IT’S NOT FUNNY

How To Talk With Kids About Online Meanness and Cyberbullying

With many schools starting the year online, kids of all ages are spending more time than ever on their devices. While this shift is designed to help slow the spread of the coronavirus, it’s also fueling the rise of another worry for parents: cyberbullying. Bullying is nothing new, of course, but it takes a variety of different forms online that parents may not be used to or even aware of, and studies show that it can have long-lasting and wide-ranging impacts. With that in mind, Children and Screens: Institute of Digital Media and Child Development has brought together an interdisciplinary group of leading educators, researchers, and clinicians to help parents understand the world of cyberbullying with tips on how to prevent and stop it before it becomes worse.

SPEAK OPENLY

Cyberbullying is a relatively new phenomenon in the scheme of things, and parents who didn’t grow up with it may underestimate the effects it can have on children, including anxiety, depression, suicidal ideation, poor academic performance, and impaired physical health. Clemson University Psychology Professor Robin M. Kowalski, PhD recommends that all parents become active participants in helping their children navigate the internet from an early age. “Communicate with your children and teens about appropriate online etiquette,” she says, “and offer them possible responses to cyberbullying victimization, like not responding, blocking the sender, or telling a parent or teacher.” Kowalski suggests that parents should set clear guidelines and consequences at home for the use of the internet and text messaging.

University of Córdoba Psychology Professor Izabela Zych, PhD agrees, adding that recent studies show that parental supervision is crucial for prevention of cyberbullying victimization and perpetration. “It’s not about being overprotective and interrogating children or constantly checking what adolescents are doing online,” she says. “It’s about showing trust and affection, love and care.” Zych recommends parents talk openly with their children and invite them to share their experiences and concerns. Children who feel that their parents are always there to help them will talk in a more honest way and feel more understood and listened to.

Director of the Brown-Lifespan Center for Digital Health Megan L. Ranney, MD, MPH, suggests that one way to help facilitate these conversations is to simply have them more regularly. “By normalizing discussions about what healthy social media interactions look like, you’re more likely to encourage your kids to tell you when there’s a problem,” she says. “And when the inevitable happens—when they see bullying, are bullied, or bully others—you’ll be able to start from a position of shared understanding, rather than one of judgment.”

SIT, LISTEN AND BE SYMPATHETIC

If your child discloses to you that he or she is being cyberbullied, it’s important to present a measured reaction. “Take a deep breath and pause before responding,” says wellness counselor Patricia Agatston, PhD, LPC. “Thank your child for coming to you and affirm this help-seeking behavior.” Agatston recommends showing curiosity and asking your child questions like “How are you feeling?” and “What have you done or thought about doing?” “Acknowledge their emotions and affirm any positive actions they’ve taken or are considering,” she says, “Let your child know that you’re available to help and that you can work together to find a solution.”

“Research has shown a strong association between bullying and suicide,” adds Scott Poland, EdD, Director of the Suicide and Violence Prevention Office at NSU Florida. “It’s critical that kids be listened to and asked directly about any thoughts of hopelessness or suicide they may be feeling so that appropriate interventions can take place.”

Children often won’t tell their parents if they are being bullied online because they are afraid their devices or phones will be taken away from them. “Make sure they know this won’t happen,” says Stephanie Fredrick, Ph.D., Associate Director of Alberti Center for Bullying Abuse Prevention, University at Buffalo, SUNY. “Although it’s upsetting to hear that your child may be a target of cyberbullying, try not to let your distress get in the way of problem solving. Instead, listen to your child and find out more. Empathize with their feelings and problem solve with them possible responses and coping strategies, which may include reporting the behavior, taking a break from a specific app or platform, or communicating with your child’s school.”

STRENGTHEN SOCIAL SKILLS

Children can protect themselves from cyberbullying and its negative effects by employing what University of Arizona Professor Michael Sulkowski, PhD refers to as the “Three F’s.” The first F is Family: don’t post or share any information that you wouldn’t be willing to share with your mother, father, or any other important family member. The second F is Forever: assume that everything you share online will be there forever. The last F is Freely Available: assume that there’s no privacy online and that any information you share is freely available to everyone. Sticking to these three principles can help prevent cyberbullying and other problematic online behavior before it even starts.

