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Cyberbullying: How to Protect Your Child From Cyberbullies

Cyberbullying is prevalent and dangerous. Learn how to protect your child from cyberbullying and what to do when a cyberbully strikes.

The children of the 21st century live in a world where the use of the Internet and wireless technology is ubiquitous and considered necessary, as early as Grade 1. Those children whose parents are not rushing to equip them with the latest toys on the market eventually give in to peer pressure and join the army of button pressing, self-absorbed youngsters. From the conversations I have had with my young patients, I am amazed at how fast new technology is able to change the lifestyles, social interactions, and the ways of thinking of today’s children and adolescents. Most parents simply have a hard time keeping up.

These new developments bring about a host of new problems, such as dependency, lack of real interactions and poor social skills, loss of attention/concentration, as well as cyberbullying. Participation in social networks has become a key to peer acceptance and children often use this point as an argument with parents who are considering limiting their child’s internet usage. The parents may become reluctant to prohibit participation in social networks out of fear that their child will be alienated from the peer group. (Read: What Parents Need to Know About Bullying) Unfortunately, there is no simple answer to this dilemma. Each family has to make their own decision about when, how much, and under what conditions each online activity can be allowed. The best advice we can give to parents is to be informed about the potential dangers, to be closely tuned in to their kids and to take preventive measures.

Should Children Deal with Cyberbullying Alone

Many parents believe that they should not intervene if there is a problem but rather to allow their children to resolve their issues themselves. They believe this may help the child learn to deal with adversity and prepare for real life. The problem is that cyberbullying can take much more severe forms than traditional face-to-face bullying and the child has no escape from it. Cyberbullying is a very serious problem that has already resulted in several teenage deaths over the past years.

It is most severe among teenage girls but some boys are also affected, either as victims or as bullies. Being hidden from the eyes of the victim, any type of bully feels anonymous and invincible and thus may go for a much more serious assault than in face-to-face interaction. I was asked several times to help in situations where cyberbullying has taken place. In all of these cases, the parents found out about the bullying incidentally-their children avoided sharing it with them. Indeed, research indicates that children do not complain about this problem to their parents because they are afraid that the parents will restrict their internet or phone usage, blame them, over-react, under-react, or won’t understand the problem. Because of this, it is up to parents to keep their eyes open for the telltale signs of bullying.

Signs of Cyberbullying in Children

The most common signs of cyber-bullying in children are:

  • A changed attitude towards technology: the child is either hesitant to go online or spends longer hours at the computer.
  • The child seems upset after using the computer or cell phone.
  • Nervousness when receiving texts, e-mails, or instant messages.
  • The child hides or clears the computer screen or closes his cell phone when you enter.
  • Withdrawal from friends.
  • The child falls behind in schoolwork.
  • Fear of going to school or to social events (birthdays, school trips, outings).
  • A visible change in personality, behavior or mood.
  • A change in sleep pattern and appetite.
  • Aggressive behavior.
  • A sudden change of friends.
  • Withdrawn, sad, anxious, or agitated mood.

Of all these signs, the biggest red flag is a sudden withdrawal from technology. You can read more about the effects of bullying on your child here.

A major key to supporting your child is to maintain ongoing open communication. If you are dealing with a teenager, this might not be so easy. Parents need to find a way to spend some quality time with their children. Having fun together will relax the child and make them more comfortable discussing all kinds of things. It is important to have conversations about different topics, specifically about those that interest your child. Many children, and especially teenagers, do not like to talk to their parents because the parents mostly talk about school, problems, and often educate or criticize their children. Try to reverse the roles: ask questions and let the child educate you about something that they know better (perhaps new technology). Show curiosity and try to avoid teaching or criticizing. Make positive comments about your child. Children are more likely to enjoy this type of conversation and will be more enthusiastic to interact with you.

