Education, Engagement, and Empowerment: Understanding and Preventing Cyberbullying in Your Child’s Life
By Rachel Jaeger
In a world that runs on technological advancements and electronic communication, progress in business, personal life, and discovery abounds. However, the bright side of technology is dimmed by the increase of cyber crime. While all forms of cyber crime are detrimental, cyberbullying in particular is a silent form of attack that threatens the most vulnerable population: children and teenagers.
What is Cyberbullying?
Cyberbullying is considered the malicious use of electronic communication and technology to harass, intimidate, humiliate, or threaten an individual. The most common platforms for this activity are social media, such as Facebook and Instagram, texting, messaging, chat rooms, personal websites or blogs, and email. According to Dr. Brad Smith, licensed psychologist and professor of psychology at Belhaven University, this harassment is different from mere unkindness due to its intensity and intentionality. The use of social platforms, like Facebook and Instagram, make it easy for the bully to harass the victim frequently and anonymously. Cyberbullying usually deals with highly personal or private information, and it can range from mean or threatening comments to messages or pictures of an inappropriate or sexual nature.
Dr. Brad Smith describes three dimensions of effects produced by cyberbullying: helplessness, stigma, and betrayal. A child who experiences attacks from online bullies first loses all sense of empowerment and feels helpless in stopping it. Stigma includes a loss of self-esteem. The child may begin to believe the bully’s words are true. Betrayal results in a loss of trust, due to the fact that once-trusted people became the child’s critics or even failed to defend him or her from humiliation. Long-term problems from cyberbullying may include depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), an inability to trust, low self-esteem or confidence, and excessive self-criticism. Many teenagers who experience cyberbullying are at an increased risk of suicide.
Recognizing the Signs
According to stopbullying.org, victimized children may show some of the following signs or symptoms:
- withdrawn or isolated
- change in personality or behavior
- intense worry or anxiety
- low self-esteem
- troubled sleep or dreams
- increased use of technology, secrecy, or emotional responses to technological devices
- loss of interest in people or activities
Children who are cyberbullies may show similar symptoms as the victims; chances are that they too have been bullied. Dr. Smith encourages parents whose child may be a cyberbully to look for the following signs:
- violent or angry behavior
- disrespectful behavior
- hurtful joking
Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood, an active voice and initiator of state child protection programs, explains that children and young people today are under more pressure than ever in regards to social presence, cultural expectations, and fear for safety (such as fear of a shooter appearing at their schools). Each of these factors alone is heavy for young minds to handle; the combined effects of these factors, as well as the potential instability in some children’s home lives, can cause trauma they do not know how to handle. Attorney General Hood continues to encourage parents and teachers to become more vigilant about mental health counseling to help children recover from trauma; he also promotes cyberbullying education for schools, law enforcement, and families for prevention. The Attorney General’s Office is currently working on the development of an app that will provide kids with resources to deal with tough issues – such as bullying, cyberbullying, and suicide – and offers them an accessible, interactive journal without fear of that information being exposed.
According to Dr. Brad Smith, empowering children to initiate change and building their self-esteem through positive self-image are some of the best ways to begin recovery; he emphasizes the significance of having a strong, encouraging peer group or community. What children need is to know they are loved, cared for, safe, protected, and not alone. Faith, parental support and community are significant contributors to a child’s well-being. Counseling and empowerment are the best tools in helping a child to overcome the effects of cyberbullying, but these tools are most successful when a child knows he or she is safe and loved.
According to MS Attorney General Jim Hood, addressing the issue of cyberbullying begins with prevention. He continues: “the best way to address the issue . . . is to change behavior, and that’s through young people. . . . It’s going to be up to them to decide what the rules are.” As the responsibility is on today’s younger generations to change the reality of cyberbullying for the future, it is the responsibility of today’s parents to educate their children about internet safety and what to do with online bullying.
Some Tips for Online Safety:
- Stay educated and engaged in the world of technology and in your child’s use of technology. “Friend” your children on social media, stay involved in their online presence, and allow them to teach you about their technological worlds.
- Talk with your spouse and build an agreement about technology; share it with your children. Make your stance clear and keep it consistent.
- Teach your kids basic online etiquette: be kind, don’t friend or talk to people you don’t know, and don’t share any personal, contact, or location information.
- Explain the importance of cyber security to your children: use anti-virus software, avoid clicking on any emails or links from unknown senders, don’t download files from questionable sources, only connect to trustworthy wifi sources, keep network information private, and use ad blockers.
- Lock your child’s credit report.
- Monitor your child’s browsing history.
Important Reminders about Cyberbullying:
- Teach children to neither encourage nor participate in cyberbullying.
- Tell kids to report cyberbullying (or any bullying) witnessed or experienced.
- Teach kids to speak up when a peer is being bullied; bullies frequently back away for fear of discipline.
- If your child is a victim, encourage him or her to avoid responding to the bully, save and photograph any messages or pictures as evidence, and contact both the Cyber Crime Unit of the Attorney General’s Office and your child’s school.
- Maintain healthy communication between parents and children; for a child, knowing that parents care and love him or her builds essential confidence, trust, and self-esteem.
- Empower children by reminding them that they can safely take action against a bully’s words and actions.
Parents are ultimately the best source for detecting and helping their children overcome cyberbullying; they are responsible for understanding the world of technology and their child’s involvement in it. The best way to protect children is through parental awareness, education, and engagement. The more involved you are with your child’s life, the more equipped and empowered you as a parent will be to empower your child.
Resources for Parents and Educators
Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force
The Jason Foundation for Youth Suicide Prevention
International Journal of Bullying Prevention
Free resources available at MS Attorney General Jim Hood’s Office