Cyberbullying: A Resource for School Social Workers
Cyberbullying is one of the biggest challenges that school social workers currently face. This in-depth resource explains the psychological, emotional, and social effects of cyberbullying, and how school social workers can address cyberbullying at their school(s) and in their community. In addition, this article contains useful insights and advice for parents, teachers, and school administrators on how they can prevent and respond to cyberbullying incidents.
Fast Facts: Cyberbullying at a Glance
This brief “cheat sheet” explains the essential information that school social workers should know about cyberbullying. After this section is an in-depth article that explores these topics in greater detail, and which also includes information about cyberbullying for parents and school staff.
What is Cyberbullying?
Cyberbullying is defined as repeatedly harassing, threatening, intimidating, and/or humiliating another person using technology such as social media and mobile devices. Several forms of cyberbullying exist, including denigration, impersonation, flaming, outing/trickery, and cyberstalking.
The key elements of cyberbullying are: intention to harm, repetition, and an attempt to wield power over another individual through intimidation, threats, insults, and other harmful statements.
Why is Cyberbullying Harmful?
Cyberbullying can be very emotionally damaging. Victims of cyberbullying may experience depression, isolation, poor academic performance, and even suicidal ideation. Furthermore, unlike traditional bullying, which children can typically escape once they return home from school, cyberbullying is present wherever youth have a mobile device or an internet connection. The ever-present nature of cyberbullying can cause great anxiety among children and adolescents, as they may feel like they no longer have a safe haven. This anxiety, combined with the fact that cyberbullies often make harsher and more hurtful statements online than they would in person, makes cyberbullying a particularly destructive form of bullying.
How School Social Workers Can Help Students Cope with Cyberbullying
School social workers should:
- Educate themselves about where and how cyberbullying occurs, what its impact is on its victims, and how to properly support victims and provide consequences and guidance to the perpetrators.
- Educate school personnel about cyberbullying and how to prevent and address it both in and outside of school environments.
- Educate students about cyberbullying, its effects, and the importance of ethical online conduct.
Numerous resources for school social workers are available, including the National Association of School Psychologists, The Cyberbullying Research Center, and Stop Bullying Now. These resources are discussed in greater detail below.
School social workers should collaborate with other school staff and school administrators to set up structures that prevent cyberbullying on and off campus.
- Set up firm rules about student conduct online, and explain that violators of these rules will experience consequences if other students’ learning is disrupted by the incident.
- Proactively survey students to understand where and when cyberbullying occurs.
- Set up workshops and presentations for students so that they understand the responsibility that comes with social media and technology usage.
When school social workers and other school personnel encounter incidents of cyberbullying, they must do two things: support the victim(s), and provide consequences to the perpetrator(s).
Support the Victim(s):
- Show the victims of cyberbullying that their voice is heard, and that every effort will be made to stop the bullying.
- School social workers, teachers, school counselors, and other school personnel should provide emotional and psychological support to victims when necessary.
Provide Consequences and Guidance to the Perpetrator(s):
- The Cyberbullying Research Center recommends that school personnel present cyberbullies with consequences that match the severity of the bullying. Mild cyberbullying should be addressed through educational consequences, such as having the perpetrator research and then present on the negative impact of cyberbullying, or requiring that he/she participate in an anti-cyberbullying initiative on campus.
- More serious cyberbullying incidents should potentially be addressed through measures such as detention, suspension, and/or restriction of technology privileges.
- Law enforcement should be contacted when cyberbullying reaches a severity that endangers mental or physical safety.
- Cyberbullies should also receive emotional or psychological support as needed, such as counseling or referral to therapist services.
An Introduction to Cyberbullying
What is Cyberbullying?
Cyberbullying is defined as harassing, threatening, intimidating, and/or humiliating another person through technology such as social media platforms (ex. Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram) and mobile devices, according to KidsHealth. Cyberbullying can take many different forms, and as technology advances, so will the methods by which cyberbullies harass and/or humiliate their victims. Dr. Christine MacDonald noted in her interview with OnlineMSWPrograms.com, “The platforms are constantly changing, as new apps and social media sites are developed and older means of communication, such as email, begin to be perceived as out-of-date. Whatever the platforms that children and adolescents are primarily using will be what cyberbullies will be drawn to as well. Recently, it appears that young people are moving away from Facebook to some degree, and towards Snapchat, Instagram, Vine, and Twitter.”
