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.
With October being National Bullying Prevention Month, this is the ideal time to have a frank conversation with your kid about Internet safety, the bullying risks associated with social media, 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 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, such as Instagram, TikTok, Snapchat, or any video game platforms. A parental control app like Circle can help block, manage, and monitor your kid’s online usage (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 have to be turned off and put away so kids can focus on homework, IRL activities they love to do, and family time.
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 inform the appropriate authorities.
- Help your kid log their cyberbullying incidents.
- Create a support team with school officials who should already have a bullying response protocol in place. Encourage your kid to speak with a school counselor so they feel seen and heard.
Watch for 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.
- 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 and/or anxious. Your kid may say they feel helpless, hopeless, maybe suicidal.
- They show distinct changes in appetite and sleep. Are they eating and/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 is an obvious red flag 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 your kid is the cyberbully?
It’s a reality that could be hard to swallow for parents, but kids could be participating in cyberbullying behavior from the sidelines, like laughing at the situation, encouraging or contributing to it, and not reporting it.
If you suspect your kid may be bullying another kid, 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.