By Sandi Schwartz
One of the biggest challenges parents currently face is how to manage our children’s access to technology. When they are young, we worry about them spending too much time staring at screens and not getting outside to play. As they get older, they start asking for their own cell phone, and then the world (the good, the bad, and the ugly) is available right in the palm of their hand. Sadly, the rise in popularity of the internet, smartphones, and text messaging has led to a major bullying problem online, called cyberbullying.
The Scary Statistics
Nearly 43 percent of kids have been bullied online, according to PACER, the organization who developed National Bullying Prevention Month that is held every October to unite communities nationwide to inspire, educate, and raise awareness about bullying prevention. Cyberbullying is now the single largest type of bullying, and 25 percent of kids who have been bullied say they have experienced it more than once.
Cyberbullying typically involves spreading rumors or writing hurtful comments to another person using technology. The spread of technology has made bullying so much easier because it has removed the traditional barriers of time and space between bullies and their victims. They can interact in real time at any moment throughout the day, whether it be during or after school. The technology to hurt someone is constantly on—available 24/7. The most common places where cyberbullying occurs are social media (Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, and Twitter), text messages, instant messages (Facebook Messenger), and email.
Why are kids being bullied? According to TeenSafe:
- 72 percent of children are cyberbullied because of their looks.
- 26 percent of victims are chosen due to their race or religion.
- 22 percent of harassed children feel that their sexuality was the cause of the bullying.
Other reasons include weak athletic ability, intelligence level, strong artistic skills, strong morals, refusal to join the crowd, or having a small build (i.e., too short, or too thin).
How CyberBullying Causes Stress and Anxiety
Like any traumatic event, cyberbullying can cause immediate and lingering stress and anxiety for the victims. They often are left feeling lonely, isolated, vulnerable, depressed, and anxious. The top four anxiety disorders that victims of bullying can experience include post-traumatic stress disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, panic attacks, and social anxiety disorder.
Several recent studies show a clear link between bullying and anxiety. In 2011, Elizabeth Carll, PhD, of the American Psychological Association presented the findings about the negative aspects of the internet in a talk entitled, “Electronic Harassment and Cyberstalking: Intervention, Prevention and Public Policy.” She concluded that cyberbullying can cause intense stress that may even be worse than being harassed in person. Students who were bullied online felt socially anxious, lonely, frustrated, sad, and helpless. Next, a 2013 study published in JAMA Psychiatry by researchers at Duke University found that both bullies and people who are bullied have an increased risk of depression; panic disorder; and behavioral, educational, and emotional problems. Finally, a 2014 study found that victims of frequent bullying had higher rates of depression, anxiety disorders, and suicidal feelings nearly four decades after a bullying incident.
It is important to keep an eye out for possible warning signs that your child is being cyberbullied, such as these highlighted by stopbullying.gov:
- Noticeable increase or decrease in device use, including texting.
- They show strong emotional responses, like anger, to what is happening on their device.
- They hide their device from you and will not tell you what they are doing on it.
- Social media accounts are shut down or new ones appear.
- They avoid social situations.
- They become withdrawn or depressed, or lose interest in friends, family, and activities.
- Difficulty sleeping.
- Physical complaints like headaches, nervousness, and stomachaches.
- They no longer want to go to school.
Ways to Protect Your Kids
Maneuvering through the world of ever-changing technology can be quite tricky, but it is now a huge part of parenthood. Just like we teach our children how to cross the street and not talk to strangers, it is imperative that we help keep our children safe online as well. There are several ways that you can keep tabs on your children’s online activity and help prevent cyberbullying or manage it if it happens.
Use Parental Controls
Digital parental controls are tools and software that are used to block inappropriate websites, impose screen time limits, and help prevent strangers from connecting with your children online. Installing the parental control app on your child’s device will allow you to monitor their activities and control what they are and are not exposed to. You will also be able to view their messages, contacts, internet browsing history, and emails.
There are many parental control programs available, including free options to get started with. Of course, each offers different tools and levels of control to consider. For example, restrictions for a child in elementary school may not be appropriate for a high school student.
You do not have to secretly monitor your child’s online behavior. In fact, experts believe that you will have more success if you talk to your children about proper digital etiquette and cyberbullying so that they will be comfortable to open up to you if they witness a bullying situation. Also, be aware that parental controls do not necessarily decrease the risk of cyberbullying but can serve as a helpful data collection tool in case an issue does occur either to or by your child.
We need to work together with our kids to figure out how best to manage screen time. Establish boundaries and limitations about appropriate digital behavior, content, and apps. If you see a message that looks inappropriate, speak to them about it immediately. If you read about a dangerous game, talk to your child about why you do not want them playing it. Let them know that you are not trying to invade their privacy. Make sure they know that you love them, are on their side, and just want to keep them safe.
Our children need our guidance. According to a recent survey, 24 percent of kids and teens report that they do not know what they would do if they were harassed online and 39 percent do not enable their privacy settings on social media.
Educate your kids about online dangers including the cyberbullying. Explain to them that the “friends” they meet online may not always be who they say they are. They should be careful about the type of information that they share with others. Teach them how to block accounts and set up security features in various programs.
Overall, we need to guide them so they can make responsible decisions about technology on their own, and to speak up when a situation feels uncomfortable.
Encourage Them to Take A Stand Against Bullies
The actions of peers are more likely to stop a bully than anything else. Help your children understand that reporting a cyberbullying incident is not tattling. Most social media platforms and schools have clear policies and reporting procedures. If a classmate is cyberbullying someone, help your child report the situation to the school. If a child has received physical threats, or if a potential crime or illegal behavior is occurring, report it to the police.
Let’s give our children the power to stand up and speak out against bullying. By raising confident, emotionally intelligent, kind children, we are giving them the tools to recognize when a situation just does not feel right. And remember to always love and support them through these challenging times.
Visit stopybullying.gov for additional resources and helpful information.
Sandi Schwartz is a freelance writer/blogger and mother of two. She has written extensively about parenting, wellness, and environmental issues. You can find her at www.happysciencemom.com.