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.
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.
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.
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.
Dr 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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