Discussing Cyberbullying With Your Child

It is important to talk to your children about cyberbullying and assure them that they will not be punished if they share any information with you regarding inappropriate use of technology, whether it concerns them or someone else. Most kids do not understand the potential dangers of posting personal information such as addresses, phone numbers, photos, and videos online. They need to understand that these can be used maliciously if they fall into the hands of a bully and that, once posted, the information cannot be removed. Some guidelines to prevent bullying can be printed and taped to the wall or desk in your child’s room:

  • Be careful with your online connections. Only add people you know to buddy lists, social networking profiles, and blogs.
  • Avoid public chat rooms that do not have some sort of security in place.
  • Use your best judgment with the personal information and images you publish online. Exposing yourself makes you vulnerable and an easy target for cyberbullies.
  • Do not give your mobile number or e-mail address out to people who are not your friends.

Pass the following simple tips to your child to arm them with cyberbully beating tools:

  • Tell someone what is happening. If it is happening at school, get your teacher or a guidance counselor involved. If it is happening at home, go to your parents. Do not face it alone.
  • Use blocking features. If you start getting bullied, block the bully, or inform the site administrator of what is happening so that they can remove the bully’s profile.
  • Adjust your security settings. This will make it more difficult for them to bully you.
  • Threaten action. Warn the person that you will inform the police if they do not stop. Save the bullying messages as proof of their activity. Report them if this does not help. Many police departments now have entire units devoted to investigating cyberbullying. (A useful checklist to determine when to involve law enforcement officers is available at www.stopcyberbullying.org/parents/telling_the_difference.html).

Forms of Cyberbullying

Educate yourself and your child about the different forms of cyberbullying. Currently, the most common forms are:

Cyberstalking - This form of cyberbullying is characterized by repeated intimidating messages sent to a victim by the cyberbully. These messages are meant to instill fear in the victim and may threaten to move from online to in-person stalking.

Sexting (a portmanteau of sex and texting) - This has recently become the most alarming and widespread form of cyberbullying. The victims, usually young girls, are coerced to send their nude or sexually provocative photos or videos to a real or virtual boyfriend, and this information is later shared or posted publicly.

Masquerading and impersonation - This is one of the most elaborate forms of cyberbullying where the bully creates a false identity and pretends to be someone they are not. The bully may steal usernames and passwords to log in to another person's social networking account and use their profile to spread gossip, rumors, or humiliating information.

Flaming - The cyber-bully insults and provokes the victim over instant messages, email, Facebook, or chat rooms.

Outing - A form of cyberbullying where one shares the victim’s private information or recorded private call or conversation on a public website or via instant messages. The goal is to ridicule and embarrass the targeted individual.

Exclusion - The victim is intentionally singled out and excluded from a certain online group.

Children with Mental Illness Cyberbully Targets

Research into why children get bullied and rejected confirms that children who suffer from mental illnesses, poor emotional awareness, and poor social skills are most likely to be involved in cyberbullying, either as victims or as perpetrators. If you have a child who has been diagnosed with ADHD, ODD, Autistic Spectrum Disorder or Developmental Disability, you should be especially vigilant. Children affected by these conditions may be prone to act impulsively and may be naïve when it comes to understanding social interactions. They may have a hard time socializing with peers and may rely on technology to compensate for that. Close parental control and preventive measures are particularly important with this group. Consider installing protective software on your child’s computer, such as McAfee Parental Controls, eMailTrackerPro or Predator Guard.

If you suspect or know that your child is involved in any sort of bullying activity, you must take immediate action. Let the school know that there is a problem and talk to other parents to get more information and alert them.

Today’s parents need to constantly update their skills in digital literacy, as well as the language of social media or “net lingo”. Sites such as www.netlingo.com can help you translate texting shorthand. 

About the author: Dr. Tali Shenfield holds a Ph.D. in Psychology from the University of Toronto. She is a member of the Canadian Psychological Association, the College of Psychologists of Ontario, and the Canadian Register of Health Service Providers in Psychology. Dr. Shenfield is a Clinical Director of Richmond Hill Psychology Center.

APA Reference
gkoplin (2013, February 23). Cyberbullying: How to Protect Your Child From Cyberbullies, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2019, August 18 from https://www.healthyplace.com/abuse/bullies/cyberbullying-how-to-protect-your-child-from-cyberbullies

Last Updated: August 14, 2019

Medically reviewed by Harry Croft, MD