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Cyberbullying: What Parents Should Know

by Ruth Gerson, MD

Anna has seemed down recently, her mom has noticed, and she never wants to talk about school anymore. Her mom wonders if this is just part of being 13 years old; yes, Anna bristles when her mother asks about friends or boys, but she remembers being the same way at that age.

Anna is constantly texting with friends on her cell phone, or up in her room, tapping away at her computer. Sometimes she seems upset after reading something on her phone, and once she even burst into tears before running into her room and slamming the door. But she refuses to talk about it, insisting it's not a big deal, she's just stressed out about school.

Anna's mom checks her daughter's phone every week, but Anna seems to be deleting most of the text messages. By the time her mother sees her texts, there are only brief hellos and questions about homework - certainly nothing that would cause tears. Anna's mom tried to friend her on Facebook, but Anna refused, saying she's a teenager now and needs her privacy.

Anna's mom is worried, but she isn't sure what to do. Middle school is just hard, right?

Recent news reports portray cyberbullying as a pervasive and potentially devastating epidemic. Online bullying has been linked to the tragic suicides of several adolescents and young adults. It is the focus of talk shows and public service announcements and state and federal legislation. This media attention and concern can be confusing - even to tech-savvy parents who may wonder, "How do I know if my child is being bullied online?" "Is cyberbullying really as common as the media would lead us to believe?" "Is it meaningfully different from the occasional teasing I experienced as a child?" And, "Why won't my kid just put down the phone for a while?"

What is cyberbullying?

Children and adolescents today are deeply connected to technology. Toddlers are using iPhones(1) and elementary school kids play online video games and use social networking sites like Club Penguin, a virtual world created for kids. Their teenage siblings may spend more than 50 hours a week using electronic media, often Facebook, instant messaging (IM), and Skype all at the same time.(2) Some research suggests that for teenagers, texting has surpassed face-to-face communication as the dominant mode of interacting with friends.(3)

It should come as no surprise then that bullying has also moved online. Cyberbullying can be defined as intentional, repetitive, targeted harm inflicted through the use of text or images sent via the Internet, cell phones or other communication devices. It can include threatening or harassing text messages or IMs; racial epithets or sexual slurs posted on Facebook pages or blogs; creating Facebook pages or Web sites dedicated to hating a particular peer or ranking the ugliest or "sluttiest" kids in school; creating fake Facebook pages, posing as a certain peer; and sending embarrassing e-mails, photographs, or video that might include sexual images or footage of fights or assaults, without the subjects' consent.

Cyberbullying is qualitatively different from the occasional teasing many parents recall from their own childhoods. It is pervasive: up to 72 percent of teens have experienced it in the past year, and 32 percent of victims report repeated or chronic harassment over the past year.(4,5,6,7) Up to 24 percent of kids admit to having bullied others online in the past year.(5,6,8)

Cyberbullying can occur anywhere there is a cell phone or computer - in or out of school. While traditional teasing or bullying is usually witnessed by a few bystanders at most, cyberbullying can reach entire classrooms, schools, and communities with a few quick keystrokes. Victims sometimes know who is targeting them (and often the bully is also targeting them in person, at school).(9) But in more than one-third of cases, cyberbullying is entirely anonymous.(10) These qualities of cyberbullying - its frequency, pervasiveness, and anonymity - can make it particularly distressing to victims.

What is the impact of cyberbullying?

If you imagine the shame and fear a child feels after being assaulted or humiliated at school, imagine how devastating it is when a video of the event is sent to every child in the neighborhood, or when further insults or threats follow the victim home on her cell phone or computer.

Young people who have experienced cyberbullying describe feeling upset, embarrassed, sad, hopeless, and even afraid to go to school.(9,11,12) They are also more likely to have academic problems or skip school, and to abuse alcohol or cigarettes.(7,9,11,12) Teens who have been bullied online report twice as many depressive symptoms as their peers who have not been bullied.(7,9,12) Victims of cyberbullying often report feeling hopeless or powerless and may be at increased risk of suicide.(11,5)

Children and teens who bully others online are also at risk for serious problems, including mood and behavior disturbances, aggression, and alcohol and drug use.(7,12,13,14,15) Many children - particularly girls - who bully others online are also themselves victims of bullying, either online or at school, and this group has the highest risk of social and emotional problems.(9,14)

How do I know if my child is at risk?

Cyberbullying is incredibly common, and 90 percent of victims do not tell their parents about their experiences.(4) They may fear that parents will take away their phones or computers, or feel they "need to learn to deal with it" by themselves.(4)

As a result, most parents are unaware when their child is being bullied online, or when their child is bullying others.(8) Even "good" kids can become involved with cyberbullying. Many children engage in cyberbullying "as a joke," or in retaliation after a slight offense from a friend or classmate.(2)

Cyberbullies do not witness the immediate impact of their words and actions and thus are not bound by the usual checks of empathy. They may underestimate the impact of their words, or feel they "don't count" because they are online.(15,19) Otherwise well-mannered, thoughtful children post things online that they would never say in person, including violent threats and racial or sexual slurs. They may not realize the impact that angry, impulsive Facebook posts or other negative online behavior can have on their relationships with peers, or with high school and college admissions officers, who increasingly screen for such behavior.

What can parents do?

Children whose parents monitor and impose rules for Internet and phone use are at lower risk for cyberbullying (and also "sexting," which includes sending sexual images and messages via cell phone).(3,14) But rules alone are often ineffective.(14) Like all forms of bullying, cyberbullying requires a community response.

