Red Flags and Pro Tips To Help Kids Navigate Bullying Behavior Online
Devices can be used for good and not so good, depending on the intentions of the person behind the screen. Nearly 60 percent of teens say they have been cyberbullied, according to Pew Research. What exactly does that mean? Cyberbullying is any kind of online harassment that includes name-calling on social media apps, sending embarrassing or intimate photos without consent, or making physical threats through texts. What’s even more troubling is that only one in ten teens will report online abuse.
The mental consequences of cyberbullying include anxiety, depression, stress, and low self-esteem. Bullying impacts young people especially hard, and the effects may continue even after the bullying stops.
October is National Bullying Prevention Month, but any time is the ideal time to have a frank conversation with your kid about Internet safety, the bullying risks associated with social media accounts, and how your family will deal with any potential abuse together.
“If a child knows their parent is supportive, loving, and protective, they may be more likely to share their struggles with being bullied,” says Christina Furnival, mental health therapist and author of the children’s book The Not-So-Friendly Friend. “Allay your child’s fears by letting them know they can always come to you, that you will believe them, and that you know what to do.”
Furnival offers these tips for how to ensure online safety and prevent and respond if your kid is faced with a cyberbully:
Prepare and Protect
Start by setting rules around when and how often your kids can use certain apps and social networking sites, such as Instagram, TikTok, Snapchat, or online gaming platforms. A parental control app like Circle can help block, manage, and monitor your kid’s online activities (for example, with features like Time Limits and Filter). Set an electronic curfew to limit late-night exposure, too. Decide on a certain time of day when devices must be turned off and put away so kids can focus on homework, family time, and real-life activities they love to do.
Rally a Support Team
If your teen confides in you about cyberbullying:
- Listen to their story, empathize, and validate their feelings. Assure your kid that you will support them as they report cyberbullying to the appropriate authorities.
- Help your kid log their cyberbullying incidents. Remember some apps let users delete instant messages later, so don’t count on what’s on your kid’s cell phone or computer. Save text messages and screenshots somewhere else.
- If the bullying includes threats of offline violence, stalking, explicit photos or messages like sexting, or discriminatory harassment, it may violate state or federal law. Consider reporting to law enforcement.
- Create a support team with officials at your child’s school who should already have a bullying policy or response protocol in place. Encourage your kid to speak with a school counselor so they feel seen and heard.
- Don’t confront the bully’s parents. It’s rarely productive and tends to make things worse.
Watch for Warning Signs
What if your kid doesn’t speak out? They might be telling you they’re being bullied in other ways. Furnival advises watching for these signs:
- Kids have mood shifts after using their devices, especially social media sites. Look for a sense of low self-esteem or well-being.
- They complain (more so than usual) about going to school. Your kid may tell you outright that they feel unsafe at school, or they may simply say they don’t want to go because it’s “boring.” Don’t dismiss these disclosures as typical teenage (or tweenage) gripes.
- They feel depressed or anxious. Your kid may say they feel helpless, hopeless, or maybe suicidal.
- They show distinct changes in appetite and sleep. Are they eating or sleeping significantly less or more?
- There is a shift in friend groups. Is your kid’s network of friends shrinking? Are they hanging out with people you’ve never met? Have they dropped their closest friends?
- There is a change in their study habits. Falling grades and disinterest in school are obvious red flags that your kid is struggling. But don’t disregard an increased focus on academics. Tweens and teens might be staying in the library or classroom at lunch to avoid bullying peers.
- Their behavior changes to reckless, dangerous, or harmful to themselves.
- They isolate themselves from family and friends.
- They have unexplained injuries and bruises.
- Their clothes are damaged or missing.
- They experience stomachaches and headaches.
What if My Child Is the Cyberbully?
It’s a reality that could be hard to swallow for parents, but your kid might not be the victim of cyberbullying—but the aggressor. Your kid could be participating in online bullying behavior from the sidelines, like laughing at the situation, encouraging or contributing to it, and not reporting it.
Some warning signs that your child is the cyberbully include:
- Creating and using fake accounts without their real name or information.
- Laughing loudly when they’re online but never explaining why.
- Hiding their screen or changing apps when you walk by.
- Increased callousness or violence toward other kids.
If you suspect your kid may be bullying someone, ask them directly: “What is going on?” Drill down with your tween or teen about what is happening in their life that makes it seem okay for them to bully others. Clarify that bullying is cruel, unkind, and not tolerated in your home—and ensure that your kid accepts responsibility for their actions. Of course, provide support and empathy as they take steps to make amends and improve their behavior.
Depending on the situation, Furnival recommends informing school authorities about your kid’s bullying. “Many schools have bullying prevention programs that include restorative justice so that the bullying child is not responded to punitively but instead is supported to make positive change,” Furnival explains. Seek outside help with a school counselor or therapist to address the underlying reason for the bullying.
For more information, or to help prepare kids for when they are being bullied or witness it, check out the U.S. Government’s official Stop Bullying website.