Parents don’t want to think about it, so kids are often unprepared. Cyberbullying may seem like something that happens to other people, but the statistics say otherwise. A study from the Pew Research Center found that, among adults, 40% have experienced online harassment and 73% have witnessed it.
For teens, the numbers are a little lower, though researchers note that many adolescents don’t report incidents of cyberbullying for the same reason they don’t talk about offline harassment: They feel intimidated and humiliated. They assume nothing can be done. And they worry talking to adults will make the problem worse.
That’s why parents need to be proactive. The hard fact is that most children will eventually encounter people who use the Internet to intimidate, harass and threaten others. The best way to fortify kids is to talk–in advance–about what cyberbullying is, how to prevent it and what can be done when it happens. Here’s some of what your child needs to know:
Recognize it when you see it. Cyberbullying comes in many forms. The mildest is mean comments, name-calling and shaming. Painful as this may be for the target, it’s not dangerous. Learning to shake off mean and ignorant comments is a life skill. To give kids perspective, talk about the American tradition of free speech. Even nasty, misinformed people have a right to their opinion. That doesn’t mean your child should give them time or attention.
Other forms of harassment are more serious, especially if they continue day after day. These include threats of personal harm including rape, spreading lies that damage a person’s reputation, posting personal information including cell phone numbers or sexual photos and techno attacks such as taking control of a social media account. Help your child distinguish between unpleasantness and risk.
Be proactive. The best way to deal with any problem is to avoid it. Raise your child with the assumption that people will be kind to each other. Model that way of living in your home, and help your child find friends who respect and appreciate each other. Online, help your child build a community where people treat each other well. Point your child toward the helpful Social Media Safety Guides produced by Heartmob (iheartmob.org/safety_guide). There are separate guides with straightforward explanations of privacy tools for Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, Tumblr, and Youtube.
Report—sometimes. Experts give contradictory advice about how to respond to cyberbullies. Some recommend ignoring the behavior because most bullies are looking for reaction and attention. This is especially true online where anyone can say anything to anyone. Others recommend telling the bully to stop. That is also easier—and somewhat safer—online where it’s possible to send a private message that may appeal to the other person’s sense of fair play.
Threats of abuse or harm should be documented by saving messages or capturing screen shots. Notify local police or the FBI with the understanding that they may be ineffective because laws lag behind technology in many states. The Cyberbullying Research Center maintains a comprehensive library of materials about cyberbullying including a complete list of regulations in every state (cyberbullying.org/cyberbullying-laws).
Internet services are also inconsistent in how they define and respond to harassment. Twitter, for example, recently started a Trust and Safety Council “to ensure that people feel safe expressing themselves on Twitter”– and was immediately slammed for restricting free speech. This is a good topic for dinner table discussion before a problem arises. If you were running a social media site, what limits would you put on what people can post? How should someone decide whether to ignore, confront or report a cyberbully?
Get creative. Because bullies can’t always be avoided and authorities can’t always be effective, a growing number of people are taking creative steps to make the Internet—or at least corners of it— safer for everyone. Kids who know about these efforts are less likely to feel hopeless about bullying if it happens to them or they witness it. They may still feel shock, shame and even fear, but they will also know that they have allies and role models who have figured out effective ways to respond.
A Thin Line provides detailed information about online harassment and encourages kids to share steps they’ve taken to assert their digital rights. The site, developed by MTV, also has a For Grownups Section that lists helpful resources. (athinline.org/pages/parents-and-educators)
BeStrong Emoji are little symbols, distributed by Vodaphone, that allow kids to encourage people who are being harassed. (vodafone.com/content/parents.html )
We Heart It is a social media app that limits harassment by allowing users to “heart” but not comment on content uploaded by others. (weheartit.com)
StompOutBullying runs a free, confidential chat line for teens over 13. Trained volunteers provide support to young people who are distressed about online harassment. (stompoutbullying.org)
The Speech Project details all the ways young women can be harassed online. The tools and resources section provides up-to-date information about what girls and young women can do to protect and defend themselves. (wmcspeechproject.com)
StopIt is a software platform that allows people within a community to anonymously send screenshots of material that is offensive or abusive. Schools that use the app have seen a reduction in the number of cyberbullying incidents. (stopitcyberbully.com)