How to Prevent Cyberbullying
Many tweens and teens are using social media. Research published in 2016 showed that approximately 80% of teens in the U.S. are using some type of social networking site. Online social channels can provide many benefits to your teen, keeping them connected to their friends, instilling confidence, accessing valuable information, and providing them with an outlet to have a voice, promote a cause, or develop their identity.
However, cyberbullying is a growing concern that can greatly impact your child’s mental health and well-being. The above-mentioned research also found that the majority of students aged 12 to 18 had experienced cyberbullying at least twice in the last year. Though, there are steps you can take to help safeguard your tween or teen from online bullying.
What is Cyberbullying?
Cyberbullying is bullying that takes place online or via digital devices. This form of technology-based bullying can happen through text messages, on social media platforms, within gaming communities using live chats, and via other forums, message boards, instant or direct messaging, email, or applications used to communicate by digital means. It is often persistent, permanent, and not easily detected.
Typically, a cyberbully engages in behaviors intended to embarrass, humiliate, intimidate, or otherwise harm another person. These harmful actions might include sending, posting, or sharing negative, false, sensitive, or private information about someone else.
Often, people mistake cyberbullying as being anonymous, “joking,” or having no repercussions. Not only is cyberbullying emotionally scarring to its targets, but it can sometimes have legal consequences, with some actions considered criminal offenses in certain states.
How serious is cyberbullying?
Cyberbullying isn’t harmless. Teens suffering from the effects of cyberbullying might experience:
- Feelings of sadness, loneliness, hopelessness, and powerlessness
- Higher rates of depression or feelings of worthlessness
- Difficulty sleeping
- Physical complaints, health concerns, or psychosomatic symptoms, including headache, stomachache, poor appetite, and skin problems
- At least one symptom of stress, reported by 32% of cyberbullying targets in one study
- Emotional distress, per findings from the Second Youth Internet Safety Survey indicating 38% of teen victims were extremely upset by online harassment
- Disruptions in relationships, fewer friendships, and problems with peers
- Reduced school attachment, academic problems, and disciplinary issues
- Loss of trust in others
- Increased social anxiety
- Lower self-esteem
- Increased risk of developing an eating disorder
Higher likelihood of thinking about or attempting suicide compared to their peers not involved in cyberbullying (this effect of cyberbullying extends to both victims and perpetrators, with targets being almost twice as likely to attempt suicide and perpetrators being 1.5 times more likely)
How can parents help protect their teens from cyberbullying?
Due to the accessibility and pervasiveness of the Internet, it’s not always possible to prevent every instance of cyberbullying, especially among youth populations. However, parents and other adults can take steps to become more aware of what it is, how it affects children and teens, how to detect it, and how to respond effectively when it’s happening.
Knowing what children are doing online and how they’re vulnerable, plus, educating them on how to handle cyberbullying situations when they occur, are all great ways you can help protect your teens and prevent or at least mitigate the effects of cyberbullying.
Keep Open Lines of Communication with Your Child
The more your child trusts you, the more likely they are to open up to you when they’re having a problem. Unfortunately, many teens don’t speak up because they’re afraid of how their parents might respond, they’re ashamed or embarrassed, or they think they can handle it on their own.
Engaging in effective and meaningful conversations with your teenager often, not just about cyberbullying, is important to foster an open line of communication. By doing so, you let them know that you can be a valuable resource and ally to them when problems or conflicts arise.
Make Your Teen Aware of What Cyberbullying Is
It’s important to be transparent and straightforward with your teenager about the dangers of social media and the Internet. Kids won’t always know what cyberbullying is until they’re in the thick of it, so it’s best to provide them with real-life examples that can happen on digital devices and networking channels they’re already using.
It’s important for your child to understand that even seemingly joking or light-hearted comments can be hurtful to those being targeted. Let them know that all types of cyberbullying are unacceptable whether they’re on the giving or receiving end, or even if they’re just watching it happen.
However, don’t use this opportunity to scold your child. Instead, allow your teen to ask questions and share in the conversation without fear of judgment. Doing so can help make you aware of where they still need guidance and if they’re currently having a problem. Additionally, being direct yet compassionate with your child and providing them with a safe space to speak openly with you is an excellent way to bolster trust.
Equip Your Teen to Respond Appropriately
Teach your child how to respond (or how not to respond) when they notice the warning signs of cyberbullying. Having a plan in place and the appropriate tools or resources to carry out that plan can give your teen the confidence they need to handle cyberbullying incidents effectively and productively.
Responding incorrectly could potentially increase the frequency or severity of the cyberbullying. Also, “seeking revenge” can lead to your child becoming a cyberbully. So, it’s important to have a strategy in place to end the cyberbullying or report it when necessary.
Know the Popular Apps and Platforms
It’s important to know what’s trending in the online realm. Being aware of the sites and applications your child is likely to access and understanding how they work and what they’re used for, can help you better assess your child’s potential risk of cyberbullying and accompanying dangers.
Popular apps and social media platforms change over time, and teens quickly become aware of new ways to use them and, also, misuse them, making it important for parents to stay up to date on the evolution of the digital world to help protect their children.
Monitor What Your Child is Doing Online
In line with the above, you need to know what your child is doing online. “Spying” on your child’s phone or computer might seem like a breach of privacy, but there are ways to go about monitoring your child’s or teen’s online or digital activity while still allowing them some autonomy.
First, establish ground rules for social media and phone use. Set time limits and discuss appropriate and inappropriate online behaviors. Allow your child to pursue the positive benefits of technology, but make them aware of the dangers, too. Knowing what apps and platforms they’re accessing and who their online friends are, or who they’re talking to, and how they’re using these digital or online channels can help alert you to potential problems.
