By Meghan Vivo
A reader named Sean has been receiving anonymous threatening emails for weeks. He doesn’t know why or where they are coming from, but the sender has been relentless in their attacks.
Meanwhile, a student is spreading vicious rumors about Katie in a group chat. None of the rumors are true, and all are incredibly hurtful, but the other students believe the false reports and have ostracized and humiliated her as a result.
A cruel fake profile has been uploaded to Instagram about Jennifer, using her name, photograph, and contact information. She is now receiving crude and offensive messages from individuals who think her profile is real.
All of these people are victims of cyberbullying.
The internet moves the goalposts in terms of both how and with whom we interact, and we all have to be vigilant in response. In addition to predators, identity thieves, and criminals, we have to protect our children from the types of faceless bully that attack online.
The Impact of Cyberbullying
More and more children and teens are becoming victims of cyberbullying. In its most common forms, cyberbullying involves sending cruel instant messages or emails, or posting insults or embarrassing comments about a person on a website, chat facility, message board, social networking site, cell phone, or elsewhere.
Whatever form it takes, cyberbullying causes feelings of fear, isolation, and humiliation among its targets, perhaps even more so than traditional bullying because cyberbullying can happen 24 hours a day, in every location, and in any number of ways. It is also often harder to trace and punish than the bullying that occurs in face-to-face situations.
Research has proven that bullying takes a devastating toll on its victims. Children who are bullied are more likely than nonbullied children to be anxious, depressed, and to suffer from low self-esteem. Bullied children are also more likely than other children to think about taking their own lives.
Warnings Signs of Cyberbullying
Many teens try to hide the shame, embarrassment, and pain of being the target of a cyberbully. Keep an eye out for the following warning signs:
- Your child is upset or angry during or after using the computer, internet, or cellphone
- A sudden change in friends or activities
- A drop in academic performance
- Disinterest in school or refusal to attend classes
- Your child has been a target of bullying at school
- A change in mood in which your child appears sad, depressed, lonely, or isolated
- Your child is engaging in cyberbullying against other children
Tips for Dealing with a Cyberbully
If you’re concerned that your child is being threatened or bothered by a cyberbully, take action before lasting damage is done. Set up guidelines around the use of the internet and technology in your home, and talk with your child about the types of behavior that should be reported to parents or other adults.
The following tips will help arm you in your fight against bullying:
- Save copies of messages, web profiles, and offensive comments so that you can offer these as evidence if and when the time comes to talk with school officials, police, or an attorney.
- If the offense is a first-time occurrence and relatively minor in nature, try to ignore, delete, or block the sender. Resist the urge to answer emails, respond to posts, or participate in an exchange; instead, ignore the bully and get help from parents and teachers.
- Speak with parents, teachers, or another trusted adult as soon as the cyberbullying begins.
- Report offensive behavior to your internet service provider (most offer a range of parental controls) or the site’s webmaster (often found under the “help” section of many websites). Social networking sites like Facebook are aware of the problem of cyberbullying and may take down offensive profiles.
- Do your own research. If your child is younger, make sure you have access to their profile so that you can occasionally monitor the comments and interactions.
- If your child is being bullied by a fellow student, set up a meeting with the school counselor and share the evidence you have gathered.
- If the problem isn’t resolved and the bullying is ongoing, severe, or worrisome to you, contact the authorities and/or the bully’s parents and share the evidence you have gathered.
If these steps do not resolve the issue, or the bully or bully’s parent is unresponsive and the behavior continues, contact an attorney or report the bullying to the police. They may be able to take action if the cyberbullying involves threats, comments that urge suicide, intimidation, or sexual exploitation.
Bullying can be devastating to a child or teen. If your child seems depressed, anxious, or withdrawn or has made comments about suicide or self-harm, seek professional help immediately.
Talk to the school counselor or a therapist, or seek out information regarding mental health services that may help rebuild your child’s self-esteem and develop greater coping and distress tolerance skills. If your child is the one doing the bullying, therapy may also help get to the bottom of any underlying anger issues or other emotional or behavioral problems.
Cyberbullying is not harmless fun and can cause deep emotional scars that last a lifetime. Because a cyberbully has the luxury of remaining anonymous and can access your child online whenever they choose, with limited risk of being caught, cyberbullying is a particularly worrisome trend.
Whether your child is the victim of cyberbullying or the aggressor, there are things you can do to stop the harassment. It’s up to you to recognize the signs of a problem and do everything you can to make life better for your family and those around you.