Cyberbullying is the abuse of information and communication technologies – cellphone calls or text messages, social networking sites, emails, instant messaging and Internet chat rooms – for the purpose of tormenting, threatening, or humiliating someone else.
Bullies don’t need to be big or quick-tongued, all they need, along with a mean streak, is a cellphone or an online computer. They can carry out their bullying anonymously, and their victims can be reached instantly and repeatedly, any time of the day or night.
“The online world is such an important part of our young people’s lives," says educational psychologist Liesel Adams. "Kids have more ways to connect, socialise and communicate than ever before, but bullies can turn all that to their own cruel advantage."
Is your child being bullied?
Research indicates that at least 15 percent of teenagers have received threatening emails or text messages, had private conversations or photographs posted online without their consent, or had false rumours spread about them in cyberspace. In almost all these cases, parents had no idea this was happening. "Teenagers often won’t tell us that they’re being cyberbullied because they’re afraid of having their cellphone or computer use restricted," says Adams. "But cyberbullying is a form of emotional abuse and victims may become moody, angry or sullen – they could withdraw, or start acting out.
"You might notice signs of distress or anger after your child has used their cellphone or computer, or they may seem less keen than usual to go online. Sleeping, eating or studying habits can be disturbed and academic performance affected. There could be unusual reluctance to go to school or to take part in social events they normally enjoy. "If you suspect your teenager is a target of cyberbullying, tread carefully when you discuss it with them," advises Adams. "Assure them you’re offering help and support, and that you don’t intend to invade their privacy or unreasonably restrict their activities and lifestyle."
However, you do need to take action immediately – no type of bullying is harmless and the emotional effects of online bullying can be particularly destructive for adolescents. Shame, embarrassment, rage, depression and social withdrawal are common, and a few tragic cases have even ended in suicide or murder.
Experts recommend practical steps parents can take. Discuss the situation with your child without being dismissive or trivialising her experience, and without overreacting. If you forbid her to use her cellphone or computer you will only isolate her further, rather work together on a plan of action.
- Identify the bully or bullies, your child probably has a good idea of who the perpetrators are. Encourage him not to respond to the taunts.
- Lock the bully out of your online lives. Service providers offer channels for blocking harassers, who will then not be able to make contact or send messages or to know when your child is online. If the bully persists, using another screen name, you can issue a formal "warning" and "notify" the service provider to take action.
- Set up Google Alerts to notify you when anything about your child is posted online.
- If the bullying is extreme enough to violate the service provider’s Terms and Conditions, make a formal report and file an official complaint.
- Keep a record, both electronic and printed, of the threatening activities and of your interventions.
- Contact the bully’s parents, in writing. Present proof and ask them to take action.
- Inform the school and ask them for their support.
- If you believe the harassment is of a criminal nature, talk to the police or consider taking legal advice.
Is your child a bully?
But what if you suspect your child is the actual bully? As parents, it’s equally important that we stop our children from bullying others. In some cases, the bully does not fully realise the effects of his or her actions – young people tend to believe that what they say and do online doesn’t count in the same way as behaviour does in the real world. If the bullying is more conscious and deliberate, it may be motivated by anger, revenge, frustration, power struggles, the need for attention, or misguided entertainment value.
Frequently, the cyberbully has themself been the target of some form of bullying, either online or in real life. "Kids can go from being victim to bully and back again," says Adams. "Whether they are on the giving or receiving end, you need to step in. If you can’t cope alone, don’t hesitate to ask for help from your school or from a mental health professional.
"If your teenager switches screens or changes programmes when you approach, laughs excessively when using the computer or cellphone, or becomes unusually agitated if online access is restricted or denied, it may be wise to investigate further. Do a Google search on your child’s name, and ask to see their social networking sites. You could look at their cellphone logs and the photos and text messages stored on their phones. This is an invasion of their privacy, agrees Adams, but also your responsibility as a caring parent.
Acknowledging that the problem exists is the first step towards fixing it. Then, suggest experts, you should:
- Have a calm and focused discussion with your child to establish exactly what is going on, and why.
- Try to avoid being angry or judgmental, explain that their behaviour is unacceptable and ask them to consider how they would feel if they were the victim. Point out the possible consequences and discuss better ways of dealing with the underlying emotional problem.
- Tell them to stop the bullying immediately and to remove messages relating to it from relevant websites. Encourage them to apologise to anyone they may have hurt, if not face-to-face then by letter or an online message.
- Limit and monitor Internet and cellphone activity – perhaps move the computer out of their bedroom and consider taking away their cellphone until you are sure they will not abuse these privileges.
- Remember that all of this is for your child’s own benefit as much as for the victim’s – no-one likes a bully, and taking responsibility for his or her actions now and committing to change could save your teenager a lot of problems later in life.
- Whatever your child’s cyber-dilemma, your awareness of it is half the battle won. Try to maintain a relationship with your teenager where communication about good and bad decisions or experiences is possible, and be aware of what is going on in their lives.
- Make the cyber world part of your ongoing conversation with your kids, and discuss ethical online behaviour. Help them to understand that any actions taken in a virtual world have consequences in the real world, and then trust that they will safely enjoy all the benefits of a vibrant online social life.