The National Crime Prevention Council reported in 2011 that cyberbullying is a problem that affects almost half of all American teens.
Most of us are now familiar with the term “cyberbullying,” or bullying through electronic technology. This includes social media sites, gaming sites, text messaging and email. This form of bullying can include publishing rumors or gossip and embarrassing or humiliating photos. It can also include creating false posts or profiles on social media.
It’s Not Just About Hurt Feelings
In 2013, a cyberbullying case hit the headlines. Twelve-year-old Rebecca Sedwick of Florida jumped to her death after being harassed and bullied online by two teenage schoolmates. There are many similar cases in which a suicide has been linked to online bullying.
What makes this a particularly concerning issue for our teens? Developmentally, the adolescent years are a time when children are identifying themselves more strongly with their peer groups. Friendships and relationships outside the home become more important than they were in the early school years. A blow to that identity or bond can therefore have devastating effects. Imagine the anguish caused by a humiliating photo on Facebook—or worse, an attack that turns peers and friends against a teen.
Why Is It So Common?
Unfortunately, the disconnection between typed or texted words and their emotional impact makes it easier for people to say awful things they might never say to a person’s face. Social constraints might make someone think twice before saying “I wish you would drink bleach and die” face-to-face with the victim and in front of witnesses. Posting it online removes some of the social barrier. It also removes the immediate consequences to the bully.
How Can You Prevent It?
Protect your privacy. Teach your kids to maintain their privacy online and to protect their passwords. It may seem natural for your teen to share the password to a Twitter account with a best friend. However, that same person may take advantage of that information in the event of a fight or falling-out.
Log out. Make sure your kids know to log out of accounts when they step away from a computer. It’s far too easy to impersonate someone on an electronic device if the bully is already logged in.
Be aware. Monitor your child’s online activity and be honest with them about it. “Friend” your teen on Facebook and follow their other accounts. Discuss this ahead of time. Make sure they know you are doing it to help protect them, not to interfere.
Think before you send. Just as we adults sometimes have to think before we send that angry email in the office place, we need to teach our children to think before they hit “send.” Ask your child to imagine saying the words face-to-face to someone, or having those words spoken to them, before writing them down.
Teach empathy. Children who learn from a young age to think about how others feel and to identify their own feelings accurately are much less likely to become bullies. The Golden Rule still applies!
What Do You Do When It’s Happening to Your Teen?
Ask your teens to talk to you immediately if they or someone they know is being harassed or bullied, whether in person or online.
Teach your child not to respond to harassing or bullying comments, but do keep track of them. As a parent, it may be wise to keep copies of emails or take screen shots of offending material so that it can’t be lost if needed later.
Help your child to block people who post, text or email this kind of material. Don’t give the bully a voice.
Report the offense to the cell provider, internet provider or social media site. They all have terms of service (TOS), which may allow the offender to be permanently blocked from access to the site.
Certain types of cyberbullying are criminal and should be reported to law enforcement. Examples of this include threats of violence, sexually suggestive material and certain types of photos.
Check out the useful government website stopbullying.gov.
Dr. Theresa Willis is a board certified pediatric physician practicing in Austin.