With the ease and convenience of technology comes a new set of issues. Cyber attacks at sea have increased and it seems hackers can access pretty much anything. Another more sinister abuse of the internet is cyberbullying. It can happen to your kids and it can happen to you, and it can be very upsetting and extremely isolating. So what is cyberbullying and what can you do to stop it?
What is Cyberbullying?
We typically think of bullying as an unpopular kid getting teased during recess. However today children spend increasingly more time online. Many social interactions have moved into the realms of the Internet and social media and, as a result, bullies have moved online too.
StopBullying.gov defines bullying as "unwanted, aggressive behaviour among school-aged children that involves a real or perceived power imbalance." This power imbalance can be physical strength, social reputation, or access to (often embarrassing) information. What differentiates bullying from teasing or simply a mean comment is repetition and a power imbalance.
Bullying can take the form of physical aggression and violence, verbal insults and name-calling, or social exclusion. Exclusion is a form of social bullying, and can also include actions intended to damage a person's reputation, such as spreading rumors.
Cyberbullying moves these practices online and is defined simply as bullying through the use of electronic devices. Cyberbullying can come in the form of:
mean or hurtful comments through text or email
posting rumors or embarrassing content online
creating a fake social media account to mock an individual
any other virtual encounter intended to cause distress or damage reputation
Why is Cyberbullying Different?
The biggest differences between physical and cyber bullying are frequency and anonymity.
Most children have their own smartphones or access to parents' phones. Internet access is available at school and home and most children use social networking websites. Because of this, cyberbullying can be more intense and frequent than bullying in person. Hateful comments or embarrassing pictures can be accessed at any time, by the victim as well as classmates, or even strangers. Even private conversations can be easily saved and shared with third parties.
The result is that children being cyberbullied can never completely escape from their tormentors. A message can reach them at any time, even if the child is alone at home. While in most cases the child can delete messages or block aggressors from communicating with them online, there are too many loopholes for bullies to use.
Content posted online has a wide audience and it can be hard to remove a message or images completely. Even if the victim deletes a public post, there is the chance that someone may have saved the content on their own device. While social networking sites allow you to block users, it is easy for anyone to set up fake accounts as, in most cases, all that's required is another email address.
Cyberbullying is potentially more damaging than physical bullying due to the bullies' ability to remain anonymous, posting content online under different usernames or fake accounts. As well as being emotionally stressful, this makes it difficult to report harmful or threatening behaviour.
In many cases victims of cyberbullying do not want to speak out and most cases of cyberbullying go unreported. However, in a survey by i-SAFE, researchers found that as many as 42 percent of children have been bullied online, and one in four of those children were bullied multiple times. Out of the children surveyed, 58 percent received mean or hurtful comments online, and 58 percent did not tell their parents or an adult about their experience.
The anonymity of the Internet can also turn normally well-intentioned children into bullies. You don't have to look far to find examples of unchecked rage and aggression in online forums and comments. Words that we might never say to someone's face are much easier to pound out on a keyboard. But for children, these words can cross over from simply teasing or arguing into bullying behaviour. In i-SAFE's survey, 53 percent of children admitted that they had made a mean or hurtful comment to another person online. One-third of them admitted to doing so more than once.
With the convenience and ease of electronic devices comes an easy way to hurt others. Although most children have positive experiences online, cyberbullying can have devastating long-term effects.
The Effects of Cyberbullying
Cyberbullying can be devastating for children who are still developing and shaping their identities. Children and teens also tend to place great value on social relationships and acceptance among their peers. Bullying in any form can leave victims feeling insecure and inferior, and result in destructive behavior.
Children who are cyberbullied themselves are also more likely to participate in risky activities like using drugs and alcohol. Their academic performance might falter, they may skip school frequently, or even try to drop out. Cyberbullying is psychological, but it can also lead to or accompany physical bullying. As a result, bullied children tend to have more health problems and lower self-esteem than their peers.
Victims may come away from their experience angry, bitter, and more prone to depression. They may also develop what is termed 'learned helplessness', where an individual feels they are powerless to change their situation, and this attitude can carry over into adult life. Sadly, the psychological effects extend beyond the actual period of bullying and often adults can recall these experiences with sharp clarity.
How to Address Cyberbullying
Don't Be a Bystander
Practice and teach bystander intervention. The bully and the victim are not the only people in the equation. In most cases, there is at least one bystander. The phrase 'bystander intervention' came into public consciousness in the context of sexual harassment and assault. Training suggests that people witnessing uncomfortable behavior tend to intervene, either directly or indirectly, to put the potential victim at ease or get away if necessary.
Parents and teachers should always encourage children to report instances of cyberbullying. It can be hard to identify when a behavior has crossed the line from teasing to bullying, but anything that makes a child uncomfortable and upset is worth reporting.
If the bullying is severe and has caused considerable stress or damage to an individual, you may be able to take the case to court. Although a victim's first reaction may be to delete any embarrassing or harmful content, the best course of action is to document it. Take a screenshot when possible and keep track of any additional negative responses.
How to Prevent Cyberbullying
Technology is an integral part of most people's lives, especially children, for whom it's an integral part of everyday lives. Parents should try to have regular, open conversations about all the potential dangers present online, including cyber bullying.
Many parents now monitor their children's Internet use and it's a good idea to be aware of the sites your child frequents. Obviously the degree of monitoring is up to you; not everyone wants to look through every text message on their child's phone.
Social media is popular and constantly changing. Children migrate from one site to another as trends change and adults struggle to keep up, but being open with your child can help you stay aware.
Set technology limits and rules. Make it clear to your child what types of websites they can and cannot visit.
Teach Online Safety and Manners
Teach children about online safety. For example, they should avoid posting too much personal information online and never share passwords, even with their friends.
It's also important for children to learn to treat online interactions with as much respect as face-to-face ones. It's easy to hide behind the anonymity of a screen, but we all need to remember that there is always a real person on the other side. It's equally important to prevent your child from becoming a bully or a victim.
For an updated guide on ways to keep your kids safe, including each state's internet safety laws and conversation starters for addressing online safety with your child, click here.