Teens' social lives seem to revolve around smartphones and social media. And while being connected with peer groups is important, the use of smartphones and social media can also make teens feel isolated, especially when they experience cyberbullying.
Cyberbullying is bullying behavior that uses electronic communication like social media sites, email or phone text messages. "Cyberbullying is just another tactic used to harass and cause emotional pain to an individual," says DeAnn Harvey, PsyD, HSPP, a clinical child psychologist at Franciscan Health Indianapolis.
Nearly one-quarter of middle school students and 15 percent of high school students say they've been bullied in cyberspace. The emotional pain, embarrassment and fear from being bullied can cause your teen to have problems with anxiety, depression, sleeping and concentrating in school.
What's the Difference Between Bullying and Peer-to-Peer Conflict?
In life, conflict is inevitable, says Harvey, but it's not the same as bullying. "We do want our kids to understand that relationships aren't always easy. You're going to have differences of opinion with people and others may criticize you or say things that aren't so nice."
But bullying is an entirely different behavior. It involves a power imbalance – either through physical strength or social status – and the goal of the perpetrator is to harm the other person. While bullying usually involves ongoing harassment, it can also be a one-time event, especially when it comes to cyberbullying.
How is Cyberbullying Different?
Bullying and cyberbullying are both abusive behaviors, with a couple of key differences. When a child is being bullied at school, being at home is a refuge. However, with cyberbullying, the personal attacks can reach your child anywhere, at any time. Also, because teens can hide behind a screen, they say things that are much more severe than they would ever say face to face, too.
But perhaps the worst effect of online bullying is its ability to reach the masses. "Cyberbullying is more harmful than bullying in real life," states Harvey. "That's because it only takes one click, one time to reach hundreds to thousands of people within seconds. The damage is exponentially greater."
Harvey also points out that kids who spend a greater amount of time online are more susceptible to anxiety and depression. Those conditions, coupled with being bullied online, can sometimes lead to suicidal thoughts and actions in adolescents.
What Steps Should You Take to Prevent Cyberbullying?
The first step you should take is to talk to your child about online behavior, expectations and problems that can arise, including cyberbullying.
"We should be proactively teaching our children about cyberbullying before it becomes an issue for them. We teach them in-real-life social skills like what to say when they meet a new person or how act in a restaurant. Teaching online social skills and empathy should be a normal part of parenting too," points out Harvey.
As a parent, there some preventative measures you can take to protect your child from being the perpetrator or the victim of cyberbullying, says Harvey:
- Your child should understand that technology, and access to social media, is a privilege, not a right. And, it can be taken away at your discretion.
- Let your child know that you’ll be reviewing their text messages and online communication.
- Know your child's passwords for all electronic devices (cell phone, tablet, computer) and for social media accounts.
- Tell your child to never share their passwords with friends because bullies will access and use other people's accounts to hide their own identity.
- Friend and follow your child on social media so you can see what’s being posted.
- The computer your child has access to at home should be kept in public view (like in the kitchen or family room), not in your child's bedroom.
- At night, your child's cell phone should go on a charger in a central location in the house.
- If you become aware that your child is sending bullying messages, confront the issue and apply appropriate consequences.
- Teach your child to think before they send a message. Remind them to treat others as they would like to be treated.
- Be a good example and role model the behavior you would like to see in your child.
Following these guidelines will help you monitor your child's electronic actions so you can provide guidance.
What Should You Do If Your Child is the Victim of Cyberbullying?
If your child shares with you that she is being harassed online or by text message, ask her to show you the messages. Take a picture or screenshot of those messages and save them in a Word document to keep a record of what has transpired.
"Often times, kids won't want to tell on the bully. Even if your child says that it will only make it worse, it's important to be an advocate for your child and talk to school administration," advises Harvey. "You can't just let something like this go."
The next step is to teach your child how to respond to the bully. "The best thing to teach our children is how to address the bullies themselves. Bullies want to see a reaction. If your child has experienced cyberbullying, but can go to school the next day and make a joke out of it to the bully – like, "that was really funny what you posted last night" – it shows the bully that it didn’t make you cry or get angry," Harvey says.
If your teen hasn't mentioned anything, but shows signs of an anxiety disorder and depression – more withdrawn, refusing to go to school, declining academic performance and increased crying episodes – ask if someone has said something to make him upset. If your teen won’t speak up, then reviewing his phone and social media may be helpful.
Where Should You Turn for Additional Support?
Whether your child is the perpetrator of the victim of cyberbullying, counseling can help. Our behavioral health experts can provide the tools your child needs to cope with difficult feelings and situations.
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