Once limited to places like playgrounds and street corners, bullying now happens anywhere people have access to digital technology. Known as cyberbullying, these encounters can take place by email, texting and instant messaging in locations ranging from social media sites and chat rooms to online forums. In a 2015 study by the Cyberbullying Research Center, 34 percent of middle and high school students said they had been cyberbullied at some point.
While the methods are new, the results are familiar: Kids and teens who experience cyberbullying may have mental health and academic problems, lower self-esteem, and are more likely to have issues with drugs and alcohol use, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
For the parents of bullied children, it can be difficult to know how to respond. Cyberbullies can easily conceal their identities, and there may be no witnesses to their aggression.
The International Bullying Prevention Association seeks to advance best practices for preventing bullying. Here, two of their members, Sameer Hinduja, PhD, and Justin W. Patchin, PhD, offer their best tips for parents.
- Make sure your child is safe. The safety and well-being of your child should always be the foremost priority. Convey unconditional support, and demonstrate to your child through words and actions that you both desire the same end result: stopping the cyberbullying.
- Talk with and listen to your child. Take the time to learn exactly what happened and the context in which it occurred. Refrain from overreacting, but don’t minimize the situation or make excuses for the aggressor.
- Collect evidence. Print out or make screenshots of conversations, messages, pictures and any other items that can serve as proof that your child is being cyberbullied. Keep a record of any and all incidents, and take notes on relevant details like location, frequency, severity of harm, third-party involvement or witnesses, and the backstory.
- Work with the school. All schools in the United States have a bullying policy, and most cover cyberbullying. Seek the help of administrators if the target and aggressor go to the same school. Your child has the right to feel safe in his or her learning environment, and schools are responsible for ensuring this through an investigation and response.
- Refrain from contacting the parents of the bully. Some parents confronted with accusations that their child is engaging in cyberbullying may become defensive and therefore unreceptive. Be judicious in your approach to avoid additional drama and possible retaliation.
- Contact the content provider. Cyberbullying violates the terms of service of all legitimate providers, including websites, applications, cell phone companies and internet providers. Regardless of whether your child can identify the bully, contact the relevant provider. An updated list of contact information can be found at the website of the Cyberbullying Research Center. Just make sure all evidence is collected beforehand, as content providers will often irretrievably delete the content.
- Contact the police when physical threats are involved. Most states have laws related to online threats, and law enforcement can assist in these cases, either informally or formally. If your local police department is not helpful, contact the county sheriff or the state, as they have more resources and expertise in technology-related offenses.
- 8. If the bullying is based on race, sex or disability, contact the Office of Civil Rights. The U.S. Department of Education takes these cases very seriously if children are limited in their ability to learn and thrive at school because of discrimination.
- If necessary, seek counseling. Your child may benefit from speaking with a mental health professional. Children may prefer to talk with a third party whom they perceive as more objective.
- Implement measures to prevent the cyberbullying from recurring. For example, if your child is being bullied through social media (Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter, etc.), set up privacy controls within each platform to block the bully from making contact, and file a report (see #6). Encourage your child to talk to you before small issues flare up into major situations.
Watch this video to learn more about cyberbullying.
Sameer Hinduja, PhD, and Justin W. Patchin, PhD, are co-directors of the Cyberbullying Research Center, which provides information about the causes and consequences of cyberbullying. Dr. Hinduja will be the keynote speaker at the IBPA Annual Conference, taking place November 6 to 8, 2016, in New Orleans.