In this season of social distancing, teens need their friends more than ever. Daily digital connection — through texting, video chat, social networks, and gaming — is critical to keeping friend groups strong. But could increased time online these days lead to an increase in cyberbullying?
While there isn’t data to answer that question definitively, it wouldn’t be surprising for parents to notice some signs of conflict surface as the months continue to creep by. And, with re-open dates for schools in limbo, it’s more important than ever to keep the family safety conversation humming.
For clarity: Allowing more screen time doesn’t mean more cyberbullying or conflict is certain to occur. However, experience has taught us that more screen time does increase the potential for digital conflict.
Social and Emotional Fallout
This unprecedented health event hasn’t been easy on anyone, but kids especially are likely to be holding onto some big emotions about it. A recent Common Sense Media study confirms that social media has been key to helping kids get through this crisis, but one in four kids surveyed feels “more lonely than usual.”
The school year with its milestones — proms, graduations, dates, parties — ended abruptly. It’s logical to assume these losses have sparked feelings of sadness, anger, frustration, and anxiety. And because online is where most kids connect with peers, these emotions can easily play out there in the form of aggressive behavior, conflict, or persistent drama.
So how do you know if your child is being cyberbullied or dealing with conflict online? It isn’t always easy simply because so many kids won’t admit to being bullied. Often they believe telling an adult will make the harassment worse. They may feel ashamed or embarrassed about a regretful situation or the fact that they’re being targeted in the first place. For that reason, one of the best ways to help your child is to be aware of the time they spend online, the people they connect with, and how those digital circles impact their wellbeing.
What to Look For
The many forms of cyberbullying continue to evolve alongside the digital culture. Here are just a few ways kids bully one another.
- Saying hurtful or intimidating things to someone on social media, a text, or email.
- Making negative comments about a person’s sexuality, race, religion, handicaps, or physical features.
- Camouflaging hurtful or threatening comments with words like “jk” (just joking).
- Asking online friends to vote for or against another person, with Instagram polls or captions such as “Is this person hot or not?” or “Would you go out with this person?”
- Posting or sharing with others the private photos, memes, emails, texts, or secrets without the permission of another person.
- Intentionally posting unflattering or embarrassing photos of another person.
- Spreading rumors or false information about another person online.
- Making any threat to another person no matter how harmless you think it may be.
Signs of Cyberbullying
If your child is getting bullied online, there are some potential signs.
- Anxious or upset after reading a text, frequently gets sick or nauseous, declines invitations from friends, or bows out of fun family outings.
- Trouble sleeping or being withdrawn or moody.
- Being protective of his or her phone, deleting or deactivating social networks
- Sudden loss of a steady friend group or sudden complaining about once-loved friends.
- Loss of interest in favorite sports or hobbies or a decline in grades.
- References to suicide, loneliness, and hopelessness (when severe bullying is taking place).
Know Where They Go
Another way to understand your child’s emotional connection to his or her digital communities is to learn about their favorite platforms and monitor them. Pay specific attention to the tone of his or her social threads. And, if you see concerning comments or posts, ask your child how you can help. If your child is using risky apps such as WhatsApp or Kik, that allows people to use the app anonymously, discuss your concerns with your child. Some social networks are more conducive to cyberbullying than others.
Monitor Gaming Communities
Gaming time can skyrocket during the summer, and when games get competitive, cyberbullying can happen. Spend time with your child while he or she is gaming. Listen to the tone of the conversations and be aware of your child’s demeanor. For your child’s physical and emotional health, make every effort to set gaming limits as summer approaches.
Parenting Moves to Avoid
Bullying experts will tell you that what you don’t do if your child is getting bullied is often as important as what you do. Here’s some insight:
1) Never advise a child to ignore the bullying. 2) Never blame a child for being bullied even if he or she did something to aggravate the bullying. No one deserves to be bullied. 3) As angry as you feel that someone is bullying your child, do not encourage your child to fight back physically. 4) Don’t overreact; escalate accordingly. If you can identify the bully, consider talking with the child’s parents. 5) Don’t lead the charge. Give your child veto power over your involvement. If they say they don’t want you to get involved (unless you suspect physical danger or suicide), respect that. 6) If the bullying continues to escalate, report it, seek help from school counselors or the police if necessary. 7) Even if you are fearful, don’t take your child’s digital devices away. He or she didn’t do anything wrong.
A number of organizations are leading the charge against cyberbullying and have fantastic resources for families. Here are just a few: Cyberbullying Research Center, StopBullying.gov, StompOutBullying.org, KindCampaign.com, ItGetsBetter.org, National Bullying Prevention Center. If you’d like your organization added to this list, please leave a comment.
We hope you and your family are staying healthy these days and finding some time to talk about online safety. If you need a refresher, read Part I and Part II of our Online Safety Basics series. And, if you’re looking for a fun school lesson for the day, you can always quiz your kids on any of McAfee’s Family Safety content!