There can be no doubt that the Internet has a dark side, in some cases quite prevalent and noticeable and in others nuanced and unapparent. From Silk Road-style dark websites trading in drugs, arms and bomb kits to sophisticated phishing syndicates to vicious comment trolls, going online can sometimes mean running the gamut from criminals to sociopaths to terrorists.
In this context cyberbullying may appear to pale by comparison. However there are a number of cases where bullies have driven victims to the extremes of dropping out of school, self-harming and even suicide. Cyberbullies are, in the context of the delicate social world of teenagers, a serious threat to their health and safety.
Interestingly, there is not only a correlation between cyber victims and suicide ideation, but also an apparent correlation between being a cyberbully and self-harm and suicide. In effect the behavior puts teenagers on both sides of the fence at risk, making it ever more important for parents to understand the behavior, its consequences, and how to prevent and manage it.
Before we look at preventative methods, let’s briefly define “cyberbullying”. The National Crime Prevention Council defines cyber-bullying as “The process of using the Internet, cell phones or other devices to send or post text or images intended to hurt or embarrass another person.”
A more complete definition I think is: “Cyberbullying is the use of inappropriate behavior, strength or influence, whether directly or indirectly, and whether verbal, written, physical or through displays of or use of imagery, symbols or otherwise, to intimidate, torment, threaten, harass or embarrass others, using the Internet or other technology, such as mobile telephones.” from the Kaspersky Internet Security website.
This then can mean anything from sharing “ugly” or embarrassing images of people in shared Facebook groups, shaming or defaming people in group chats, posting derogatory comments on their timelines, videos or feeds, trolling or harassing people in comments sections, “outing” someone online, taking embarrassing videos of them and posting them without permission, specifically excluding them from chats or other online activities, stealing their identities and impersonating them online, falsely reporting them to ISPs for harassment and the list goes on.
As with all things “teen”, the behaviors also all have a complex nomenclature. We need to stay abreast of the subculture of online behavior, and understand terms such as subtweeting, vaguebooking, catfishing, trolling, video shaming, slut shaming, warning wars, fraping, dissing and faking — to name but a few.
As adults we may have become desensitized to misbehavior online; who doesn’t have a friend who perhaps overshared about last night’s party, or who posted that photo of us 10 kgs heavier from five years ago without asking? However, we must try and remember what being 15 was like, for teenagers this type of behavior is traumatizing. We should start to understand the full range of abusive online behaviors from our children’s perspective.
A school’s role
Before we look at ways parents can intervene in a potentially dangerous cyberbullying situation, let’s examine how schools can and should respond.
In recent years states across the US have gotten serious about criminalizing cyberbullying, and most have empowered schools to sanction cyberbullying by students, and some even have that power when the behavior occurs off campus. Find out how criminal laws can assist parents and schools across various states. These laws also require schools to have bullying prevention policies in place, and in many states this policy is required to explicitly define cyberbullying.
“Prevention of cyberbullying should be included in school anti-bullying policies, alongside broader concepts such as digital citizenship, online peer support for victims, how an electronic bystander might appropriately intervene; and more specific interventions such as how to contact mobile phone companies and internet service providers to block, educate, or identify users” — Professor Ann John.
Read more: Ensuring online safety in schools is everyone’s business
3 Steps to help keep your kids safe from cyber bullies
Let's just get straight to them:
Step 1: Learn what the signs of cyberbullying are
If you observe a few of the behaviors listed below, consider that your child might be enduring cyberbullying.
- Your child inexplicably stops using the computer, or his phone, despite usually enjoying it
- Doesn't use technology where you can see the screen
- Turns off the computer monitor or screen when you walk by
- Becomes anxious or nervous when they get an instant message, text or email
- Allude to bullying indirectly by saying things like “there’s so much drama at school” or “I have no friends.”
- Doesn't want to go to school or is uneasy about going
- Becomes withdrawn
- Have trouble sleeping
- Experiences inexplicable stomach pains or headaches
Keep in mind that bullies are as liable to suffer not only criminal but psychological consequences for their behavior. Look out for these signs your child is a cyberbully:
- Is secretive about online activities
- Quickly switches computer screens or closes the screen when you enter the room or walk by
- Uses the computer or mobile devices late at night or when they are unsupervised
- Gets extremely upset if computer privileges are revoked
- Uses multiple online accounts or accounts with a fake name
- Has a history of bullying
Step 2: Get help
Learn what specific laws are applicable and useful in your state, and if you live in a state where the school is empowered to sanction cyberbullying off campus, approach the school as in Step 3 below. Further to Step 2, start collecting evidence such as screen shots, emails and links of the abusive behavior.
Take note also if there are any physical threats in the communication - as this constitutes an actual crime that can be investigated by the police. If your local police are unresponsive, try county or state police who may have more resources relating to online harassment.
Also take note if the abuse is race, disability or gender related as this can be additionally reported to the civil rights office. Traditionally the department of education takes these types of abuses very seriously.
Finally, try and approach your child about their concerns. You will most likely encounter deep resistance from them to discuss it — getting an adult involved in their issue will only (in their mind) make the bullying worse. However, you can also opt for counselling where your child may trust a third-party with the issue more willingly.
Step 3: Approach the school
Develop and coordinate a plan with the school. In all states, except Montana, schools are mandated to not only have online bullying policies and procedures in place, but the law also permits schools to sanction students for behavior off-campus that affects students on-campus.
This means that parents have allies within the school, with whom to coordinate a response.
Cyberbullying is a function of our society — where the belittlement, bullying, shaming or insult of people deemed “less than” is often the consequence of a competitive and individualistic economic environment. The anonymity that the Internet provides means that people can now wreak havoc in others’ lives without the attendant consequences faced by typical school-yard bullies.
It goes without saying that schools must, over and above responding directly and swiftly to specific incidents of cyberbullying, also design and implement far-reaching digital citizenship programs where they create norms and standards for students’ online behavior as rigorously as they assess and standardize a student's physical behavior.