Dr. Jonathan Singer, LCSW, explained in an interview with OnlineMSWPrograms.com that some of the primary forms of cyberbullying include:
- Denigration: Publicly posting insulting and hurtful statements about another person online, using one’s own social media account(s). Examples of denigration include commenting negatively about a peer’s weight using one’s Facebook or Twitter account, or making fun of someone publicly online for an embarrassing situation.
- Impersonation: Hacking into another person’s account and posting offensive, embarrassing, or insulting content. Impersonation can also involve someone taking over another person’s account and using it to cyberbully other individuals.
- Flaming: Engaging in an online fight over social media. This type of cyberbullying often involves denigration.
- Outing/Trickery: Obtaining and then disclosing private information about an individual in order to humiliate them. Examples of outing or trickery include publicizing someone’s sexual orientation without their consent, or posting comments about a person’s private anxieties or fears.
- Cyberstalking: Repeatedly sending humiliating, intimidating, threatening, or otherwise cruel messages to someone else online or through text.
In some cases, the cyberbully may be anonymous, while in other instances the victim and bully may be acquaintances or former friends.
The Problem with Gateway Behaviors
The types of cyberbullying described above are generally more severe varieties, and the ones that gain the most media attention. However, cyberbullying can also occur through subtler but no less harmful behaviors. Called gateway behaviors, they are essentially actions that individuals take to display power over or contempt for another individual, notes Dr. Elizabeth Englander, director and founder of the Massachusetts Aggression Reduction Center (MARC). In fact, a 2011 Marc survey of over 20,000 children from 3rd to 12th grade found that gateway behaviors were the most frequently reported type of bullying across all grade levels. “The most common gateway behaviors are spreading rumors about someone, name-calling, whispering, laughing, rolling your eyes at someone to show contempt, etc.,” explained Dr. Englander to OnlineMSWPrograms.com. “In a digital environment, they would be remarks or photos.”
Gateway behaviors can be problematic for a number of reasons. As they are, in comparison to more aggressive cyberbullying or bullying acts, fairly small transgressions, teachers, parents, and school administrators generally do not know how to address them in or outside of a school setting. However, gateway behaviors, when ignored and allowed to become a part of the campus culture, can set the stage for more severe bullying and cyberbullying incidents. “[W]hen frequent enough, [gateway behaviors] will change the psychological landscape of a school–like a type of psychological litter,” warned Dr. Englander.
Why is Cyberbullying Particularly Harmful?
While bullying has long been a concern in elementary, secondary school, and college environments, cyberbullying can be particularly damaging, as it allows bullies to intimidate, humiliate, and disempower their victims anywhere, at any time of day. Less than a decade ago, before the advent of social media and other advanced forms of communication technology, a child’s home would typically be safe from the social pressures and embarrassments of school. Such is no longer the case. As cyberbullying expert and suicide prevention activist Dr. Scott Poland notes in his interview with OnlineMSWPrograms.com, “There is some literature indicating that one third of all adolescent girls wake up in the middle of the night to check and see what might have been posted about them. I think that we have to recognize that the impact of it is really quite severe.”
In addition, the highly visible and shareable nature of social media content means that one instance of cyberbullying can have a lasting, widespread, and deeply distressing impact on a child’s relationship with his or her peers. The “permanence” and visibility of the internet, combined with the fact that cyberbullies may make harsher statements online than in person because they do not have to face their victims directly, can make cyberbullying a particularly hurtful form of harassment and humiliation.
The anonymity that the internet affords cyberbullies can also increase cyberbullied individuals’ feelings of fear and helplessness. As Karin Stortz, LCSW noted in her interview with OnlineMSWPrograms.com, “[Cyberbullies] can use many tools, including computers, cell phones, and iPads. They might forward private text messages or emails, or even pretend to be someone they’re not. Cyberbullying differs from other forms of bullying in that the target may not know who is perpetrating the bullying. If you’re bullied in real life, you at least know who is confronting you, so you’re more empowered. But when you don’t know who’s saying what, you’ll become more isolated and afraid.”
