Teasing used to be limited to school recess on the playground, but now it has evolved into a malicious trend among youths on the internet.
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As technology advances and more children are using it, they are increasingly exposed to cyberbullies on social networking sites like Facebook (NASDAQ:FB) and Twitter, and texting and apps on phones and tablets. And the consequences can be devastating. For some children being targeted, like 12-year-old Rebecca Ann Sedwick in Miami, they see no other way out of this cruel cyber world, than to take their own lives.
Police report the suicide came after nearly a year of bullying.
Discovering whether a child is being bullied online can be a fine line for parents to walk, according to experts.
Parry Aftab, privacy lawyer and author of A Parent’s Guide to the Internet, says parents need to be silent observers of their children’s’ behavior on social media, and step in when necessary. In her own research, Aftab has found about 85% of students in middle and grammar school had been cyberbullied.
“Yes, you should be friends with them on social media, but then keep your mouth shut,” Aftab says. “It’s like a slumber party—they know we are at home, and make sure the kids are okay, but you don’t pull up a sleeping bag and dish with the girls.”
How to Know if Your Child is Being Cyberbullied
While it’s normal for teens in particular to be moody and potentially emotional, Dr. Joel Haber, parenting expert and author of Bullyproof Your Child for Life, says it’s important to watch for emotional distress surrounding a child’s use of social media.
“You want to make a connection between their use on the internet and how they are feeling,” Haber says. “They may shut off their phone or Internet, or their mood may change. If something is happening online, that may be related.”
He also suggests parents watch for social queues, which include not wanting to go to school or attend social events they used to enjoy. Other signs include slipping grades, or more protective behavior of their phone or computers.
“If there is a change in a pattern of them not doing things they once enjoyed, you have to wonder why,” he says. “Those are the biggies.”
Aftab also suggests looking for changes in children’s’ technology habits.
“If they used to text nonstop and now they don’t, or they aren’t engaging on Facebook anymore, those are almost always signs they are being bullied,” she says. “It’s really hard when you are dealing with pre-teens and young teens because they change their behaviors all the time.”
Parents should also be mindful that if a child is being bullied in person, Aftab says the chances of it happening online are probable.
Trust is key in prevention, says Aftab, because a child needs to trust that they can trust a parent not to overreact.
“They have to know you are a safe place to land, and you won’t overreact and make things worse,” she says.
Having a young child or pre-teen sign a “trusted adult agreement” on StopCyberbullying.org can also help a adolescent know that there is a safe place to turn in such situations, says Aftab. The contract lays out what the child expects from the adult in such situations, and it’s the organizations’ hope that both child and adult will come through on their ends of the deal, she adds.
Talking about recent cyberbullying cases making headlines lets kids know parents understand this is a common occurrence, she says.
Parents should also keep tabs on any recent changes in a child’s social life. “Maybe they are being bullied in real life, or they are young teens who just had a break up, or their former best friend has become their newest enemy,” she says. “If there is something going on that heats up the environment, you need to intervene ASAP—something traumatic is almost always used in cyberbullying.”
Emotions play a major role in preventing cyberbullying, says Haber. Parents should advise their children not to engage with bullies online or become overly emotional when reacting to online comments.
“Have them take a break and calm down,” he says. “Because if they respond in that moment, they can’t take it back. You don’t want to put things online that you can’t take back later.”
Parents should also stress how to help end the bullying cycle. “If something is hurting your child, tell them not to pass that onto other people,” Haber says. “I tell kids that if someone says something mean, or hurtful, to just delete it. Block them or take them off your list so they can’t get to you.”
If parents feel their kids is at risk, they might want to consider installing software protection that alerts parents of unusual online activity.
“If they are at-risk, maybe don’t tell them,” Aftab says. “But if not, say, ‘I am giving you a phone, I bought it, you follow my rules.’”
Taking Action if Your Child is Being Cyberbullied
The first line of defense is providing a child a place that he or she feels safe, says Haber.
“Don’t have your child totally focused on technology, and have them work on developing other relationships,” he says. “Their whole life cannot be completely consumed with being rejected online.”
Block the person or people who are bullying, Haber says, but don’t take them completely off the social networks.
If you do take them off, they will shut you down,” he says. “And if you know who is doing the bullying, pull up all of the information and document it.”
Children being targeted should also change their password immediately, says Aftab, as 70% of teens and children share their passwords with friends.
Also go to the child’s school with the information and make sure teachers and higher-ups are aware of what is going on, Haber says. Most states have laws against cyberbullying in some form, he says, so if the school is lax in its action then go to the police.
“It can get ugly, but you have to get this stuff done even if it is upsetting,” he says. “The most important thing, for people who are afraid their kid will do something hurtful to themselves, is for them to have support and a place where they are free of this bullying.”