Cyberbullying: What it is and how parents can respond

When parents talk and listen to their children about bullying experienced through cell phones, computers, or social media networks, they can provide valuable support and solutions.

Cell phones and computers have created amazing new ways to communicate, and some parents feel completely out of the loop when it comes to understanding the constant messages reaching their children. Unfortunately, these messages are being used as a tool to bully others.

Although bullying is a common experience for children and teens, technology has increased its complexity. Bullying behavior includes actions that are meant to intimidate, stigmatize, or socially isolate its victims, and electronic communication provides non-stop humiliation to a much wider audience which can often bully anonymously. Cyberbullying may include sending mean, hurtful text messages, spreading rumors or lies about others, or sharing images or video which embarrass others. Cyberbullies may use online communication thinking it is less harmful. Unfortunately the results of this practice may result in victims being unwilling to attend school or experiencing health problems, reduced confidence and self-esteem, ultimately leading to lower academic performance and even self-injury.

Parents who are concerned about cyberbullying may find it difficult to monitor their children at all times, but it is important to be informed and to stay involved. Cyberbullying peaks around the end of middle school and the beginning of high school. Helpful resources are available from eXtension.org to provide parents and kids with ways to prevent cyberbullying, or to constructively deal with it when it occurs.  Additional information for parents, teachers, youth and community members can assist anyone who cares about this issue, including a way to test your bullying knowledge.

Kids can take precautions by not sharing secrets, photos or anything that might be embarrassing in their electronic messages since it is impossible to control what others forward or post. Cyberbullying depends on others’ reactions encouraging the bully. Teaching kids to not participate by refusing to laugh or sending it on to friends, can also help put a stop to it. Someone who witnesses cyberbullying can tell a trusted adult about what happened and provide evidence such as text messages or saved screenshots.

Parents can help children who are being bullied by empathizing, telling victims that it is not their fault and then working together to find solutions. Teach kids to document ongoing cyberbullying, block the sender, and tell teachers or other adults who may be able to help. Talk regularly with your child to monitor the situation and take action if it escalates. Set a family Internet and data use policy, with ground rules and limitations on cyber communications, and enforce them. Keep computers with Internet access in a centralized location in the home, not in your child’s bedroom, and set limits on data access through phones.

A recent report on bullying in schools by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention published in December, 2011 found that when schools provide a safe learning environment in which adults model positive behavior, kids can mitigate the negative effects of bullying. An adult modeling respectful relationships through communication and consistent and supportive behavior is proven to be one of the most successful tools to foster social and emotional health.