Social media, the Internet, tablets and smartphones are giving children opportunities to connect to other students and learn in a way that was not possible just two decades ago.
However, setting your children loose on social media and the internet can feel daunting. Sure, it connects them with lots of helpful information and resources. But it can also put them at risk of finding things like inappropriate websites and or becoming a victim of cyberbullying.
“Cyberbullying is harmful behavior or harassment that takes place on social media, through text messaging, other communication apps or the internet,” said Geisinger pediatrician Marie Lena, M.D.
Cyberbullying often happens out of sight of parents when their kids are using social media platforms like Snapchat, Instagram, Twitter or Facebook. It may also happen over text message or other communication platforms, or through internet communities and message boards.
Cyberbullying can include sending mean or inappropriate text messages, posts or pictures on social media sites or creating fake profiles or websites about a person.
What makes cyberbullying different than in-person bullying is its reach. Cyberbullies can send cruel messages to large groups of people anytime, from any place. Often, these bullies can also act anonymously by creating fake user accounts, making it difficult for victims, their parents, teachers and law enforcement to find the culprit.
The best way to stop cyberbullying is to prevent it from ever starting. Talking to your kids about the power of social media is a good start.
“Explain to your kids that once they post a picture or video or send a text message to someone, it’s difficult to delete it,” said Dr. Lena. “What happens to that post or picture is now completely out of their control.”
Parents should also urge their children to never respond to a cyberbully message or post, and to tell them immediately if it happens.
Beyond discussing the effects of cyberbullying, parents should “follow” and “friend” their kids on social media, and keep track of which internet sites they frequent.
Sometimes even frequent discussions and parental monitoring are not enough to prevent cyberbullying.
“Unfortunately, some children who are being cyberbullied are being bullied in person, too,” said Dr. Lena. “It’s up to parents and teachers to look for signs their children are being bullied and take necessary precautions to prevent it in the first place.”
There are often several signs your child is being cyberbullied. They might include:
- A drastic change in technology usage. Your child may begin texting and using social media all the time, or he may try to stop answering texts and going on social networks altogether.
- Becoming moody, aggressive or appearing to be stressed out.
- Showing signs of depression.
- A sudden change in eating or sleeping habits.
- Withdrawing from social activities he once enjoyed.
- Problems at school such as getting in trouble, skipping class, losing interest or lower grades.
In addition, if you notice fake social media accounts being created in your child’s name, they may be dealing with a cyberbully.
If you believe your child is the victim of cyberbullying, it’s important to address the issue quickly, and with plenty of compassion. Your child may be in distress and feel embarrassed about the bullying.
“Be firm, but supportive when asking your child about cyberbullying,” said Dr. Lena. Keep records of any messages, pictures or videos and contact social networks the bullying takes place on. If you know that the cyberbully is a classmate, you should also contact the school.
If the cyberbullying takes the form of violent threats, pornography, stalking or hate crimes, report the incident to law enforcement.