Cyberbullying: protecting your child
Cyberbullying is an issue that concerns many parents; in 2013 the New York Times noted a surge in anti-bullying books, while newspaper headlines give the impression that ‘everybody does it’, and that it’s a ‘stage of life’ that children need to survive, particularly between the ages of 13 and 16.
Nancy Willard, who runs cyberbullying workshops in schools, finds this suggestion unhelpful and thinks it encourages some to send more hurtful messages, and others to put up with poor behaviour from others. She argues that we need to collect more information about positive behaviour online, to help parents understand what life is like online for children and for young people to understand that the majority of people behave constructively.
Bullying is of particular concern to parents because of the emotional harm it can do and the way it can affect self-esteem, confidence, school attendance and performance, and therefore overall life chances. Bullying has always been an issue for children, but the core difference between ‘traditional’ bullying and ‘online’ bullying is the nature of it. Whereas bullying would typically stop at the school gates, online, it can be constant, happening any time of day and night, affecting the child regardless of location, and leaving a feeling that there is nowhere to escape to. With the online world’s 24/7 nature, it is much easier for others to get involved quickly - either ‘piling in’ negatively, or, more positively, to call out the bully. It is also possible for information to resurface and another episode of bullying, with accompanying public humiliation, to kick off.
1.5 million young people in the UK experienced bullying in the last year.
64% of parents fear girls are more likely to be bullied over social media than boys.
34% of parents fear boys are more likely to be bullied on gaming platforms than girls.
(Internet Matters survey)
Managing cyberbullying is a combination of conversation and an understanding of your child’s behaviour. News stories, videos on YouTube, and experiences of their friends can all provide triggers for conversations, preferably before it becomes a problem. It is important to understand the difference between what many teenagers would refer to as ‘normal drama’, and bullying, which is characterised by deliberate, repeated, and hostile behaviour (with ‘cyber’ simply mediated via technology). Conversations should encourage children to think about how they might manage being bullied, knowing that you’re there for support, ensuring that they understand the nature of ‘disinhibition’ online, where the screen can make people forget that they are engaging with a human being, and not see the effect of hurtful messages. We can also inspire them to think about how they would help friends who are being bullied. Take time to talk to other parents too, and understand how they manage such conversations.
Those at risk from cyberbullying tend to be those already vulnerable to offline bullying. The digital offers both challenges (increased access) and opportunities (recording evidence, and allowing friends to challenge negative behaviours). Learn to recognise changed behaviour in your child, especially secretive behaviours around, or avoiding, the screen. Be clear that if they report problems to you, you won’t remove their phone, you will take what they say seriously, and you will support them. Dealing with the problem, rather than avoiding it, is key, and gives confidence in any further incidents. There are a huge number of resources online to help open conversations, or deal with issues once triggered, including Ditch the Label for gamers, Think U Know from CEOP, and InternetMatters.org.
Dr Bex Lewis is senior lecturer in digital marketing at Manchester Metropolitan University, director of social media consultancy Digital Fingerprint, and author of Raising children in a digital age.
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