Back in the “old” days, bullies were easier to catch on the schoolyard or in the neighborhood but now they hide anonymously online.

I remember the humiliation even though it was long ago. As the lunch bell rang at school, a friend distracted me and tied me to the tether ball post with a belt—and left—laughing. He was a friend. He thought it was funny, but it was mean. 

Thankfully, a teacher found me on the playground; my “friend” suffered consequences and was forced to apologize. 

Times are different now that bullying has gone virtual. My playground humiliation was observed and addressed. But students today are subject to humiliations that go viral through social media such as texting, Instagram, Snapchat, YouTube, Twitter, and gaming chat rooms. 

Even though it may be very public among kids, it may be invisible to caring adults outside those social networks. Cyberbullying behavior most often remains anonymous; the bully goes undetected.

Cyberbullying is a Persistent Problem

Cyberbullying has mushroomed within the last decade, with parents and school administrators trying to stay ahead of ever-changing technologies that kids often use differently. Whether the harm is caused by teasing gone out of control or by malicious intent, a victim never thinks it’s “just a joke.” 

Bullying is defined as persistent physical, verbal or emotional acts that create an imbalance of power which can have lasting effects on the victim (Nansel et al., 2001; Olweus, 2010). From 2002 to 2011, researchers reported the percentage of students involved in incidents of cyberbullying ranged between from 10% to 50% (Bullying, 2009; Kowalski et al., 2012), and girls are twice as likely as boys to be victimized.

Many students report having been bullied – amazingly, most of them by “friends,” and many of them over social media. 

Back in the “old” days, bullies were easier to catch on the schoolyard or in the neighborhood but now they hide anonymously online. Even people who know each other are more inclined to be rude, hurtful or thoughtless when they aren’t face-to-face. 
In an interview with Health magazine, Lenox Hill Hospital’s clinical psychologist Alan Manevitz, M.D. explained, “There’s a freedom of speech without a fear of consequences.” It doesn’t help that humans usually respond to visual cues to keep things in context, like:

  • Body language
  • Gestures
  • Facial expressions
  • Tone of voice

This can lead to online comments being read and interpreted as more aggressive or threatening than intended and cause recipients to respond in kind. One study states that the risk of cyberbullying is seven times higher among current or former friends or dating partners than among those who had never been friends or dated.

6 Steps to Escape Cyberbullies

The effects of cyberbullying are very much like when the school yard bully physically beats kids up or abuses them to their face. Cyberbullying also leads to higher absenteeism and higher rates of depression.  

In one important way, cyberbullying is different: the perpetrator remains anonymous and the bullying grows exponentially. When this happens, the victim’s feelings of stress and powerless can increase dramatically. 

Here are six ways to help you and your child prevent cyberbullying and to cope with it when it occurs:

  • Educate Yourself
    Education can lead to prevention. Staying up with the latest form of social media is difficult. Chances are your child will not really want you to become informed. Sometimes it’s easier to get oriented to the latest platform by one of your kid’s friends or someone else you know of that generation.
    Asking your child or a peer to teach you may offer you an inroad to communication. “So, do you know anyone who has been bullied over these sites?” Talk about the viral nature of cyberbullying and that a joke or banter by a “friend” may spread like wildfire to anonymous cyberbullies who join the humiliation.

    Use empathy and caring language like, “Wow, that’s got to be embarrassing! How does something like this stop? Has this ever happened to you?”
  • Stay Connected
    Connection can lead to prevention. It is crucial that parents stay in touch with one another. Create a “village” of support where information and concerns can be exchanged. 

    Schools are often aware of the cyberbullying and inappropriate content going viral. Stay in communication with school administrators who often share their latest concerns about bullying of all sorts. Take that information home to your student.

    “Do you know what I heard at school today? I heard that someone posted some awful pictures about someone you may know.”

    Your child now knows you have some awareness and you’ve created an inroad for a discussion.

    In the rare event that your child “friends” you on social media, you will privy to much of what is going on. In the more likely event that your child doesn’t let you anywhere near their social media, you may want to enlist your child’s older siblings, cousins, youth leaders, or coaches to keep a watchful eye as your child’s social media “friend.” 

    Engage your child in problem solving about how to stay safe on social media: install privacy settings on social media, discuss the fact that what is uploaded on social media today may follow them to college and job interviews. It’s more permanent that “alt, control, delete.”
  • Educate Your Child
    Talk and listen. Discuss with your child about the how “bullies” – virtual and otherwise – target their prey. Stress to your child the importance of watching out for their friends and make sure they know where to go and what to do if they see someone else being victimized.  “Be a buddy, not a bully,” should be a mantra they know but help them think about how to live it out practically every day. 

    I know one parent who initiated a consequence to their child after finding out that she said nothing to parents or school officials when she became aware of their mutual friends sexually harassing a classmate online. One bully started it and soon others had joined in. This parent decided that saying nothing to stop it or to report it was a passive way of joining in.  

    There’s also a certain “pack mentality” to social media interactions.  A surprising 21% of social media-using teens admitted to joining in when they witnessed online cruelty.  All of this can make Facebook and Twitter a potentially dangerous place for those with shaky self-esteem (you know, just about every teenager) or frankly anyone without a very thick skin.
  • Pay Attention
    Look up! Paying attention may mean putting our own “devices” down for a bit. Look up from your own phone, social media and computer. As our kids grow, a wider range of kids move in and out of their lives. Watch closely your child’s mood from day to day. Don’t assume your child is simply “going through a phase” if she or he starts to show signs of increased difficulty at school, heightened depression, anxiety, psychosomatic illnesses, truancy a desire to stay home, a sense of helplessness, or suicidal thoughts and gestures. 

    Ask about friends, stress levels, teachers, and coaches. Find time to spend with your child at school, in sports and at home with their friends around. Pay attention to how much online time your child spends and how it is balanced out with face to face connections with healthy friends.

    If your child is exhibiting anxiety, paranoia, depression and suicidal thoughts and gestures, make sure your child is seen by a local mental health professional. Engage school administrators and after school programs to begin groups and clubs that focus on anti-bullying causes.  

    It’s hard for anyone to shake the bully and the mean-spirited comments but aiming to intervene together is far easier than doing it alone.
  • Intervene
    Talk about the problem. Don’t be anonymous yourself. School districts have policies in place to deal with bullying and malicious online behavior. If you suspect that your child is the brunt of such behavior, help him or her talk about it and assure your child that help is available, and that others can be advocates.
    If serious, report the abuse to your school and potentially to law enforcement. And then help your child build boundaries between them and the bully—physically and online. The structure of Facebook, for example, at least ties comments to a poster’s profile, which removes some of the anonymity.  Publicly acknowledging harassment is often all it takes to cause a bully or someone making unkind comments to back off.  

    The psychological drive behind a bully is often a desire to feel power over a potential victim.  Politely but firmly telling them to back off is an important first step.
  • Lead by Example
    Mind your manners. Be mindful of what you post about yourself and what you say about others online or in line at the market. Speak kindly and carefully. Keep confidences. Be positive. 

    Let people know when conversations are leading to gossip. Be appropriate with your postings, pictures and privacy. And let your child know that you “practice what you preach.”

Creating barriers between your child and the bully was easier when teasing was relegated to the school ground and home was a reprieve. Bullies have access to us and to our families at any hour of any day and anywhere.

Creating technology-free space is helpful. Finding friends who can help name the bullying behavior together is helpful. Building up your child’s self-esteem and resilience by reminding them not to believe everything they hear or read is helpful.

And be patient—it is not as easy as just hitting the escape button. 

For more information about cyberbullying, read our Cyberbullying Guidebook for Parents.