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Cyberbullying: What It Is, How to Stop It

Parents’ guide to bullying in the virtual world

Cyberbullying, like any bullying, often involves mean behavior: threats, harassment and negative comments that can demean or embarrass a child or teen. It happens online in texts, emails, video game chats and social media like Facebook and Twitter.

Kids do fight with each other sometimes, but it’s considered bullying when it’s repeated behavior that represents a power imbalance.

It is particularly dangerous because it can happen 24 hours a day, seven days a week. And pictures or messages that are sent can be shared, go viral and cause pain and hurt to a child long after the initial comments or pictures were posted.

Recognize the signs

While only 7 percent of U.S. parents are worried about cyberbullying, 33 percent of teenagers report being victims of cyberbullying, according to research published in 2011 by PEW Internet and American Life Survey.

Watch for the warning signs: a child who is suddenly withdrawn, doesn’t want to go to school, seems to have low self-esteem or is scared or anxious without a known reason.

To stop a cyberbully, it’s important for kids:

  • To feel comfortable telling you, or someone else, what is going on. This means lots of open communication. It’s important to ask questions and to listen. (More on this later in the post).
  • Not to respond to or forward any of the messages.
  • To save the messages, including pictures. If they’re afraid something will get deleted, print them out or save them somewhere on a flash drive.
  • Take the next step if it doesn’t stop, especially if it feels threatening: Go to a teacher, the principal or even the police.

When to ignore it, when to act

Sometimes, responding to cyberbullying isn’t the right approach. If it’s just a single comment, ignoring it can make it stop. When it fails to get a response, this can take the air out of the bully’s sails.

However, when it becomes a repeated pattern and is something violent, threatening or particularly cruel or personal that makes the victim too scared or embarrassed to go to school or hang out with friends, then it needs to be reported, including if it involves compromising pictures of a child that have been circulated.

One way to protect kids and lessen the risks for cyberbullying is to use available safeguards. Work with your children to set privacy and security settings on social networking sites, cell phones, and other social tools your children use. Online, find references to apps you can download.

On Facebook, there are reference pages to help: Facebook Family Safety Center and Help Your Teens Play It Safe. On Twitter, find help here: Twitter Help Center: Online Abuse. There’s also ask.fm, a Q&A social networking site that more teens are joining, and which has recently responded to criticism for not having enough protections against cyberbullying. See ask.fm Safety Tips.

Teach kids: ‘Think before you click’

The great life lesson, think before you act, applies especially to the instant communication of cyberspace.

Here are some suggested talking points to guide your kids:

  • Don’t send messages or post anything when you are angry
  • Don’t write or send anything that you would not want a friend to see
  • Be as polite and courteous to people online as you are to their faces
  • Never send naked or compromising pictures of yourself to someone, even if they promise no one will see them (many times everyone ends up seeing them)

How to start a conversation with your teen

Often, kids don’t tell their parents about cyberbullying because they are afraid they will be punished.

So keep lines of communication open so that kids can feel comfortable telling you they have been cyberbullied or that they have sent a picture or a message that has hurt someone or that they regret sending.

It can be challenging to know how to foster this trust. The suggested questions below from the folks at Facebook can get the ball rolling, and they can be adapted to other social media conversations:

  1. Do you feel like you can tell me if you ever have a problem at school or online?
  2. Help me understand why Facebook is important to you.
  3. Can you help me set up a Facebook timeline?
  4. Who are your friends on Facebook?
  5. I want to be your friend on Facebook. Would that be OK with you? What would make it OK?

As parents, we can’t avoid some of the hurts our children face as they grow up. But by being proactive in both understanding our kids and in learning about new technology, we can support our children and step in when it goes beyond what’s reasonable for any kid to handle.

More information

Tags: back to school, bullying, growing pains of parenting
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Emma Raizman, MD, is a pediatrician at Cleveland Clinic Children's who enjoys working with families and children, from newborns to adolescents.

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