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Cyberbullying: How can parents identify and intervene?

Cyberbullying can be hard to identify because young people may keep things to themselves for fear of being further victimised, think that caregivers may not understand, or believe that parents and/or teachers will respond in ways that they don’t see as favourable (such as restricting access to technology).

It may even be because they don’t recognise the behaviours as bullying; some of the most harmful bullying behaviours are insidious, hard to detect, or happen anonymously (e.g., leaving someone out deliberately, spreading rumours, or posting messages and comments from fake accounts).

Bullying may also come from someone thought of as a friend, or it may be masked as “making fun” and the victim treated as though they can’t take a joke. Therefore, the best way to identify this is to keep honest and open communication about technology, talk about what cyberbullying is, and develop digital literacies in the home.

What signs should parents look out for?

Cyberbullying can be confusing and distressing for young people, but it is not often the case that youth actively hide bullying from those who care about them (especially if they feel safe, close or connected), but rather that they may find it hard to disclose for a variety of reasons.

Therefore, identifying the warning signs are particularly important– not just so caregivers can do something about it, but also so that they can help their child feel empowered to talk about how they feel, make sense of their relationships with peers, and make decisions about what they want to happen. But these so-called signs are not black and white, they can be very subtle and they differ from child to child.

What all parents should look out for first and foremost is changes in mood and behaviour. This could be relatively obvious things like the child being quick to anger or to cry, not sleeping well, refusing school or other normal activities, or spending a lot of time isolated. However, the changes may not be as noticeable such as not engaging in discussion about thoughts and feelings, seeming to not engage with things that normally like (food, games etc), becoming secretive (especially concerning technology). But it must be recognised that some of these issues are also a normal part of growing up, or could be related to other issues – these are only warning signs and you should investigate what is going on if you notice a pattern of change from the child’s general disposition.

Text Bullying
How can parents help a child experiencing bullying?
  1. Try to not let personal emotions take centre stage: Although it can be a devastating feeling for the parents themselves, for a child who is experiencing bullying, distress can be compounded through its negative effects on family members. It is very important to work through whatever anger, sadness, anxiety and other very normal feelings a parent may have, but to do this in safe ways with other supportive adults or mental health professionals. Oftentimes parents feel a real range of emotions around these experiences that may not be able to be worked through while managing the situation, so be mindful of needing to deal with these as well as help your child.
  2. Bullying is NOT a normal part of growing up: even though it is common that does not make it okay, and all forms of bullying can be harmful not just the physical and verbal, but also the relational. Ongoing bullying in childhood is related to many negative physical and mental health outcomes, but even if your child is bullied, with the right supports and by intervening early the negative effects can be managed. Talking about what is bullying behaviour with children and making them feel like they can safely access support when they feel they need it is crucial to helping them disclose bullying early on.
  3. Listen and talk first: try to understand before problem solving. One way of doing this is by getting stories and insights from your child instead of hunting for details, for example you might want to ask “when did the bullying start?”, but try a question like “when did you first feel like something was wrong, and why?”. When it is time to take action talk through a variety of possible scenarios and their outcomes to find the one that makes the best sense for keeping your child safe and well. If a child feels less safe by an action being taken, then this is unlikely to be the best solution. Never try to do this alone, get other supportive people in the room to talk things through as well including friends or other adults the child trusts.
How can parents intervene?

Cyberbullies are often known to cybervictims (particularly through school networks). Even though they have caused hurt, keep in mind the bully themselves may be misguided, have other issues that they are dealing with, or may not even know what they are doing is wrong. Just like good support can help a victim of bullying, it can also help a perpetrator of bullying and in the long run assist in promoting contexts where fewer children are exposed to bullying at school or online.

Therefore, choosing the target of intervention carefully, and in discussion with the child who has been victimised, as well as having a clear idea about what is the desired outcome is critical. Most parents simply want their child to be free from harm, to feel confident, well, and able to thrive.

Getting this solution may mean connecting with authorities or the eSafety Commission, using tech-based channels for blocking and reporting, or even connecting with the bully or bullies parents themselves (if known to the child) through the right channels, such as school. In fact, the best means of intervention is preparation – that is educating  parents and children about what cyberbullying is, what their rights are and the ways to engage existing mechanisms of support.

Bullying
What to do if you suspect your child is bullying others online?
  • Don’t dismiss. Your instincts are important and valid, and if you think your child might be acting out online this means they may be putting themselves and others in harm’s way. We know that young people who bully online are much more likely to also be victimised as well as more likely to be exposed to content that is harmful. By stopping bullying perpetration, this also reduces risk for your child.
  • Start the conversation. Depending on the age of the child you could ask whether they learn about cyberbullying at school, what do they think cyberbullying means, and do they know of anyone who has experienced this, or anyone who does this? You might want to watch some videos together that talk about the different types of cyberbullying and which of the platforms they use at home and school are the most safe / risky and why. Ask why they think someone might bully others online.
  • Understand the mechanism. Learn about how your child connects to the internet and who they are communicating with. Take an interest in where they interact with others and the emotions they express when they are doing so – is it through gaming, social media, online forums, or maybe something else?
  • Develop a solution together. You can build up to disclosure slowly, or simply ask, have you done anything online recently to someone else that you thought you shouldn’t, and why? If you find out there is a pattern of negative behaviour you may need to put in place remedial actions to help disrupt the cycle and build knowledge of appropriate online activities. It is important to recognise that as an adult you understand the potential repercussions of this behaviour and you might need to help your child understand these as well. Generally bullying others is a sign that something else is wrong. Try to find and treat the underlying issues to reduce the likelihood of online aggression.
Some resources and reading

eSafety Commissioner:  A guide to online bullying for parents and carers;

Kids Helpline: Cyberbullying – How to protect yourself and get support

Cyberbullying Research Centre: For Parents

Jeffrey, J., & Stuart, J. (2020). Do research definitions of bullying capture the experiences and understandings of young people? A qualitative investigation into the characteristics of bullying behaviour. International journal of bullying prevention, 2(3), 180-189.

Kurek, A., Jose, P. E., & Stuart, J. (2019). ‘I did it for the LULZ’: How the dark personality predicts online disinhibition and aggressive online behaviour in adolescence. Computers in Human Behavior, 98, 31-40.

Speechley, M., & Stuart, J. (2022). The Conditional Effects of Parental Internet Supervision on Online Victimization for Early Adolescent Boys. Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, 1-20.

Stuart, J., Scott, R., Smith, C., & Speechley, M. (2022). Parents’ anticipated responses to children’s cyberbullying experiences; Action, Education and Emotion. Children and Youth Services Review, 136, 106398.

Author

Dr Jaimee StuartDr Jaimee Stuart is a Cultural and Developmental Psychologist. Her research focuses on positive development during adolescence and emerging adulthood among multicultural young people and their families. Dr Stuart is particularly interested in understanding patterns of risk and resilience for children, adolescents and their families with a specific focus on those who are minorities (ethnic, religious, gender and sexual orientation) as well as youth who experience inflated risk factors (e.g., exposure to violence, low socioeconomic status, displacement).

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