Cyberbullying is using information and communication technologies to deliberately and repeatedly behave in a manner intended to harass, threaten, humiliate or harm others. Part of what makes cyberbullying especially damaging is the ability of an abuser to attack at any hour of the day or night, in any place, and to make their attacks very public. Research suggests that between 20 – 30% of students will experience cyberbullying and between 10 – 20% of students will be a cyberbully at some point.
Victims of cyberbullying are in a vulnerable state, so how you respond to your child, and how you report the incident(s) to your child’s school, are likely to be significant factors in either making the problem stop, or worsening the situation.
Your first task is to listen to your child without judgment, blame, or attempting to jump in and ’solve’ it. Gently ask questions to discover how long the cyberbullying has been going on, the names of those involved (if known), and the forms of cyberbullying used. If there is evidence of the cyberbullying – saved text messages, posts, websites, etc. – have your child show these to you and save these for documentation should it be needed.
You also need to ask your child to be entirely honest with you about any forms of retaliation they make have taken. Hopefully they have done nothing to retaliate, but often kids and teens lash out and this significantly complicates matters. Let them know that the truth will come out when their cyberbully is confronted, and they will be in far worse shape if they haven’t been transparent about their own behavior. If there is evidence of their actions, document these as well.
If your child did not come to you right away, do not place blame, just let them know you are grateful they’ve come to you now. There are many reasons that youth suffer silently, they may be afraid you’ll react by restricting their online access, they may be embarrassed that they can’t take care of the bullying themselves, they may be afraid that you’ll handle things in a way that escalates the bullying, or that you won’t understand and minimize the problem.
You may also learn about the cyberbullying from another source, or suspect that cyberbullying is behind behavioral changes you see in your child. In either of these cases, find time when you can be alone and unrushed with your child to bring up the topic.
Acknowledge your child’s pain. Recognizing your child’s pain and hearing you affirm that what happened wasn’t fair or right is important validation. Being cyberbullied is alienating enough; do nothing that makes your child feel any more isolated. Bullying hurts and that hurt is exhibited many forms — anger, embarrassment, betrayal, frustration, confusion, fear, and reprisal.
Reactions may also differ depending on who is doing the bullying, how pervasive it is, who witnessed it, what the nature of the bullying was, if bystanders lent support or not, and so on. Help them see that bullies’ actions are not a result of a fault within your child, but a fault within the bully.
If your child or teen retaliated with their own cyberbullying, you also need to include a full discussion about the inappropriateness of their behavior and what the consequences will be. The assertion that “the other kid started it” is irrelevant. Your child cannot blame their choices and behavior on anyone else, and must be held accountable. If they want justice for what was done to them, they need to expect the same yardstick to be applied to any cyberbullying they committed.
Once you understand the scope of the problem, and how your child feels, assess what help your child may need.
Help your child take preventative measures online to block cyberbullies from contacting them, and report cyberbullies to the service providers where the cyberbullying occurred. Responsible sites should take immediate action against cyberbullying incidents.
If your son or daughter experienced cyberbullying, chances are high that the negative fallout has spilled over into their school experience – whether or not the cyberbullying actually occurred while your child or their abuser(s) were on school grounds.
Take immediate steps to address the issue. Don’t wait to see if the cyberbullying goes away. Your child needs to know that you can and will help them with this problem. Ideally you are already informed of your child’s school’s cyberbullying policy. However, it’s more likely you have a vague idea there is such a policy and little to no idea if the policy actually helps protect victims or risks exposing your child to greater bullying.
Start by contacting the school’s vice principal, or whomever is in charge of disciplinary measures, and ask what steps are taken when cyberbullying is reported, how well other victims have been protected, and what steps are taken to ensure the cyberbullying doesn’t escalate.
School staff should be very open and supportive in their answers and you should feel free to ask the questions you need in order to feel comfortable about reporting the incident, and assured that you know what to expect every step of the way. If your questions aren’t met with open understanding, or you believe the school will not handle the issue well, step back and reconsider your options. The last thing a cyberbullying victim needs is for the problem to get worse.
Next, discuss what you learned from the school with your child or teen and chart out the best course of action. Cyberbullying robs victims of their sense of control; by including your child in the process of resolving the issue you help them regain that control.
If your child is guilty of retaliation cyberbullying be particularly mindful as you weigh your course of action. Many schools have a zero cyberbullying tolerance and both bullies – the instigator and your child the responder – may be in for the same punishment. Schools may also be obligated to report cyberbullying acts that step over the boundary of the law.
If reporting the incident to the school is the best course of action, you can now move forward in reporting and documenting the incident(s) following the guidelines you received from the school in your previous conversation.
Simultaneously, you may want to help your child or teen increase the strength of their friendships to reduce the feeling of isolation victims often experience. Depending on how deeply the cyberbullying has impacted your child, you may also choose to set up appointments with the school’s counselor or ask the school’s counselor for names of therapists who have expertise in working through the effects of the cyberbullying.
Cyberbullying may also be criminal. Physical threats of harm should be reported to police immediately. Laws vary by state, but cyberbullies may be guilty of cyberstalking, computer trespassing, and other crimes. If the situation warrants it, contact your local law enforcement.