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What parents need to know about cyberbullying

cyber bullying1Cyberbullying has become a major concern for parents, particularly for parents of children in middle school and high school.

Just like “old fashioned” school yard bullying, though, it can be difficult for parents to know just what to do to help prevent and manage cyberbullying.

What is cyberbullying?

Many parents struggle to put their finger on whether something is or isn’t cyber bullying.

A study released this week by C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital National Poll on Children’s Health found many differences in opinion among parents in what behavior is considered cyberbullying and what appropriate punishment should be for cyberbullying.  For example, whether or not the action of posting online rumors about another student was considered cyberbullying was dependent on what the rumor was about. For instance, if the rumor pertained to cheating on a test, parents generally considered it to be less characteristic of cyberbullying than a rumor about having sex in the school building. Less than half of parents gave the “definitely cyberbullying” label to sharing a photo altered to make a student look fat.

See video on latest Mott poll findings here.

At the end of the day, what matters is the way the online interactions are affecting your child more-so than the intent of the person who posted or other people’s definitions of cyberbullying.

How do you know if your child is being cyberbullied?

Because the social media world is integral to teenagers for keeping up with friends and knowing what is happening in their social circles, they often won’t share what they are experiencing online for fear that their social media connections will be taken away.

It’s important for parents and caregivers to watch for signs that include:

  • Deleting social media accounts
  • Spending more time than usual online or on mobile device
  • Being secretive about their online interactions
  • Mood changes after being online or using their mobile device

What do you do if you suspect your child is the target of cyberbullying?

CyberbullyingIf your child is being cyberbullied, there are ways you can help.

  • Make sure your child feels safe. First and foremost, if he feels it would be dangerous to go to school or to some other activity or he is having thoughts about hurting himself, take prompt action to keep him safe.
  • Do not get directly involved with the cyberbully or his parents. If the bully is a classmate, get your child’s school involved promptly. Schools are mandated to have bullying policies and if the bullying is affecting your child in school, they are obligated to help.
  • Be sure to save screen shots, text messages, and other evidence of the bullying. After you have reported the bullying to the school, they will most likely ask for evidence.
  • Encourage your children to not engage with anyone cyberbullying them. It might feel easy online for the target of bullying to fire back a mean message to the person bullying them, but this can make it difficult to determine who is the person bullying and who is the target. Schools have different policies on how they handle bullying that often involves counseling for all involved.

If adequate resolution is not accomplished, or if you are concerned for your child’s immediate safety, you may also need to involve the police.

Preventing bullying

As much as parents would like to protect their child, there is no magic bullet for ensuring a child never encounters online bullying.

That said, you can help protect your child by equipping them with tools to minimize the impact of online bullying.

  • Talk with your child. Don’t wait for your child to be involved in cyberbullying (on either side) before having a conversation. Discuss what cyberbullying is and the effects it can have. Be clear in the rules you set for your children.
  • Watch – don’t prohibit. It’s better to monitor your child’s online activity every so often than to take away their access to social media. Make sure they know that you won’t be monitoring their every interaction, but that you do have the right at any time to ask to see their messages or ask them to open their social media accounts so you can view their activity. In general, installing software on your child’s phone to monitor their activities is NOT recommended.
  • Model good behavior for your children. If your children observe you getting involved in online fights or harassment, they are more likely to think that behavior is acceptable. Also help them understand that what they see on social media isn’t always an accurate representation of someone’s life. It’s easy to look at others who portray a picture-perfect life on social media and think there must be something wrong with your own life or that nobody else is going through what you are. Assure them that people don’t put the whole picture out there for the world to see, and the lives of others most likely have more going on than they show in their Facebook timeline or Snapchat story.

If you have not already spoken to your children about cyberbullying, the results of this study are a perfect conversation starter. Talk about examples of cyberbullying, what they can do to prevent it and what they should do if they experience it.

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ellen selie mdEllen Selkie, MD, MPH, is a Clinical Lecturer in Adolescent Medicine at the University of Michigan. Dr. Selkie’s research at CHEAR seeks to understand how adolescents use digital technology in both prosocial and antisocial ways, and how peer interactions through social media may impact health outcomes in the adolescent and young adult populations. In particular, her work examines the health effects of digital harassment and cyberbullying among adolescents; technology-based communication behaviors that either promote or reduce social support among sexual minority youth; and targeted social media interventions for improvement of adolescent mental health.

best children's hospitalUniversity of Michigan C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital is consistently ranked one of the best hospitals in the country. It was nationally ranked in all ten pediatric specialties in U.S. News Media Group’s “America’s Best Children’s Hospitals,” and among the 10 best children’s hospitals in the nation by Parents Magazine. In December 2011, the hospital opened our new 12-story, state-of-the-art facility offering cutting-edge specialty services for newborns, children and women.