If you’re a parent, you’ve surely heard the term “cyberbullying.” You may be more familiar with it than you wish, especially if your son or daughter has been a victim of cyberbullying. Or perhaps you’ve heard the phrase but have little more than a vague idea of what it actually refers to. In either case, an even bigger question looms: What is the role of a parent regarding cyberbullying? How are you supposed to react? What can you do to be proactive? How much is too much or too little? We’ll delve into these questions in this edition of the Capital Choice Youth Counselling blog.
What is Cyberbullying? How is It Different from Traditional Bullying?
Cyberbullying is a term commonly in use nowadays – so much so, in fact, that the portmanteau of the words “cyber” and “bullying” has become a legitimate word found in dictionaries. Far less people, however, have a firm grasp of what exactly this means. The Cyberbullying Research Center defines it as, “willful and repeated harm inflicted through the use of computers, cell phones, and other electronic devices.” To some (such as parents and people of a certain age), this might sound like merely an electronic version of the schoolyard bully of days gone by. Don’t be lulled into this misbelief. Cyberbullying is much, much worse! Why? Victims of cyberbullying feel the emotional damage and scars in far deeper ways.
But wait, maybe this is just kids these days being too sensitive? That’s wishful thinking, the kind of ‘blame the victim’ pattern that makes it even worse. If anything, today’s youth have developed a harder shell, having been exposed to things that previous generations would never have thought of. But they’re also susceptible to attacks that go far beyond what bullying meant even a decade ago. These attacks have left youth with emotional scars leading to depression, anxiety, eating disorders, substance abuse. It’s also a chief factor in many suicide attempts, by youth who think their world is worthless as a result of being cyberbullied.
Cyberbullying, from the bully’s perspective, is much less personal, often times anonymous in its nature. Cyber bullies are effectively hiding behind a screen. They can attack their targets randomly or tactically, knowing the likelihood of being caught is low. And even if their identity is known or eventually revealed, these bullies often little or no consequences for their actions. Add to that the lack of filter, shame or ‘empathy barrier’ that would keep most people from doing or saying these things in person. As such, things can escalate quickly and go to extremes generally not seen with in-person interactions. This is the “perfect storm” of technology and teenage angst.
Okay, we’ve talked about cyberbullying in theory, in general terms. In practice, what specifically are we talking about? Cyberbullying can take the form of:
- Sending aggressive or mean messages (text, Messenger, other apps/platforms)
- Posting embarrassing things in social forums or chat rooms/groups about another person
- Circulating or posting photos of another person, often compromising, hurtful or private photos (especially if the victim was involved in “sexting” or sending revealing images of themselves, which then got forwarded or shown to others)
The list goes from bad to worse, doesn’t it? This is the reality of the world today. While we don’t want to paint a picture of doom and gloom, it’s important to know what we’re dealing with.
How Can Parents React to Cyberbullying? Is there a Way to Prevent It?
The ideal way to deal with cyberbullying is to get out in front of it. Like anything else related to parenting – or life in general – proactive is preferable. Is preventing cyberbullying even possible? While there’s no foolproof, 100% guaranteed way to prevent something like this, there are things you can do as a parent to better your child’s chances – both for avoiding becoming the victim of cyberbullying, and not being the perpetrator.
Knowledge and information are extremely powerful weapons in this war. Here are some ways to stop cyberbullying in its infancy, or even before it ever starts.
- Educate yourself, as a parent or as a child/teenager – The more you know, the better prepared you’ll be to see the initial warning signs, and thus more able to deflect or defuse the situation
- Educate others – Once you’re armed with information, help other parents (or friends) become armed as well
Protection is also prudent.
- Privacy settings – make sure you or your child(ren) are familiar with the privacy settings on various apps and platforms, and use these to the maximum lengths enabled
- Guard your personal information – treat passwords, phone numbers, addresses, etc.– private; the less you reveal, the lower your chances of having your privacy compromised
- Don’t post impulsively – follow this adage and you’ll find a much calmer, peaceful social media life:
- Is it true?
- Is it kind?
- Is it necessary?
If more people (adults included) followed this trifecta of prevention, wouldn’t our world be a better place? First off, we need to make sure that what’s being said is, in fact, true. If there’s a rumour, for example, that’s going around about somebody, wouldn’t it be better to find out if it’s even true before telling others? And if you can’t verify whether it’s true, you don’t know, therefore it’s best not to post. Next, even it it’s true, there are two other tests. Is it kind? In other words, will saying this help or hurt? Pause… think about this… and if you realize that it’s hurtful or even just not helpful, again, don’t hit ‘send.’ Finally, is it necessary? The Internet is full of things that may or may not be true or kind, but someone felt compelled (or just the impulse) to post or say it anyway. If there’s no good reason to post something, other than to get some ‘likes’ or reaction at someone else’s expense, why say it?
Okay, that’s the prevention – what about the response?
As a parent, if you know or suspect that your child is caught up in cyberbullying, your best course of action is to speak with them. Not confront them, not gang up on them, but to have an open and honest dialogue. This distinction is important. It’s vital that your son or daughter knows that you’re on their side, that you’re not unreasonable, and that you have empathy and compassion. This means that, although you go into the conversation armed with information, your strongest asset will be your ability to listen. It’s the old adage about “two ears, one mouth.” Whether your child is the victim of cyberbullying or the bully themselves, they’re more likely to open up and share – and take the appropriate next steps that you’ll ultimately guide them towards – if you begin by listening.
- Hear what they have to say, make notes (mental or written, if necessary), ask follow-up questions, and engage in an open and respectful conversation
- Let them know that your door is always open, that you’re looking out for them and want to help
- If they are the victim of cyberbullying, make it clear that you’re not going to take away their technology – this part is crucial, as fear of having it taken away is the biggest reason kids tend not to share such information with parents
- Don’t minimize or undervalue what he or she is saying, or treat it as if it’s “no big deal”
- On the other hand, it’s also important not to ‘overreact’ (this can lead to confrontations with the bully and other parents, causing more drama and embarrassment for your child
- It’s really a delicate balance, one that’s not easy to achieve, but your patience and thoughtfulness are vital at times like this
Sound easier said than done? Of course, it is difficult – most parenting is. But both prevention of and response to cyberbullying can make all the difference in a content, settled child or teen versus one who is troubled.
How Can Ottawa Youth Counselling Help?
It’s not an easy journey through this stage of life. Never has been, of course, but cyberbullying as a modern phenomenon has made youth and parenting all the more challenging. Our trained counsellors can help. To find out how, we encourage you to get in touch with Ottawa Youth Counselling.