Children, and especially teens, are vulnerable to cyberbullying via social media and online sites.
Cyberbullying is verbal abuse, harassment or snarky teasing that happens online rather than in person. And, like the technology that enables it, cyberbullying is a continuously evolving problem — it happens on different platforms (especially social media) and takes different forms.
Parents need to have an ongoing conversation with their teens about cyberbullying to prevent them from becoming victims. While teens especially may view “teasing” posts as harmless fun, others may view them as “shaming,” making others feel poorly about their self-image.
Unfortunately, thanks to technology, home is no longer a safe escape from bullying. Cyberbullying may subject teens to a constant barrage on their self-esteem and self-worth whenever they log into their social media accounts or other online platforms.
It is important to prepare your children. Comments that may seem innocent, humorous or unimportant to self-assured adults could be detrimental to an adolescent, who is still in the process of developing his or her self-confidence.
We talked with Mary Romano, M.D., MPH, a specialist in adolescent medicine at Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt, who provided guidance on how parents can prevent their children from becoming involved in cyberbullying.
She believes parents should respect their children’s privacy, but also monitor their activities, communicate what is and is not acceptable behavior, and make it clear there are certain instances in which you must be more involved to ensure safety. (Internet Safety 101 provides guides for parents about various social media platforms; that site and the National Cybersecurity Alliance offer helpful tips for safeguarding children’s online safety generally.)
Romano‘s six tips for parents to help to prevent cyberbullying:
1. Be a positive role model.
Children and teens look up to their parents and shape their moral and ethical compasses based on the views and actions of their parents. Teens look to their parents as role models more than it might seem. Explain how words and actions hurt others, and ensure that your children do not witness you disrespecting or ridiculing your peers. Use instances of inappropriate behavior as opportunities to explain why certain comments and actions are hurtful to others.
2. Establish mutually agreed upon rules.
It is difficult to blame children for breaking rules that they did not clearly understand. Before allowing your child to use the internet, parents and children should sign an internet use contract (find some examples from Common Sense Media and Internet Safety 101) that clearly outlines the expectations of both parties and using social media responsibly. These rules will change as your children enter the teen years. Parents should revisit the rules to allow supervision while respecting a teen’s increased need for privacy.
3. Monitor online usage.
By placing computers in locations that are clearly visible, parents can also casually monitor internet usage and discourage children from visiting unapproved sites. Set limits about texting — when, how often and who can be text messaged. If there are concerns or evidence of previous incidents that warrant closer monitoring, consider software to monitor or restrict activity. If your child has a cellphone, consider a rule that it must be turned over to you by a certain time each night.
4. Maintain open lines of communication — even when your teen resists talking.
Children need to understand that their parents will provide a safe place for discussion if they ever need to talk. Understanding the way your child communicates also lets you identify behavior that is out of character. If your child becomes withdrawn, secretive, moody or violent, he or she could be a victim of bullying and could also begin bullying others as a coping mechanism. Speak with your children and find out if they have any unresolved problems that need help. Teens are listening, even if they resist conversation more than they did at a younger age. Some moodiness in teens is normal, but any sudden or extreme changes is a reason for concern.
5. Provide positive reinforcement.
Bullying or shaming can often cause children to develop feelings of insecurity about their differences. Consider showing kids examples of positive role models who share similar traits. If a child is teased for having freckles or wearing glasses, show examples of actors or actresses with similar features. Help your children understand that their differences are positive and unique qualities.
6. Encourage leadership and independent thinking.
The vast nature of the internet allows a wide platform for public embarrassment. But children have also demonstrated that it provides a unique opportunity to inspire others. Children have used social media to create uplifting messages of positivity and fight back against cyberbullies.
Finally, become familiar with your school’s policies on bullying. If you notice changes in your child’s behavior or performance in school, schedule meetings with teachers and pediatricians to find out what’s going on and work toward a solution.
Mary Romano, M.D., MPH, treats adolescents and young adults. Her areas of expertise include adolescent primary care, LGBT health, contraception, adolescent health and behavioral science, eating disorders and menstrual disorders. She sees patients at Vanderbilt Adolescent and Young Adult Health at One Hundred Oaks.