Cyberbullying in the News
Recent tragic events in schools nationwide and internationally illustrate the acute psychological, social, and emotional damage that cyberbullying can inflict. The recent suicides of children and adolescents such as Montana Lance, Rebecca Ann Sedwick, Amanda Todd, and Tyler Clementihave revealed to the American public the traumatizing nature of cyberbullying, and how its victims often feel like they have no way to escape the harassment and humiliation. Other cases, such as that of Melody Coffey and Julia Young, did not end in suicide, but nevertheless took a great emotional, psychological, and financial toll on the victimized children and their parents. Parents can likewise feel helpless, as they often lack the tech savvy of their children and thus feel ill equipped to monitor their children’s online activity and support them when cyberbullying does occur.
Studies on the mental and emotional impact of cyberbullying have also reinforced the American public’s sentiments regarding this issue. For example, a 2013 study by The Journal of the American Medical Association found that kids who are bullied are two and a half times more likely to attempt suicide, and that cyberbullied youth were even more likely to contemplate suicide than children who experienced traditional bullying. Another study conducted by online security company McAfee found that 87 percent of students witnessed cyberbullying in 2014, up from 27 percent in 2013.
The ordeals of cyberbullying victims and their families, and the research that indicates the damage it inflicts, have sparked a widespread outcry against cyberbullying in the media, with national news outlets, anti-bullying organizations, bloggers, teachers, parents, and students speaking out about the dangers of cyberbullying.
Cyberbullying Prevention: New Territory for Schools and Lawmakers
In response to the destructive and widespread effects of cyberbullying, some parents, school leaders, state legislators, and social media companies such as Facebook and Twitter have begun to advocate for the development and implementation of bullying prevention and intervention measures both locally and nationwide. These efforts are still recent, however, and as a result much more work still needs to be done to adequately protect children both in and outside of the school setting.
According to the Cyberbullying Research Center, 20 states currently include cyberbullying in their anti-bullying legislation, while 30 states and the District of Columbia do not have cyberbullying legislation at present. Some cities, such as Carson, CA and Albany County, NY have sought to create laws that classify cyberbullying as a crime in order to curb its prevalence in schools. However, certain courts have deemed such laws unconstitutional, and these disagreements at the legislative level have sparked debates about how cyberbullying is defined, and where the line is drawn between normal teasing and cyberbullying.
Experts such as Dr. Justin Patchin and Deborah Temkin have responded to these legal debates by pointing out that the focus of cyberbullying prevention should still be on solving the root causes of cyberbullying and bullying in general. Such an approach not only requires supporting the victim of a cyberbullying incident, but also using constructive discipline and guidance to direct the bully towards better online and offline conduct.
Keys to Addressing Cyberbullying: Education, Prevention, and Intervention
While legislation and school systems are slowly adapting to address cyberbullying, school social workers, teachers, counselors, school administrators, and parents must still take action to identify and address cyberbullying that occurs in and outside of schools. As it is a complex problem, cyberbullying should generally be tackled through a combination of:
- Education: School social workers and parents should learn about cyberbullying and then educate the people around them about this serious issue.
- Prevention: School social workers and parents should take a proactive approach and create rules and support structures at school and in the home in order to prevent cyberbullying and promote compassion and ethical conduct among students.
- Intervention: School social workers and parents should concentrate on supporting the victims of cyberbullying and protecting them from further incidents. School social workers and other school personnel should also make sure that perpetrators are presented with appropriate consequences.
Below, we discuss in greater detail how school social workers and parents can implement the key elements of education, prevention, and intervention at school and in their home.