If your child or teen fails to follow your initial ground rules, you can install parental controls on their personal laptops to prevent them from accessing certain sites. There are apps available on both iPhones and Androids to help monitor when new apps are uploaded, and purchases are made. Additionally, these apps enable you to view your child’s text messages and online activity and, in extreme situations, block their phone remotely if they’re engaging in questionable behaviors.
Finally, it might be necessary to sign off line for a bit until your child can handle the responsibility of social media, text messaging, and Internet access. You have to do what’s right for you, your family, and your child’s safety and well-being.
Empower Your Teen to Use Social Media Responsibly
As parents, it’s important to acknowledge the significant roles of social media and the Internet in your children’s lives. Social media and online networking aren’t going away. In fact, new apps and new ways to communicate, using words, hashtags, emojis, pictures, video, voice, and other media, are consistently being developed. This digital realm we’re living in is only going to continue to grow.
With the amount of information circulating and the level of access to anyone at any time, it’s easy to want to protect your child or teen by restricting access altogether or monitoring their actions too closely. Another approach that might be helpful is to teach your tweens and teens the necessary skills to safely and responsibly navigate the online world. While you can’t always protect them from others’ actions, it is entirely possible to guide them on cautious and beneficial social media use so that they can independently establish their online voice and formulate their identities in their own space.
Information published by Pew Research Center in 2018, regarding teens’ experience on social media, showed that overall teens believe social media is important to strengthen their friendships and promote positive feelings. However, 45% of teens stated feeling overwhelmed by drama encountered on social media (with unfriending or unfollowing being the popular way to handle it), and 26% said accessing these sites made them feel worse about themselves and their lives.
Positive aspects of social media use include feeling involved, establishing confidence, promoting authenticity, and feeling engaged or connected, with a minority of teens instead feeling excluded, insecure, fake, and reserved. So, how can you help empower your teen to access the positive benefits of social media?
Refer to the following tips when educating your child about using social media responsibly:
- Think about what’s being posted. There’s a formula you can refer to when starting a conversation with your teen about what messages or images they’re portraying online:
- Use security settings to keep personal information private. Along those lines, advise your teen to never share their address, phone number, or other identifying information. Also, coach them on keeping photos and messaging appropriate, and never sharing anything that they wouldn’t want you, their teachers, grandma, a future employer, or others to see. There’s no trust factor when disseminating sensitive photos and information digitally or online. Sharing inappropriate material makes them vulnerable to permanent harm.
- Take breaks as needed. Encourage your teen to make their time spent online meaningful rather than mindless. Doing so will help limit the amount of wasted time scrolling or engaging in non-productive or harmful activities.
- Do not react. Remind your teen that everything they post online becomes permanent, even if it’s later deleted. For this reason, they should never post when they’re experiencing negative emotions. If they’re upset, they should talk about their feelings in person with a parent, counselor, or therapist, close friend, or another trusted adult. Doing so can help them gain valuable insight and a more positive perspective to address their problem or emotions constructively rather than destructively.
- Be aware of the dangers and have a plan. Help guide your child on appropriate and inappropriate online behaviors so that they’ll recognize wrong behaviors when they’re happening. Have a plan in place so that your child knows what’s expected of them when handling the situation.
- Be a role model for your teen. Teach them appropriate social media use through your own actions. If you want them to set limits, you need to be mindful of how often you’re signing online, too. Additionally, show them examples of meaningful and productive posts by referring to your own social media profiles. Children often model their behaviors after what they observe. Make sure you’re providing them with a positive and beneficial view of social media and digital use.
- Create a “contract” for social media and cell phone use. Have your child agree to your ground rules in writing. In exchange, you can agree to provide them with some online autonomy without embarrassment and with some independence to resolve their own digital problems. Both of you can sign the agreement and adhere to its terms. Have the consequences clearly outlined so that they know what will happen if they violate the agreement, such as increased parental controls or only using their digital devices in shared spaces within the home.
How can you help your teen if cyberbullying is already happening?
If cyberbullying is already happening, your teen should not engage with the bully. Instead, they need to start by blocking them. If they receive threats to their safety or well-being or are in immediate physical danger, you must call 911 so that law enforcement can get involved and take any necessary actions to protect your child.
If you are not in need of help from law enforcement, you can also report cyberbullying to online social networking providers or school administrators. If your teen’s mental health is declining or they’re having suicidal thoughts due to the online bullying, contact the National Suicide Lifeline right away at 1-800-273-8255 or access their online chat for help.
Finally, for more information about cyberbullying and its link to teen depression and suicide, contact the Social Media Victims Law Center.
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Every case is unique. Our attorneys will work with your family to evaluate your potential case and help you evaluate whether filing a lawsuit or other legal proceeding is in your family’s best interest. Generally speaking, the types of cases we handle involve serious mental health effects, including attempted or completed suicide, eating disorders, inpatient mental health treatment, or sexual trafficking/exploitation that was caused by or contributed to through addictive or problematic social media use by teens and young adults.
We are a law firm based near Seattle, WA comprised of lawyers who have spent their entire careers representing victims who have been harmed by dangerous products. We are also parents. Shocked and troubled by the recent revelations about the harm caused to teens and young adults by social media platforms, which powerful technology companies have designed to be highly addictive, Social Media Victims Law Center was launched specifically to help families and children who have suffered serious mental harm or exploitation through social media use to obtain justice.
Matthew P. Bergman
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