A majority of teens have been the target of some type of online harassment, according to a 2018 survey by Pew Research.
Cyberbullying is different from the bullying parents may have experienced in school. “Where before bullying could be left at the school, cyberbullying follows the child everywhere they go and with everyone they associate—there is no escape,” said Kathryn Marsh, the special counsel and assistant chief of the Family Violence and Special Victims Unit in Prince George’s County, Maryland.”
Given these alarming statistics, parents need to recognize the warning signs and learn how to try and prevent cyberbullying.
What are the signs of cyberbullying?
With remote learning on the rise, kids are spending more time on laptops, tablets and smartphones, making them more vulnerable to online harassment. For victims, it’s harder to escape because devices have become an integral part of life for even the youngest children.
The signs of cyberbullying can be different from child to child. Experts say parents should be alert to any changes in their child’s personality and activity. A normally outgoing child may withdraw, for example, and be less willing to engage with others. A previously confident child may express feelings of self-doubt or self-deprecation.
In addition to being hurt or angry, victims of cyberbullying often experience anxiety, depression or even symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.
Cyberbullying impacts a child’s sense of self and ability to connect with others, said Kyle McEvoy, the founder and president of Collaborative Therapy in New York. “Research has indicated that cyberbullying, even when controlling for other forms of victimization, has a greater ability to cause depressive symptoms, so it’s important for parents to be mindful and aware of changes in their child’s behavior.”
3 warning signs of cyberbullying
Here are some warning signs that your child may be experiencing cyberbullying:
A noticeable change in the amount of time spent online
Some children may spend more time on their devices when they are cyberbullied while others may try to avoid their devices as much as possible, experts said. Some parents noticed their children had a visible emotional reaction to their devices.
Withdrawal from friends and social groups
Some children display an overall pattern of withdrawal from friends and social activities they previously enjoyed. Others may suddenly end contact with a specific friend or peer, which could point to that individual as the source of cyberbullying.
Spending more time alone in their room
Spending time alone may be a sign of depression as a result of cyberbullying, but it could also reflect a desire to hide their online activity. Both cyberbullies and their victims are often secretive with their devices and may retreat to a private place to engage online.
Marsh warns that the effects of severe cyberbullying can be devastating. “You may notice loss of weight, sleeplessness, cutting behaviors and even suicidal ideation in extreme cases,” she said.
What are the causes and effects of cyberbullying?
The causes of cyberbullying are as varied as the cyberbullies themselves. Cyberbullies can target victims for their looks, their socioeconomic status or because the victim is more popular. “I often see cyberbullying between girls after two close friends have had a falling out,” Marsh said, “or when one of the friends starts dating someone both girls liked.”
Breakups can be another cause of cyberbullying. Revenge porn (publicly posting explicit or intimate images) is common when young people end a relationship, especially when the bully feels jilted, Marsh said.
Members of marginalized communities, such as LGBTQIA+, and cultural or ethnic minorities are likely to be targeted by cyberbullies. “Whether it’s the result of internalized or explicit homophobia or racism, these are populations we must be more vigilant about because of their specific vulnerabilities,” McAvoy said.
The long-term effects of cyberbullying can include depression, interpersonal and attachment disorders, poor academic performance, eating disorders and other types of self-harm. “Thankfully, many of these disorders have evidenced-based treatments that can help mitigate these effects through counseling,” McEvoy said.
As a prosecutor, Marsh stresses the importance of involving law enforcement if a child feels threatened or unsafe. In many cases, the victim’s parents can seek protective, no-contact orders to keep the bully away from their child. “Charges vary based on the jurisdiction, but almost all states have harassment, electronic harassment of a minor, revenge porn or sextortion statutes and child pornography statutes,” Marsh said. “Any of these charges may be applicable based on the facts.”
What to do about cyberbullying
Perhaps the most important thing parents can do to try and protect their children is to open the lines of communication. As soon as a child can use an electronic device, Marsh said parents should discuss safe and appropriate behavior and what to do if they encounter something that doesn’t “feel right.”.
“This conversation will change and become more nuanced as the children get older, but it is important to start from a very young age,” Marsh said. “Make sure they know that even if they violate a rule, if they are being harmed, targeted or threatened online and report it to you, they will not get in trouble with you.”
Marsh highlighted basic internet safety tips as a bulwark against cyberbullying. Younger children should only access the internet when there is an adult in the room, and parents should carefully monitor any online talk or chat features. “A hard rule in our house is that you can’t be ‘friends’ online with anyone you aren’t friends with in person,” Marsh said.
Older children can have more freedom online, but parents can monitor all social media platforms and accounts their children are using. Learn about privacy settings and other parental controls to limit access to potentially dangerous activities. Most cellphone companies and internet providers also have tools to help parents monitor their children’s accounts.
“One avenue of cyberbullying that is often overlooked is online gaming and gaming devices,” Marsh said, “so you should monitor gaming devices the same way you would a tablet or computer.”
Marsh also reminded parents to talk to their children about what constitutes cyberbullying. “Kids need to know that being a bully isn’t just being the person who sends the initial text, email, social media post or link, but it’s also every other person who forwards it or likes it online,” she said. “Every time that happens, it perpetuates the bullying and revictimizes the child.”
Prevent cyberbullying: Communication is key
Finally, it’s essential for parents to stay up to date with online lingo. Young people have developed their own internet code to keep parents in the dark. “For example, the acronym POS means one thing to adults, but for children, it usually means ‘parent over shoulder,’ which cues the other party to change the subject,” Marsh said. She recommends using online resources, such as Urban Dictionary and Net Lingo, to help parents try and decipher their children’s communications.
Ultimately, it’s up to parents to take the lead in shaping safe online behavior. “Technology is all around us and kids have plenty of ways of accessing online technology,” McEvoy said. “Limits are helpful, but communication is key.”