Children who have already learned to manage rudeness and incivility offline are better equipped to handle it online. “Prepare kids for the ugly side of the internet in advance,” says family internet safety expert and author Sue Scheff. “When it comes to cruel comments, twisted truths, and mean memes, being forewarned is being forearmed.” Scheff recommends making sure children know how to flag, block, and report abusive content on social platforms, and that they feel comfortable telling a trusted adult if necessary.

Massachusetts Aggression Reduction Center Executive Director Elizabeth Englander, PhD agrees, adding that strong social skills can also help ward off trouble before it starts. “Eating dinner with your children, encouraging them to pay attention to facial expressions and body language, and spending time practicing conversational skills can help kids avoid social problems online,” she explains.

SCRUTINIZE AND SPREAD KINDNESS

A root cause of cyberbullying is that when we’re online, we forget how impactful our words are. Harvard University student Trisha Prabhu, ReThink Founder and CEO explains, “From behind a screen, we’re much more willing to say things we’d normally never say to someone’s face. Keep your child from engaging in cyberbullying by encouraging them to pause, review, and ReThink before they text, post, or send a message. Their mantra should be: ‘Does this message reflect who I am/who I want to be? Could I show this to a grandparent?’”

Susan M. Swearer, PhD, suggests talking with your kids about being their kindest self, both online and in person. “Encourage your children to post positive, kind comments on other’s posts and pictures,” she explains. “If they are kind online, then they might be less likely to bully others. Challenge them to be a ‘kindness’ influencer and pledge as a family to #BeKind21.”

SEE IT, SAY IT, SAVE IT

The phrase “If you see something, say something” applies online just as it does in the real world. Washington State School Safety Center Program Supervisor Mike Donlin recommends that students and families report troubling behavior to teachers or other administrators when necessary. Donlin also encourages parents and teachers to familiarize themselves with apps, platforms, and social networks their students are likely to be accessing, both school and non-school-related. This will better help adults spot problematic issues like cyberbullying or grooming before it’s too late.

For adults, one of the most challenging aspects of dealing with cyberbullying is that we’re rarely around to witness it. American Association of Suicidology President Jonathan B. Singer, PhD, LCSW, recommends asking for “receipts” if you think your child is being harassed, stalked, or abused online. “‘Receipts’ is slang for evidence or proof,” Singer explains, “and it could take the form of printouts of text exchanges, screenshots, or even recordings.” Since bullying behaviors are often repeated and targeted, gathering “receipts” can help parents better understand the scope of the situation, determine who’s responsible, and decide how to respond with confidence. “Receipts” can also be useful pieces of evidence should any kind of investigation become necessary.

SAY SORRY

All of us are capable of bullying behavior, and the immediacy of online interaction means it’s easier than ever to share something that we’ll live to regret. “Social media platforms love to trigger us,” says Kidscape CEO Lauren Seager-Smith, FRSA, “and it takes a high level of self-awareness to recognize those triggers and pause before we post.” Such awareness can be especially challenging for children, who are still learning how to engage with others and self-regulate. “It’s important as parents that we educate our kids about the consequences of what they like and share,” Seager-Smith explains, “but it’s equally important that we help them understand when they’ve caused harm to others and learn to apologize.”

It’s easier than ever to be a bully these days, and the perceived anonymity of the internet can often bring out the worst in people. However, as our experts all agree, frequent and open communication is the best antidote. Not only will it improve children’s social skills, which will better prepare them for whatever comes their way, but it will also encourage them to reach out if and when they need help.

About Children and Screens

Since its inception in 2013, Children and Screens: Institute of Digital Media and Child Development, has become one of the nation’s  leading non-profit organizations dedicated to advancing and supporting interdisciplinary scientific research, enhancing human capital in the field, informing and educating the public, and advocating for sound public policy for child health and wellness.  For more information, see www.childrenandscreens.com or write to info@childrenandscreens.com.