Cyberbullying can be deadly. I’ve worked with many teens and young adults who have felt helpless, hopeless and suicidal after experiencing cyberbullying. I’ve also worked with countless parents who don’t know what to do about it.
This isn’t just a tween or teen problem. How many adults have felt disrespected by a friend on Facebook or via email? Perhaps you feel ones’ tone is condescending or harsh, when in reality emojis and text are the things talking, not voices. We hear what our critical mind wants us to believe. We also read comments with fear and skepticism, especially when in person they aren’t friendly or nice.
Now imagine that you’re a teen who is oversensitive (due to hormonal and brain changes), totally afraid of missing out or feeling left out, and glued to social media like it’s their life support? Everything they hear or see is amplified and made personal. Heck, I know plenty of adults who assume they are being left out or feel insecure about something that occurred online. It consumes them, and they post all about it (sigh…) or they can’t stop obsessing about it. So how would a teen feel in this situation? Terrible!
Cyberbullying is Painful
The reason this is so important is that teens are different than us, though we all can relate to the feeling of pain. So instead of distancing ourselves from our teens and young adults, connect. “The world is different now” or “I don’t understand why technology is such a big deal” are just excuses parents and adults use. It’s hurtful. YOU CAN connect. Why? Because pain is universal, even if you don’t understand why. Try to connect with them on the common human experience. THAT MEANS YOU’VE FELT PAIN TOO! We all have. Maybe it was the boy who threw ketchup on your jeans in front of the whole cafeteria, or the girl who ditched you in college to hang with her boyfriend. We all have endured pain; don’t let the social media or technology distract you from connecting. Its the same thing, except now, the bullying can happen 24/7. Which means the impact is much more intense.
When it comes to cyberbullying, most parents don’t know what to do. You may not understand their exact experience, but you do know what pain feels like. GO THERE, and let them know your experiences. Most parents I talk to don’t know what the right thing to do is, or how to enforce it. I’m hired by schools and parent groups often to explain to parents how to help their child cope with cyberbullying
The Reality of Cyberbullying and the School’s Role
It’s pathetic really. Schools discuss cyberbullying in health class or during an assembly the first few days of school. If it’s not happening on school grounds, it’s not their problem (by law, they are protected in some way). However, it’s so insidious at home that kids can’t even check their email or pick up their phone without being paralyzed by fear or embarrassed. By the time they get home, and are faced with reality of being tormented online and at school; many feel like there is no safe place to hide. And there isn’t.
Cyberbullying doesn’t require face-to-face contact. A cyberbully can be anyone with access to the internet or a phone. There’s no safe place or time. Cyberbullies can reach their victims 24 hours a day. It can feel to your child that there’s no escape from the torment or humiliation. The cyberbully may be someone your child doesn’t even know; with the internet, cyberbullies can be anonymous. Since they cannot see the reaction of their words, cyberbullies will say worse things than they would in person. Cyberbullying online can also reach thousands of people by forwarding or sharing. Online, anyone can see the bullying, and the humiliation can be extremely far-reaching for your child.
Cyberbulling Isn’t Always Obvious
A client of mine was outgoing, friendly, and enjoyed going to school; she made great grades and was involved in after-school activities. At 13, she had some drama with friends, but it was nothing out of the norm for her age group. One day, her mother emailed me to say that she has been withdrawn and agitated, yelling at her parents frequently, and crying at relatively minor things. Every time her parents asked her what was wrong, she clammed up. Rather than assuming it was normal adolescent behavior and that she spent a lot of time communicating with her friends online, I asked mom to open up the laptop. What she found was shocking.
Her ex-best friend had been cyberbulling her, on her Facebook chat. She was receiving hate-filled messages including, “You should kill yourself.” “Nobody likes you.” “You’re ugly just die already.” After looking at Facebook, mom checked my clients’ internet “history.” She had been Googling “how to commit suicide” and “how to die painlessly.” Thank goodness her mom had the insight not to minimize her daughter’s behavior and brush it off as “just a hormonal teen”.
Listening to your gut can save your child’s life; privacy is a privilege. When your child knows that you may be checking-in on his or her online history and cell phone behavior, he or she is more likely to be nice to others, and not be the bully. Conversely, if your child is the victim of such behavior, knowing you may find it, rather than having to go through the mortifying process of telling you they are disliked by peers, can be a blessing. My thirteen-year-old client later told me, “As much as I hated my mother for going on my computer, I think a part of me really wanted her to. There’s no way I could have told her that my former best friend, someone she liked, was treating me like that. I am kind of happy she found it for herself.” It’s never too early to start talking to your child about cyberbullying. Your child may experience cyberbullying as young as 8 or 9 years old.