For School Social Workers: How to Help Students Cope with Cyberbullying
First, school social workers who are unfamiliar with cyberbullying should educate themselves about the definition of cyberbullying, the different technology platforms cyberbullies currently use, how to detect cyberbullying among children, and how to give support and guidance to both the target and the perpetrator. Such information is available through organizations such as:
- The Cyberbullying Research Center: This website features in-depth research articles, up-to-date blog posts about the latest developments in cyberbullying, and a wealth of educational materials for students, parents, educators, researchers, and the public. Some resources that may be of particular use to school social workers include their Responding to Cyberbullying and Preventing Cyberbullying handouts for educators, and theirCyberbullying Fact Sheet. In addition, the Research Center also provides free materials for school social workers and other school personnel to use when teaching others (ex. students, teachers, administrators) about cyberbullying.
- Stop Bullying Now: A government resource provided by the Department of Health and Human Services, Stop Bullying Now has an entire section devoted to identifying, preventing, and responding to cyberbullying. Much of their advice is directed towards parents, but the information available on their site can be useful to school social workers who must advise parents on how to handle cyberbullying incidents.
- National Crime Prevention Council (NCPC): This organization, which is a part of the U.S. Department of Justice, has a section devoted specifically to cyberbullying and its prevention. It has information for professionals about where and how cyberbullying occurs, podcasts on identifying and taking action against cyberbullying, and reproducible handouts that school personnel can use to educate teens and parents. The NCPC also hosts trainings for school professionals on such topics as bullying prevention, mobilizing bystanders to take a stand against bullying, and guiding children through safe practices both online and in other environments, such as their school and neighborhood.
- The Anti-Defamation League: Founded in 1913 to combat anti-semitism and fight for the civil rights of all demographic populations, the Anti-Defamation League has developed in-depth educational materials about bullying and cyberbullying prevention, including itsBullying Prevention and Intervention Tips for Schools, and its Misdirections in Bullying Prevention and Intervention (which explains the common mistakes that school personnel make when addressing bullying among their students). The League also has free webinars for school staff that discuss such topics as student empowerment and creating an anti-bullying environment on campus, and hosts interactive bullying prevention workshops for both educators and youth.
- The School Social Workers Association of America: This organization provides school social workers with an alphabetical list of resources to help them support students facing different challenges both in and outside of the school setting, including LGBT discrimination, bullying, and dating violence. The SSWAA website also provides information to school social workers about responding to crisis situations such as natural disasters, traumatic incidents, and grief. Members of the SSWAA receive additional resources, including research findings and publications, practice tools, and evidence based practices.
- The Alberti Center for Bullying Abuse Prevention was established in 2011 to help educators and parents address bullying, violence, and discrimination at schools through a combination of education and focused research. In addition to scholarly publications on the causes and impact of bullying, the Center offers school personnel bullying prevention toolkits and fact sheets about bullying among students of different ages. It is also an approved provider of NYS Dignity Act Training for educators seeking certification from the NYESD.
- The Massachusetts Aggression Reduction Center (MARC) is an organization devoted to providing school personnel, parents, and students with high quality, research-based educational materials and curricula about bullying prevention and child safety. MARC offers a free Needs Assessment Guide to help schools evaluate what their bullying prevention and school climate needs are. MARC also provides student surveying services, downloadable games and educational materials for students and staff, bullying prevention curricula for different grade levels, and professional trainings for educators and school personnel.
Prevention goes hand in hand with education; therefore, school social workers should strive to educate others–students, teachers, administrators, and parents–about how to promote online safety for children, both at school and in the home. In addition, school social workers should try to rally other school personnel around the cause of bullying prevention, so that it becomes more of a school-wide movement. Cyberbullying is so pervasive in schools today that a collaborative, proactive approach is more effective than a reactive one that only addresses one cyberbullying case at a time. “[W]ouldn’t it be great if every school had a bullying prevention task force?” Dr. Poland commented to OnlineMSWPrograms.com, “There’s a social worker, the principal, a couple of teachers, let’s start some planning, let’s maybe even put a student on our task force. Or maybe we decide to survey our students so we can figure out the scope of the problem.”
Some effective strategies for preventing cyberbullying in school and the larger community include:
- Creating a school culture of digital citizenship and ethics by setting firm rules about cyberbullying, clearly outlining disciplinary consequences for bullies, and educating the larger school community about cyberbullying’s destructive impact.
