Joy's teenage daughter, Susan*, is thriving in high school. She's an A student, plays softball and has a tight-knit group of friends in their Wisconsin town. But things weren't always so good.
Not long ago, Susan was being bullied. Bullying has traditionally been defined as repeated acts of aggression, ranging from taunting to physical harm, by someone who appears to have more power than the victim. More recently, the behavior has moved online in the form of cruel messages, threats and attempts to embarrass. This is known as cyberbullying, and its venue is social media.
Susan faced bullying in person and on Instagram, where a classmate repeatedly spread nasty rumors through “sub-tweets.” The term refers to posts that don’t explicitly name the victim but clearly identify her in context. "She didn’t tell me right away because she knew I’d flip my lid. I was so angry," Joy says. "It was difficult not to mama bear her."
Almost 1 in 5 high school students reports being electronically bullied in the last year, according to StopBullying.gov. Not surprisingly, studies show that cyberbullying makes kids vulnerable to substance abuse and depression. Megan Meier took her life at age 13 after facing verbal abuse on social media. Her mother Tina has since founded the Megan Meier Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to helping young people cope with bullying and cyberbullying before serious damage is done.
Here’s how families can deal with bullies, online and off, according to experts and families who have been there.
You always want to know where your child is and who they’re with, right? The same goes for their life online. “Parents should know the websites their children visit, games they play, and who they communicate with online,” says Emily Peck, an Aetna Behavioral Health counselor. Keep family computers in areas where you can easily supervise kids’ activity. Parents of older children, who have more freedom with electronics, can modify their privacy settings and use filter programs for laptops (such as NetNanny.com) and mobile devices (like MyMobileWatchdog.com).
Keeping tabs on kids’ social media usage doesn’t mean peeking over their shoulder as they scroll through their Instagram feed. “Follow your child’s social media accounts. And ask for their passwords, to be used on an emergency basis only.” Peck says. With younger children, parents may feel comfortable logging in to their child’s account now and then to check on private messages that aren’t visible to other users. Parents who want to respect an adolescent’s privacy can friend or follow their child’s accounts, or ask another trusted adult to do so.
While a great deal of online bullying happens on popular social networks like Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat, it also takes place on smaller sites. “Parents should be especially wary of sites where kids can be anonymous,” says Alex King of the Megan Meier Foundation. Keep an eye on your child’s search history and check out any frequently visited sites.
As always, communication is key. Talk to your child about the importance of being a good online citizen. That means refusing to post or share negative messages. Remind kids that private messages can be easily forwarded to a wider audience. And those messages can live online forever. For more age-specific guidelines about kids and digital media, check out InternetSafety101.org.
Kirk Smalley and his wife Laura founded the organization StandfortheSilent.org in honor of their son Ty, who committed suicide at 11 after being bullied in middle school. Kirk tells parents that victims of cyberbullying may appear nervous whenever they use a mobile phone or computer. They may refuse to share information about their online activity and abruptly shut off or walk away from the computer without explanation.
Aetna is a founding member of the mental health advocacy organization Campaign to Change Direction, which has developed a list of five general signs of emotional suffering. These red flags may signal bullying or other mental health issues that require action by parents. Signs include neglecting basic hygiene, social withdrawal and personality changes.
But anti-bullying advocates stress that adults need to go further than watching for signs of bullying. “Parents should talk to their kids about cyberbullying regularly,” Peck says. When asking how your child is doing, push for meaningful answers and keep an open mind about whatever you hear: Your child may be a witness to bullying or even a participant. If he has made mistakes online or behaved in ways you don’t approve of, reserve judgment and listen carefully. By giving your child a respectful audience, you encourage honesty now and in the future.
If you believe a child is being bullied, you’ll want to do something about it. Often, parents instinctively move to fix the situation right away, but that’s not always the best course of action.
Parents may want to pursue legal action in some circumstances. Most states now have anti-bullying laws on the books. Learn more about the laws in your area via StopBullying.gov.
For Joy and Susan, approaching school officials led to a resolution. Her daughter learned not to engage her bullies, and the school promised to separate them if they ever ended up in the same class. “Often times people may feel helpless, but there is help available,” says King. With the right support, families can stop bullying in its tracks.
*Not her real name.
Colin Groundwater is a writer from New Jersey living in Brooklyn. He’s training to run a half-marathon.
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