Cyberbullying refers to any form of bullying or harassment that takes place through the use of electronic devices, such as a phone, laptop or tablet. This may take the form of a direct message to the victim(s) by SMS, text or email, or it can take the form of comment, photo, or video material about the victim(s) that is made available to a wide audience through social media or gaming sites. Recent statistics from both the US and the UK suggest that over 50% of teenagers have been aware of others being bullied online, and that in excess of 20% have been the focus of it themselves. It is, of course, the case that there has always been bullying. So, how is cyberbullying different from what has gone before?
No escape. The first way in which cyberbullying differs from previous forms of bullying stems from the 24-hour availability of the internet. Many victims of bullying in former generations knew they could go home from school at the end of the day and at least gain some respite in the safe space of home. For the victim of cyberbullying, there is no such respite. The internet is always there, and the bully might post new material at any time. This increases the pressure on the victim, day and night, always to be checking if there is a new post. Even if there is nothing new, the process of checking will bring back to their attention what is already there. It feels as if there is no escape.
Anonymity. In some cases, material may be posted online from an account created solely for the purpose of bullying, which gives the possibility for the bully to remain anonymous. This creates an intensified uncertainty for the victim, who may be left feeling that nobody in their circle of acquaintances can be trusted as any one of them could turn out to be the anonymous attacker. This situation can intensify the feeling of isolation felt by the victim as it effectively robs them of peers who can provide support.
Tips for Parents
There are a variety of things that parents can do to try to ensure that should their teenager ever experience cyberbullying, they (the parents) are in the best possible situation to try to support them.
Build up the child’s sense of personal identity. A strong sense of personal identity will help your teenager be more resilient in the face of all manner of problems, including forms of bullying should they become a target. Ideally, this is an approach that needs to start before the child reaches the teenage years, but if it is not something you have thought about before, it’s never too late to start!
Be careful what you post about your children/teens on social media. I have been shocked at times by the images of their children that some parents post on unrestricted social media. Causing your teenagers a mild level of embarrassment at a family gathering by showing around photographs of them when they were younger might provide entertainment for all – including the teenager. However, parents do well to remember that images of their children they consider cute or funny may unwittingly provide ammunition for cyberbullies.
Be aware of your teenager’s on-line behaviours. The degree to which this is possible will vary with the age of the teenager and will depend on the quality of the relationship between parent and teenager. Some parents of younger teenagers look to be “friended” on the social media sites their teenagers are using so they can exercise a degree of supervision, and this may be a good instructional tool. For all ages, however, the occasional family discussion about appropriate online behaviour could be a means of exercising some influence on the kind of apps that are used, appropriate levels of security and the kind of information that is made available through them to potential cyberbullies.
Watch out for tell-tale signs. If your teenager becomes a victim of cyberbullying, the earlier you find out about it, the better, in terms of supporting them through the experience. Even allowing for the moodiness that sometimes affects teenagers, and the reluctance that some have to discuss with parents what is going on in their lives, there may yet be changes of behaviour that will prompt parents to make further enquiries of their teenager. If the teenager become unusually withdrawn for more than a few days, especially if they seem to be withdrawing from their peer social circle, or if they become unusually aggressive in their responses, these could be signs that something else is going on in their lives. In and of themselves, such signs may not indicate that they are victims of cyberbullying, but they could be signs to the parents that some appropriate further enquiries might be made of their teenagers.
Your teenager is a victim of cyberbullying
If it becomes apparent that your teenager is experiencing bullying online, then the question arises as to what might be done to support them.
Reassure your teenager that they are not to blame for being bullied. This sounds obvious, but it is so very important. In the attempt to understand the cyberbullying targeted at them, teenagers are sometimes quick to find reasons within themselves for it having happened. Reassurance that it is not their fault is therefore very important.
Don’t retaliate on their behalf. Some parents may be tempted to leap to their teenager’s defence by entering into online combat with the cyberbullies. I strongly advise against such a response, the most likely outcome of which is to make matters worse by providing yet more material for the cyberbully to use.
Supportive action. Wherever possible, I would suggest discussing with your teenager the full range of options that might be available to them, and trying to ensure that they understand the implications of each possible course of action. Ideally, the teenager should take the decision about the course of action to be followed and you, as parent, will stand with them and agree the way you will support them moving forward. Such an approach will have the benefit of developing the teenager’s sense of responsibility, help them learn more abut decision-making in difficult circumstances, and help them feel a level of control in a situation where it is all too common for them to feel that they have lost control.
Your teenager is a cyberbully
Some parents may discover that their teenager is involved at some level in the bullying of others. Whilst the response may vary according to the age of the teenager and the extent of the involvement, I suggest the following elements should find a place in the parent’s response.
Stance against cyberbullying. A clear statement that cyberbullying is wrong would be my recommended starting-point. This is not in any sense a comment about the worth or value of your teenager, but a simple statement that you believe their actions to be wrong and that the cyberbullying needs to stop.
Supportive action. I suggest this should start with a full discussion of the options available to your teenager, with regard to appropriate responses to the person they have bullied and consequences that might follow from their actions. There may need to be approaches to the family of the victim, and to those of others involved in the bullying, as well as to those in authority at school. Where approaches need to be made, I suggest the responsibility for making the approaches should be placed firmly in the hands of those who have engaged in the cyberbullying. As a parent, I believe it is important that you stand with your teenager to offer support, but this does not mean excusing them from their actions or seeking to remove the consequences. Ultimately, it is important that teenagers learn from their mistakes, and the parent is well advised to keep this as their guiding principle whilst continuing to offer support.
Tips for Teachers
Teachers will agree that there can be no place for cyberbullying within a school community, but beyond maintaining that stance with students whenever the subject comes up, what might their role be?
Significant Adult. Both victims and perpetrators of cyberbullying will likely need to talk to someone at some stage. Teenagers will generally choose for themselves a significant adult for that purpose and it is not unusual for a teacher to find they are in that position. Playing the role of an “independent sounding-board” can be an invaluable support to a teenager as they try to figure out their best course of action, but for that to happen, it is important not to jump in and become their advocate with the school administration.
It is important, also, for teachers to maintain a professional distance from their students and not to get drawn into student online banter. There is a very fine line between banter that is genuinely funny for all involved and the beginnings of cyberbullying. Most of the time, students manage the distinction themselves, but when the line is crossed and victimisation begins to grow from the humour, a teacher who is involved in the banter can find themselves involved unwittingly in the cyberbullying. Students will choose their significant adults ultimately because they are adults, not because they can behave like teenagers. The professionalism of teachers is not only their best protection against inappropriate involvement with students, but also their primary qualification for becoming the significant adults who can help their teenage students as they journey towards adulthood.