An 11-year-old was recently hospitalized after allegedly being shoved from a bus ramp by bullies and breaking her wrist in four places. The father of the middle schooler stated that she had been a target of bullies both in person and online. The bullies made it so bad that the girl was fearful and reluctant to go to school.
Unfortunately, stories like this are far too common. In the U.S., 17% of students reported being bullied 2 to 3 times per week within a semester, and 71% of students report bullying as a problem at their school.
Traditional bullying has now grown to include cyberbullying, a much more invasive and oftentimes more problematic issue.
What makes cyberbullying different from bullying?
You might wonder what makes cyberbullying different from bullying - the key difference is that cyberbullying is any form of abuse repeatedly directed at a child through technology by another child. The harassment could be online through social media, like Facebook, or via text messages on their mobile phones.
Pew Research Center found that 73% of teens have a smartphone and 15% have at least a basic cellphone. On top of this 92% of teens go online at least once daily and 24% state that they are "online constantly." With these statistics in mind, it's easy to see why exposure of teens to cyberbullying is high.
Unlike bullying, cyberbullying can be unrelenting and seem inescapable since it is online and on phones. It can happen at anytime of day, outside of the school walls. It follows students home after school, and it is often completely anonymous.
Cyberbullies can create fake social media profiles and download apps that provide temporary disposable numbers which allow them to send threatening text messages without the victim knowing the identity of their attacker.
In addition to the anonymity, messages, images, and videos can also be spread very quickly via social media and group text messages. Once the information has been shared it's impossible to delete all of the occurrences of it since it can be downloaded by individuals and repeatedly uploaded.
What parents can do to prevent cyberbullying
Educating children about cyberbullying and the damage it can do is most important. Victims of cyberbullying like the Virginia middle schooler are much more likely to use alcohol and drugs, avoid school and have poor grades, experience depression and low self-esteem, and may even contemplate suicide.
You can help prevent cyberbullying by doing the following:
- Keep the family computer in a public area where you spend a good deal of time.
- Encourage "offline time" with your family. Try to have everyone disconnect for an extended period of time every evening. This could include having family dinner or practicing some shared hobbies together.
- Have open conversations about bullying and cyberbullying, discuss why it's wrong and what your child should do if they see it.
- Make sure your child knows how to maintain their "digital reputation" and knows not to share personal information that they wouldn't want made public with anyone.
- Discuss how to use privacy settings and talk about how to block unwanted content and texts. Teens can report offensive posts, images, and videos to the social media company, and block harassing phone numbers.
If you suspect that your child is being targeted by cyberbullies, the best thing you can do is talk to them and listen to what is happening to them. Make sure that they know that they are loved and that what is happening to them is not their fault.
If the problem continues help your child collect evidence and discuss reporting the cyberbully to school authorities. Go over setting up stronger privacy settings in social media accounts and make sure they know how to report posts that they find hurtful and cruel.
For more information ConnectSafely.org and the Cyberbullying Research Center has many resources for teens, parents and educators.