Cyberbullying: 12 Things Every Parent Needs to Know

Article By: Dan Tynan

On the 1st Monday of October, kids are asked to wear blue shirts to school to raise awareness of bullying prevention, says Ross Ellis, founder of STOMP Out Bullying, which organizes the event. What started 6 years ago as a small event has gone global, w/celebrity endorsements & video game promotions. For example, characters inside Ubisoft’s Just Dance 2015 will don blue T-shirts w/the phrase “Stomp Out Bullying” on them when the product ships later this month.

Bullying is even worse than it was when I was a kid, in part bc of cyberbullying, where taunting happens online, often anonymously. Yet many parents still don’t understand what bullying is, how to tell if their kids are victims, & what to do about it if they are. Here are a dozen things you need to know about it:

(1) Not everything bad that happens to your kids is bullying. Thanks to the heightened attention paid to bullying in schools & the media, it’s a term that’s often misused, says Dr. Michele Ybarra, president of the Center for Innovative Public Health Research, which explores how technology affects young people’s health & well-being. Technically, bullying is when 1 person has more power than the other & abuses him repeatedly, Ybarra says. It can range from physical & verbal abuse to spreading malicious gossip, sharing secrets, or posting embarrassing photos online. A child telling your daughter she’s ugly isn’t necessarily bullying. But taunting her on Facebook every day is another story.

(2) Cyberbullying is far less common than real-world bullying. Some 35-40% of kids say they’ve been bullied at least once by some1 in real life, says Dr. Sameer Hinduja, co-director of the Cyberbullying Research Center & professor of criminology at Florida Atlantic University. In the same survey, about 25% of kids report having been bullied online. “Going to school is a higher risk activity for kids than going online,” she says. “But the attention cyberbullying gets has increased the # of conversations about bullying in general, & that’s a good thing.”

(3) In some ways, cyberbullying is worse. Though you’re unlikely to be punched repeatedly in the stomach in the virtual world, the long-term damage from virtual bullying is often worse bc the rest of the world may be watching. “Things can go viral so quickly, there’s a limitless audience to watch & even join in on the hate & humiliation,” Hinduja says. “People are often more willing to be extremely cruel online & say things they’d never say face to face.”

(4) Cyberbullying happens everywhere. There are nearly limitless opportunities for kids to be harassed online, from Facebook & Instagram to Xbox Live, Secret, & Snapchat — even Club Penguin & Minecraft have had their share of bullies. It’s the rare parent who knows about more than 1/2 the apps or social networks her teen may be using. Banning 1 app or network may not do much good — the tormentors will simply find their victims on another. Your child may also be bullied via SMS, which can be harder to detect & stop. A 2011 survey by the Center for Innovative Public Health Research found that 1 in 8 teens was harassed by other students via text message, & 1/2 of those were systematically bullied.

(5) It’s really hard to tell if your child is being bullied. It’s difficult for parents to separate the symptoms of victimization from normal adolescent conflict & angst. The key things to look for are sudden shifts in behavior, Hinduja says. If your child used to love going to school (it happens) & suddenly doesn’t, that’s a telltale sign. If she’s normally glued to her phone or laptop & now wants nothing to do w/them, that’s another. Or if he used to be outgoing & now refuses to leave his room. And so on. These changes may have nothing to do w/bullying, but they’re signs that something is wrong.

(6) It’s even harder to tell if your child is a bully. Every victim has a victimizer. And while you hope your child isn’t 1, you can never be completely sure. 1 thing to look for is if she’s suddenly become more secretive than usual, Ellis says. Other signs are if she hides herself away w/her phone or computer, quickly closes her tablet or laptop when you walk by, or is maintaining multiple pseudonymous accounts on different social networks. Again, though, these things could also indicate something entirely different.

(7) You should try to talk to your kids about it. Any1 who’s ever raised a teenager has probably experienced the adolescent version of omertà — their unwillingness to divulge any information about their lives to any1 over the age of 17. Still, you have to make the attempt, Hinduja says. “Try to find ways to discuss the positives of technology as a whole, & use that conversation to diplomatically probe about some of the negatives they’ve encountered,” he says. “If you come on too strong as a helicopter parent, they will shut down on you.”

(8) But they probably won’t want to. Teens often don’t want to admit they’re being terrorized by their classmates. It may be bc they’re embarrassed, fear retribution, or simply don’t want to be called a narc. But a big reason is that they don’t want parents to take away their phones or block their accounts, Hinduja says. “The kids won’t risk it,” he says. “Smartphones & social media are like oxygen to them.” His advice: If they don’t want to tell their parents, they may still be willing to open up to a family friend, friendly aunt, teacher, coach, or other adult. The important thing is to make sure they’re not suffering in silence.

(9) There’s an app for that. If your kids don’t want to talk to any adult, they can report bullying incidents to their school via Sprigeo, a mobile app & website. Students can file reports anonymously if they wish, & about 25% of them do, says CEO Joe Bruzzese. Most of the reports come from witnesses to bullying incidents, not victims. When Sprigeo finds evidence of bullying online, it contacts the social network or app where it happened immediately, & the offending text or image is usually removed w/in the hour, Bruzzese says. Sprigeo is currently working w/more than 1,000 schools in 27 states. Even if your school isn’t 1 of them, Sprigeo will contact the school on your child’s behalf & inform them of the incident, Bruzzese says. Similar apps that allow kids to report bullying incidents to their schools include STOPit & CyberBully Hotline.

(10) Technology is not the problem. Parents of teens victimized online may be tempted to confiscate the smartphones & put a lifetime ban on social networks, but that won’t do much to stop them from being victims, Hinduja says. The bullies will simply find other ways to torment them. The 2nd temptation: putting monitoring apps on your child’s devices to detect if they’re being bullied. Ybarra suggests parents proceed w/extreme caution. “If you have reasons to be concerned about your child’s behavior & want to put monitoring software on their phones & computers, that’s your choice,” she says. “But you still need to have a conversation w/your kids about what they’re doing online. And just bc you can track your kids in ways our parents never could doesn’t always mean you should.”

(11) Your kids may not want you to do anything about it. As a parent you may be tempted to march into the school & demand answers, or confront the parents of the bully yourself. And that might only make matters worse, Bruzzese says. “There’s a fear among adolescents that if their parents find out they will totally blow up,” he says. “That’s why many would rather report incidents directly to their schools.” Many older teens would rather handle the problem themselves, Ybarra adds. “If your children decide they have the resources to address the problem themselves, then you’ve probably done a great job as a parent,” she says. “Sometime supporting the kid from behind may be enough.”

(12) There’s a lot more to know. I’ve barely scratched the surface. There are probably 100’s of sites devoted to bullying prevention. Connect Safely offers a free guide to cyberbullying that will likely answer any questions you have.

Bottom line: The best time to talk to your kids about bullying is before it happens, if it hasn’t already. Today is a great day to do it.

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