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Cyberbullying Can Be Tough for Parents to Spot. Here’s What to Watch For

As a parent, your instinct is to protect your child from harm. But it can be difficult to spot some kinds of danger. Cyberbullying is one of those things that could be hurting your child without you knowing.

“Cyberbullying is when a person uses electronic communication of whatever kind to hurt or threaten someone else,” said Brenner Freeman, Ph.D., a psychiatrist with Banner Behavioral Health Hospital. Text messaging and social media may come to mind when you think of online bullying. But cyberbullying can also happen elsewhere in the online world, such as in apps, forums, video games and other electronic platforms.

Cyberbullying could include:

  • Mean text messages
  • Rumors posted on social networking sites or sent by email
  • Embarrassing pictures, videos or websites
  • Fake profiles or online presences

What’s different about cyberbullying?

Because it happens online, cyberbullying is not entirely the same as what we traditionally think of as bullying.

  • Cyberbullying is more emotionally and psychologically painful rather than physically hurtful.
  • Cyberbullying can be difficult to escape. Traditional bullying may be confined to school or another location. “Cyberbullying usually follows kids wherever they are, since kids can access online media just about everywhere they go,” Dr. Freeman said. “They carry around a key aspect of their social life in their pockets in the form of a phone.”
  • Cyberbullying attacks can be publicly humiliating, since they can be broadcast to a much broader audience than just a single classroom, playground or hallway.
  • Alternatively, cyberbullying attacks could be quiet and personal, with no one except the person sending messages and the person receiving them aware of what’s going on.
  • Cyberbullies may feel they can be cruel to others online, since they don’t have to deal with their victim’s responses face-to-face.

How to communicate with your kids about cyberbullying

“I encourage parents to have a nonjudgmental and open communication style that can make it easier for kids to share what types of experiences they are having online,” Dr. Freeman said. Parents should make it clear to kids that cyberbullying or online harassment is not okay and should not be tolerated.

Parents can teach their children:

  • To talk about their online community experiences and ask for help when needed
  • How to have healthy relationships and conversations
  • How to be assertive in kind and productive ways
  • To watch out for each other and report online bullying—apps like STOPit allow people to report bullying anonymously

“Just like with training wheels on a bike or a driver’s permit, children need lots of training with the help of a caring adult to build safe, healthy online behaviors and relationships. Parents can actively model and demonstrate appropriate online behaviors to kids and teach them what is appropriate and inappropriate,” Dr. Freeman said.

What warning signs of cyberbullying can parents watch for?

Of course, your child may not confide in you if they’re being cyberbullied. “Not all kids are open about their feelings and what is going on in their personal lives,” Dr. Freeman said.

But you may notice these common signs of cyberbullying. Children may:

  • Stop using certain online platforms or spend less time online; or they may spend more time using the internet and their phone
  • Have a change in their emotional state — they may be withdrawn or isolated
  • Harm themselves
  • Seem fearful
  • Not want to go to school, school activities or other places where they interact with others
  • Act defiantly
  • Bring a weapon to school

Not every kid reacts to bullying and cyberbullying the same way. Some kids retaliate, while others withdraw. Some think about it day and night. In some cases, children become suicidal.

“Parents need to be involved in their kids’ lives without being intrusive and be more on the lookout for extreme changes in emotions, behavior or reactions to things,” Dr. Freeman said. “And if bullying impacts a child’s life at home or school, you may want to connect with a behavioral health professional for help.”

What parents can do to find and stop cyberbullying

You can check your child’s online activity in a personalized and tactful way. Be open and honest with your child about why you’re monitoring their communication and using parental control apps. But also, be aware that cyberbullies can use anonymous apps. And your child may hide information from you or switch to apps you don’t check.

“To really understand what children are going through every day, parents should intimately acquaint themselves with the electronic media their kids use,” Dr. Freeman said. “That way, they are better aware of what kids consume, the way kids are thinking, and the potential benefits and pitfalls. Doing this also helps parents know the ways that kids can be mistreated, abused and manipulated by bad actors online.”

In terms of how to stop cyberbullying, talk to your child about how they want you to proceed. You may want to immediately contact the school administration, principal, teacher or the bully’s parents, but your child may not want you to take that action. If your child is okay with it, reporting it to the appropriate people is probably the best action. If not, consider reporting cyberbullying anonymously. Keep in mind that if your child is the only one being bullied, the bully may figure out who reported it.

The bottom line

Cyberbullying, or online bullying, can be more emotionally and psychologically harmful than physical bullying. Parents can watch for cyberbullying warning signs and teach their children how to be safe online. Learn more at Stop Bullying, or connect with a Banner Health behavioral health specialist.

Other useful articles:

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