggressor typing at a computer or a handheld mobile device. According to a UCLA study, 90 percent of young people don’t tell an adult about a cyberbullying incident. The most common reasons for not telling: Tweens and teens believe they "need to learn to deal with it" on their own or fear that their parents might restrict their internet access.
We spoke with Nancy Willard, J.D., author of Cyberbullying and Cyberthreats: Responding to the Challenge of Online Social Aggression, Threats, and Distress and executive director of the Center for Safe and Responsible Internet Use to better understand the threats facing our kids:
What is cyberbullying?
Cyberbullying is an electronic extension of bullying behavior. It involves sending or posting hurtful, cruel, embarrassing or harassing communications via the internet or a cell phone, such as text- or instant messages, images, video clips, emails or comments on blogs and social media sites.
These communications can be especially vicious and harmful. Today, young people can use a cell phone or connect to the internet almost anywhere. Kids’ online and offline lives are intertwined. That means, unlike traditional “schoolyard” bullying, cyberbullying can go on 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
With the push of a button, a cruel communication can be sent to a wide audience—magnifying the harm. Since the material is in permanent electronic form, it can continue to harm a child’s reputation.
Why is it so widespread?
Technology makes it easy for children to act impulsively and send cruel messages. Aggressors think that they are invisible online: It’s easy to set up a fake profile on a social networking site or a fake email account. Cyberbullying can also occur by proxy when friends of an aggressor, who are unknown to the target, send the communications. The ability to be anonymous reduces concerns of detection or punishment. When children don’t get tangible feedback that their actions have hurt others, it’s easy for bullying to continue or escalate.
You mentioned that a child can be both a cyberbully and a target. Explain that.
We’ve discovered that many kids who bully online actually are retaliating for being bullied offline. Students who are victimized at school are “leveling the playing field” using technology. So parents and school officials shouldn’t immediately assume that a child posting harmful material is the origin of the problem.
How can cyberbullying harm a child’s health?
Cyberbullying is harmful—and potentially deadly. It contributes to school avoidance, failure, violence, depression, and suicide.
Does filtering software and technical monitoring protect kids?
You can’t rely on technology to stop cyberbullying. It’s easy for aggressors to override filters on school computers or use a friend’s computer. Monitoring your child’s communications isn’t any better; kids perceive snooping very negatively.
Your best defense is to keep the lines of communication open with your child and stay in tune with his or her life online. Every time you interact with your child about technology—say you’re looking at your child’s Facebook page—make it a point to say three positive things, such as “Great pictures,” and “I really like the message your friend posted on your page.” That makes your child feel good about sharing his or her online life with you and supports the positive aspects of technology.
How can you help your child deal with a cyberbully?
Young people may be able to resolve minor incidents. Help them learn how to do it effectively. Say, “If you ever get into a bad situation, you can come to me and we can figure out how you can deal with it without anyone knowing that you consulted an adult.”
Together, come up with three options you both think will have a good consequence, such as planning the school day so your child stays out of the bullies’ path; blocking communication with the cyberbullies’; and filing a complaint with the web site or internet service provider.
If the situation is more serious, contact school officials, the bully’s parents and, if threats are involved, the authorities. Keep moving up the chain of command until you get resolution.
Is Your Child a Target of Cyberbullying?
Learn the warning signs.
Any big changes in your child’s mood or behavior signals something is wrong. Here, some signs to watch for:
Your child is...
- exhibiting depression, sadness, anxiety or fear--particularly if these signs intensify after your child uses the cell phone or goes online.
- becoming excessively attached to the internet or not going online at all.
- avoiding friends, activities or school.
- experiencing difficulty with school or a drop in grades for no apparent reason.
- expressing subtle comments that indicate your child is disturbed or upset.
"Be especially concerned if your child starts talking about feeling hopeless, saying,'I just don't care anymore,' or 'Life is meaningless,'" says Rosalind Dorlen, a child and adolescent psychologist in Summit, NJ and a fellow of the American Psychological Association. "That's a hallmark of major depression and a sign that a child may be contemplating suicide."
Other indicators: expressing low self-worth, changes in eating and sleeping habits, withdrawal, displays of anger or rage, substance abuse or engaging in risky behavior. That child needs immediate intervention. Visit a mental health professional, who can offer counseling and treatment.
Additional Resources for Parents and Kids
The following resources can help parents and kids learn about and deal with cyberbullying.