Cyberbullying: Identifying the Signs and Protecting Your Kids

Wednesday, March 05, 2014 11:01 AM

cyberbullyingToday, bullying doesn’t necessarily stop once your child walks through the front door. Cyberbullying, an extension of traditional bullying, uses electronic technology and communication mediums—from emails and texts, to messages on social media sites like Facebook and Twitter—to send threatening and insulting messages anytime and anywhere. How do you protect your child when the threats are happening online? What is the role and responsibility of the school when bullying is happening both on and off school grounds? How do you know when it’s happening to your child?

Benjamin Shain, MD, PhD, Child-Adolescent Psychiatry, answers questions on cyberbullying and bullying to help parents and teachers find the best and most effective ways to protect kids:

How is bullying defined?
Bullying has been defined as having three elements: aggressive or deliberately harmful behavior 1) between peers that is 2) repeated and spans a length of time and 3) involves an imbalance of power, (e.g., related to physical strength or popularity), making it difficult for the victim to defend himself or herself. Bullying behavior falls into four categories: 1) direct-physical (e.g., assault, theft), 2) direct-verbal (e.g., threats, insults, name-calling), 3) indirect-relational (e.g., social exclusion, spreading rumors), and 4) cyber. The 2011 Youth Risk Behavior Survey of students in grades 9 through 12 in the United States indicated that during the 12 months before the survey, 22.0% of girls and 18.2% of boys were bullied on school property, 22.1% of girls and 10.8% of boys were electronically bullied, and 6.0% of girls and 5.8% of boys did not go to school one day in the past 30 because they felt unsafe at school or on the way to or from school.

How can you tell the difference between a joke and cyberbullying? When should you be concerned? When should you get the other parents involved?
Note the definition of bullying in the above question. Look for repeated aggressive or harmful behaviors involving an imbalance of power. That said, there is little you can do to monitor without being highly intrusive. Some teens need this but most do not.

What is the best way for schools to handle cyberbullying when they find out about it? Is it different from the way they would or should handle regular bullying?
There is little difference in consequence between cyberbullying and the face-to-face variety. Schools are in a unique position to intervene. Parents are limited in what they can do and most bullying does not meet the threshold for legal involvement. My belief is that schools should handle all bullying as bullying.

How does a parent’s use of computers impact children? How can we set healthy examples that could contribute to less negative, and potentially bullying, situations?
Children learn more by example than what we tell them. I don't think we can have rules that apply to all (e.g., limit screens to X hours per day) as there is wide variation in needs and abilities of both parents and children. However, parents should consider rules when usage becomes excessive (e.g., seems to limit other activities) and redirection is not effective. How to handle bullying (as both victim and bully) can be modeled by example, as well, with parents talking about how they handle electronic situations as they arise.

How closely should you watch the way your kids use Facebook and their phone? Is it going too far to ask to see messages they send and receive?
Think of how you supervise kids in face-to-face interaction. Most kids navigate going to and from school and participating in class with some, but very limited, parental supervision. Some kids need much more supervision. Electronic situations are something that parents can supervise much more closely, as they are often with the child, or at least in the same house, when the communication occurs. Nonetheless, even if monitoring could be done (children will find ways to circumvent even the strictest supervision), children view supervision as highly intrusive. In addition, studies have shown that electronic communication is used heavily by children for support, which means close monitoring interferes with the support they are receiving from friends and peers. So, yes, for most children, it’s not recommended to ask to view all electronic communication.

Is it safer for kids not to have access to cell phones or social media? 
For most kids, electronic communication is not only the way they stay "in the loop" with their friends, but it is also the main way that they obtain social support. Taking this away protects them (and sometimes that is necessary) but it also denies them avenues for normal social and emotional development.

If your child is on the receiving end of a cyberbully’s attentions, how should they respond? When should they seek an authority figure's help?
First thing is to encourage them to bring in a parent for advice. I can’t emphasize enough, though, that I mean advice and not control. As soon parents clamp down on communication or take unwanted action, the child will stop communicating with them. An authority figure is useful when the actions are repeated and damaging.

What signs of bullying should a parent look for if a child is unwilling to communicate about what is going on inside or outside of school?
First, be patient. You may need to wait but typically waiting patiently and being there for support works faster than putting pressure on a child to communicate when they clearly do not want to. Second, look for signs of depression: overt sadness, angering more easily, isolating more, declining grades, less interest in seeing friends and other activities that had been considered fun. Some of this, such as self-imposed isolation, you may see as a consequence of normal development. However, when it is sudden, or combined with other problems, consider a mental health evaluation.

Why do the bullied often become bullies?
Kids are commonly both bullies and victims. Unfortunately, being a victim may teach children that imposing one’s power on another is important, which predisposes them to becoming a bully. As a parent, if you encounter this, talk to your child about his/her behavior and consider a mental health evaluation if the behavior persists.

If you do discover your child is being bullied, online or off, should you talk to your children and the parents of the other children involved before getting the school involved? Should the schools be told right away?
For a bullying victim, being a victim is highly embarrassing in and of itself. First, consider interventions that are less of a "deal," as long as they are effective at stopping the bullying. On the other hand, bullying involving threats or encouraging a child to commit suicide should be brought to the attention of the authorities immediately.

Does your child communicate with his or her friends online? How closely do you monitor activity?

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