We recommend the following:

  • Children need clear rules about what is expected and allowed online. Talk to your children about online etiquette, privacy and cyberbullying before it becomes a problem, ideally as soon as your children start going online.
  • Monitor your child's online activities, including e-mail, social networking profiles and text messaging (and for younger children, consider disabling text messages on their phones completely). Unplanned checks are recommended; when kids know you are going to check, they will likely delete anything they don't want you to see.
  • Work with your child's school to provide education about cyberbullying. Schools should provide clear rules and guidelines about online behavior. More specifically, children need explicit guidance about pausing to think before texting or posting information online, and about how to manage conflicts with friends in person. Children should also be counseled on how to respond to peers' negative behavior online. Encourage your child's school to implement a comprehensive anti-bullying program that provides education and effective consequences.
  • Become familiar with blocking software and other online tools that can be used to fight cyberbullying, and teach your children about them before they are needed.

If your child is already experiencing cyberbullying:

  • The first step is to help your child feel supported and understood by caring adults. Children who have been bullied may not want immediate intervention. They may just need to feel heard, reassured, and encouraged.
  • Collaborate with other parents, teachers, school officials, and your community to intervene effectively.
  • If your child is bullying others online, there should be clear consequences, including restrictions on phone and Internet use, with increasing use allowed only once your child has reflected seriously on his or her behavior and its impact, and demonstrated appropriate behavior online.(19)

Cyberbullying is a serious and increasingly common problem, but fighting it doesn't require high-tech interventions. Parents, educators, and children need to work together; education, monitoring, and talking with kids can help everyone be safe online.

Further resources:

For more on understanding and responding to cyberbullying, parents can consult the Massachusetts Aggression Reduction Center.

For teens, MTV has developed an educational campaign promoting healthy online activity at www.athinline.org.

References:

1. Stout H. Toddler's favorite toy: the Iphone. New York Times, Oct 15 2010, retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2010/10/17/fashion/17TODDLERS.html
2. Kaiser Family Foundation Staff (2010). Generation M2: Media in the lives of 8- to 18-year-olds. Kaiser Family Foundation, retrieved from http://www.kff.org/entmedia/mh012010pkg.cfm.
3. Lenhart A (2009). Cyberbullying: what the research is telling us. Pew Internet and American Life Project, May 2009, retrieved from http://www.pewinternet.org/Presentations/2009/18-Cyberbullying-What-the-research-is-telling-us.aspx
4. Juvonen J, Gross EF (2008). Extending the school grounds? Bullying experiences in cyberspace. Journal of School Health 78:496-505.
5. Hinduja, S. & Patchin, J. W (2010). Bullying, cyberbullying, and suicide. Archives of Suicide Research, 14(3):206-221.
6. Ang RP, Goh DH (2010). Cyberbullying among adolescents: the role of affective and cognitive empathy, and gender. Child Psychiatry and Human Development 41:387-397.
7. Ybarra ML, Espelage DL, Mitchell KJ (2007). The co-occurrence of internet harassment and unwanted sexual solicitation victimization and perpetration: associations with psychosocial indicators. Journal of Adolescent Health 41:31-41.
8. Dehue F, Bolman C, Vollink T (2008). Cyberbullying: youngsters' experiences and parental perception. Cyberpsychology and Behavior 11(2):217-223.Ybarra et al, 2006).
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10. Finkelhor D, Mitchell K, Wolak J (2000). Online victimization: a report on the nation's young people. Retrieved from www.unh.edu/ccrc/pdf/jvq/CV38.pdf.
11. Ybarra ML, Mitchell KJ (2001). Youth engaged in online harassment: associations with caregiver-child relationships, internet use and personal characteristics. Journal of Adolescence 27-319-36.
12. Ybarra ML, Diener-West M, Leaf PJ (2007). Examining the overlap in internet harassment and school bullying: implications for school intervention. Journal of Adolescent Health 41:42-50. Raskauskas and Stoltz, 2007
13. Surander A, Klomek AB, Ikonen M, Lindroos J, Luntamo T, Koskelainen M, Ristkari T, Helenius H (2010). Psychosocial risk factors associated with cyberbullying among adolescents. Archives of General Psychiatry 67(7):720-728.
14. Ybarra, M.L. & Mitchell, K.J. (2004). Online aggressors, victims, and aggressor/victims: A comparison of associated youth characteristics. Journal of Child Psychology & Psychiatry, 45(7), 1308-1316.
15. Englander, E.K. and Muldowney, A. (2007). "Just turn the darn thing off: Understanding cyberbullying." In D. L. White, B. C. Glenn, and A. Wimes (Eds.), Proceedings of Persistently Safe Schools: The 2007 National Conference on Safe Schools, 83-92. Washington, DC: Hamilton Fish Institute, The George Washington University.
16. Englander E (2008). Cyberbullying and information exposure: user-generated content in post-secondary education. Campus Safety Best Practices Report, Department of Higher Education, Commonwealth of Massachusetts (O'Neill, D; Fox, j; Depue, R and Englander, E).
17. Mesch GS (2009). Parental mediation, online activities, and cyberbullying. Cyberpsychology and Behavior 12(4):387-393.
18. Slonje R and Smith PK (2008). Cyberbullying: another main type of bullying? Scandinavian Journal of Psychology 49:147-154.
19. Parker-Pope, T and Englander, E. Ask questions about cyberbullying. New York Times Well blog, June 28-29 2010, retrieved from http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/06/28/ask-questions-about-cyber-bullying/?ref=style