Cyberbullying is one of the online threats that parents dread the most. It’s covert and insidious, sometimes tricky to put your finger on, and hard to stop. It’s also frighteningly common and widespread, affecting children from around 10 to 18 years. Unchecked, cyberbullying can have serious consequences. Apart from the garden variety pain and distress it can cause, cyberbullying can lead vulnerable children to self-harm, suicidal ideation and suicide attempts. It’s a bona fide worst nightmare for parents, often provoking an intense emotional response.
Unlike bullying that your child can walk away from in the schoolyard, an online bully can effortlessly violate the safe space of home to harass and hurt your child 24/7. All types of bullying can evoke a strong sense of shame, as well as anxiety about retribution if a child reveals what is happening to them to adults. Many bullied children and teens suffer in silence and secrecy which only compounds the negative impacts on them.
Why your parental reaction to cyberbullying is so important
When it comes to cyberbullying, children do think about how their parents might respond; and if they fear their parents may over-react or intervene in a way that worsens the situation, they may choose to rather not speak to their parents about what is happening to them. They may also fear that parents will take away their devices, impose new limits on their internet access or invade their privacy in some way.
According to Registered Counsellor, Gurshwen Thöle who is the Counselling Centre Manager at the SACAP Foundation: The Youth Hub, parents need to know that cyberbullying is prevalent across a range of online platforms, and that the perpetrator may well be unknown in person to their child. He says, “Cyberbullying is often anonymous, making it very difficult to address. It happens frequently via instant messaging apps, in game chat rooms, via email and across social media platforms. It’s vital not only to be monitoring your child’s activities online but to also have a functional relationship so that you can quickly identify signs of change in your child’s behaviour. Frequent, open communications about cyberbullying – what it is, how to identify it and what to do if it happens; creates a high-level of awareness in your family and shows your children that you are ready and able to calmly and effectively support and act to stop cyberbullying.”
Cyberbullying impacts on mental health
Techpreneur and FYI play it safe app Founder, Rachelle Best, who conducts illuminating one-on-one interviews with South African teens for the podcast, Sip the Tea says, “So far, every teen I have chatted to has a story about cyberbullying to share. If it hasn’t happened to them directly, then they still know someone in their immediate circle of friends who has been bullied online. I have spoken to a girl who turned to self-harm due to being bullied, which is heart-breaking. Another surprise may be the prevalence of cyberbullying when it comes to boys. We tend to think of bullying amongst boys being much more about them pushing each other around physically, but cyberbullying amongst boys is common. A number of boys participating in Sip the Tea so far have had stories to tell of being bullied online because of their weight, or their physical appearance.”
Gurshwen says, “The most concerning mental health impacts as a result of cyberbullying are depression and anxiety. These states can lead to suicidal ideation, self-harm activities, and plans to commit suicide, which is commonly seen in the news today. The signs that a child might be experiencing cyberbullying could include becoming withdrawn, changes in eating and sleeping patterns, changes in social behaviour, irritability, becoming angry or aggressive, talking about suicide and how meaningless life can be, self-isolation, distancing from activities they once enjoyed. Cyberbullying can cause long-term mental health complications that children can experience well into their adulthood.”
What should you do if your child is being bullied online?
Firstly, its important to stay calm, and respond rationally. Don’t blame your child or point fingers at the time they spend online or playing a game you don’t like. Resist any urge you have to take away devices or impose new limits on their connectivity. None of this is your child’s fault, and they should not feel punished because it has happened to them.
Gurshwen says, “Be supportive of your child and acknowledge how this experience has made them feel. Parents should not judge, criticize, or make their child feel guilty for what has happened to them. It’s important to determine whether you need to seek professional help for your child so that they can manage the effects of the cyberbullying. You need to consider ways to protect your child from further cyberbullying and this may include reporting the matter to the police, school, or a cyberbullying helpline. There are various ways to take action, and you should involve your child in finding a solution.”
Rachelle of FYI play it safe recommends:
- Tell the bully to stop – you can support your child to stand up to the bully by calling out their behaviour and insisting that it stops.
- Block the bully – this can be highly effective when you do not know the bully. Blocking them and reporting them to the platform can get the bully out of your child’s life. However, if the cyberbullying has crossed the line into a cybercrime, you may want to keep the connection so that you can rather report them to the police, ask for a criminal case to be opened against them and hand over the proof you have on your child’s device. Blocking and reporting on most platforms means that the history is deleted.
- Take it up with the bully’s parents or a supporter at school – if the bully is in your child’s friend or school circles, then you can explore whether opening up conversations can help to remedy the situation. Make sure your child is comfortable with this approach.
- Disengage, but otherwise do nothing – your child can disengage from the bully without addressing the behaviour. Often, if a bully doesn’t get a reaction, they move on. You can focus on supporting your child in dealing with the impacts on them.
- Boost your child’s online safety ecosystem – you can’t prevent cyberbullying with just a parental control app on your child’s devices as they do not monitor the substance of an interaction. FYI play it safe, which adds an extra layer of security by monitoring the content your child engages with, can alert you to signs that your child is being bullied online. So explore having an ecosystem of online safety for your family, not just one solution.
Rachelle says, “I was recently contacted by a Dad who shared that he received a number of FYI play it safe alerts from his daughter’s phone that looked like she was being bullied. When he started the conversation with his daughter, she showed him the whole message trail, and he saw that she had received over a hundred really harmful messages from a boy in the same school. This boy had even sent her messages which could be interpreted as death threats. Working with his daughter, this Dad was able to step in and put a stop to a completely unacceptable situation. As a parent, you want to be able to have this kind of open, trusted conversation with your child about keeping them safer online.”