Prevent Cyberbullying: 5 Tips for Parents
- Know what they do online. Know the sites your kids visit and their online activities. Ask questions about what they’re doing and who they’re talking to. Have them give you all their passwords for “just in case.” Make sure they understand you will not be checking in on them all the time, but have access to everything they do online. “Follow” or “friend” them on social media sites. You can also have a trusted adult (favorite aunt) follow them and let you know if they notice anything off. Explain to them that once it’s out there, information online will always be out there. Have them think about what information or pictures they want friends or even strangers to be able to see. Explain to them how to change their privacy and think about what people who aren’t friends could do with their information.
- Let your child know to get an adult involved. Children may not want to tell their parents when something is happening. Let your child know to immediately go to an adult such as a school counselor or a trusted family member. Let them know that there will be no repercussions (i.e. getting their computer or cell phone taken away) if they are open about the cyberbullying they are experiencing. Encourage your child to tell you or another adult immediately if they, or someone else they know, is being cyberbullied.
- Communicate with honesty. Develop a two-way communication where you child feels confident coming to you about their feelings. Have mini-conversations about what is going on in their life both at school and on social media. Ask about their friends and their concerns. Learn as much about their daily interactions as you can by being open and communicative with your child. Make sure your child knows how to get help. Ask if they have ever felt scared to go to school or get online.
- Help your child understand cyberbullying. Explain what cyberbullying is and how to stand up to it, safely. Let you child understand that bullying is never acceptable. Give them situations that may happen and how to get help. Let them know that if someone starts cyberbullying, to not react.
- Cyberbullies are often looking for a reaction and signs that their bullying is working. Instead, have your child save screenshots or copies of the cyberbullying to take to authorities and then block those that are torturing them. Make sure they understand that it’s important not to reply to any messages to or about them. Responding just makes the cyberbullying worse and gives the cyberbully exactly what he or she wants. Let your child know to never put up with cyberbullying.
- Cyberbullies are relentless. Remember that you might have to get the police involved and report each separate incident of cyberbullying on your child. Block the cyberbully’s email address, phone number and social media. Report activities to the social media websites, ISP, the cell phone company, and to any other websites. If necessary, you can change your child’s email and phone number. If you know who the cyberbully is, notify the cyberbully’s parents and the school. With the rise of cyberbullying, many schools now have a specific protocol for handling cyberbullying.
- Teach your child to help other children who are being cyberbullied if they see anything. Let them understand that that other kid might not know how to deal with the cyberbullying, and teach them to STANDUP. In my book Express Yourself I give kids and parents the tools to feel confident in these situations and scripts to help them know what to say and do with bullies and cyberbullies.
- Know Your Rights. Both parents and schools have rights when it comes to protecting children from bullying. In this Guide to Protecting Your Child From Bullying and Violence at School by Judge Anthony P. Calisi and the Injury Claims Coach discuss what you can do to prevent bullying and what you can do legally when bullying occurs. Bullying is an increasingly prevalent problem, with more than 750,000 reported acts of school violence each year. Read more here.
- Manage your child’s stress. Teach your child how to positively manage his or her stress. Let your child know not to blame him or herself; it is not their fault. The cyberbully has the problem, not them. Teach your child that the cyberbully is unhappy and is trying to have control over another person’s feelings.
- Communicate that it hurts, and you validate their feelings. DONT ask what they did to invite the cyberbully into their life. That makes them scared and silent.
- Help them see that there are friends out there too! Try not to dwell on the messages and to focus on positive thoughts instead. Let them know that no matter what the cyberbully is saying, your child is a wonderful person with amazing traits. Have your child find ways to relieve stress and boost confidence. They can exercise, join a team, meditate or pick up a new hobby to keep their mind off the cyberbullying. Make sure they spend time doing things they love such as sports or book clubs and hanging out with positive friends. Have them unplug from technology.
Good luck out there and let us know how we can help you!
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Emily Roberts MA, LPC is The Guidance Girl. Her goal is to help YOU become the most confident person you know! Emily is an award-winning author Express Yourself: A Teen Girls Guide to Speaking Up and Becoming Who You Are, Psychotherapist, TV & Media Contributor, Educational Speaker, and parenting consultant. She travels around the country educating girls, women, and parents. Express Yourself is available at bookstores nationwide and on Amazon. To learn more about Emily click here.