- Building a team or task force of school personnel that meets regularly to discuss cyberbullying incidents on campus, plans educational workshops for students and parents, and trains teachers and other school staff on how to detect and respond to cyberbullying.
- Hosting parent Q&A nights or other informational sessions for parents who wish to learn more about how to protect their children from online bullying and harassment.
- Survey students about when, where, and how often bullying and cyberbullying occur at school and at home.
Though prevention is key in combating cyberbullying, school social workers must also know how to effectively handle situations in which bullying has occurred. Responding effectively to cyberbullying incidents requires a combination of supporting the cyberbullying victim and providing consequences and guidance to the cyberbully.
When working individually with cyberbullying victims, school social workers should focus on caring for and empowering these students. “For school social workers, counselors, and administrators, it’s important to let the kid know that, first of all you don’t deserve this. We are going to get this stopped,” explained Dr. Poland. As children tend to feel helpless and isolated in the face of cyberbullying, it is essential that school personnel–not only school social workers, but also teachers, school administrators, and school counselors–show victims of cyberbullying that they are not alone, and that they have responsible people to turn to who will protect them. “I think the keys to cyberbullying really are, information, education, adults involved, monitoring and supervision, consequences, and when a kid is really abusing all of those technology privileges, they really need to be restricted,” Dr. Poland added.
In addition to giving cyberbullying victims the support and protection they need, school social workers and other school personnel should help cyberbullying victims find sources of empowerment. Dr. Karin Stortz noted, “To mitigate the harmful effects of bullying, school social workers, counselors, and therapists should focus on helping the target find sources of empowerment. Because bullying is all about power and control, it’s important for the target to gain back a sense of power and confidence in the situation.”
Such empowerment can come from various sources, and a well-rounded cyberbullying intervention plan may in fact use multiple methods to help cyberbullying targets increase their confidence. For example, martial arts, assertiveness training, meditation, and cognitive behavioral therapy are just several ways in which cyberbullying victims can combat the damaging emotional effects of cyberbullying.
Another important aspect of an effective cyberbullying intervention is working constructively with the perpetrator to curb his or her bullying behaviors. Dr. Singer explained, “[If] the victim has not yet experienced the most negative outcomes we might consider, such as self-injury, things like that, then you can step in and use low-level interventions such as reframing the behavior in a way that the victim and the perpetrator can understand it differently. So rather than being punitive with the perpetrator, work towards understanding, awareness, tapping into the perpetrator’s sense of empathy.”
Not immediately jumping to punitive measures and instead trying to create an educational and awareness-focused resolution can be a valuable way to change the perpetrator’s perspective on bullying. “[T]he punitive approaches model for the perpetrator that one should address conflict or issues with power and control, which is exactly what you don’t want to reinforce,” Dr. Singer noted, “[Instead, school social workers] can intervene in low or moderate cyberbullying situations by having the perpetrator and the victim talk it out, come up with a plan, those sorts of things, involve the others who might have been involved online in their social networks and communities.”
Some concrete steps that school social workers can take to respond to cyberbullying incidents include:
- Develop and implement a system of consequences for cyberbullying incidents of varying severity. For example, the Cyberbullying Research Center recommends that students who engage in mild or minor cyberbullying be required to complete an educational project, such as creating anti-cyberbullying posters or presenting to younger students about the harmful effects of cyberbullying. More severe cyberbullying cases might require stricter disciplinary action.
- Notify school officials and law enforcement in the case of a severe cyberbullying incident.
- Get the parents of both the cyberbullied student and the cyberbully involved in the resolution process.
- Provide strong and consistent emotional support to victims of cyberbullying, and refer them to additional resources (ex. therapists, counselors) when necessary.
- Present firm consequences to cyberbullies, but also provide them with support and guidance towards more constructive behaviors.
- Train school staff to be aware of gateway behaviors. While such behaviors generally are not severe enough to be punishable, school personnel should try and find ways to educate students about the damages of gateway behaviors and the importance of fostering a supportive and responsible school culture.
For Parents: The Keys to Preventing and Addressing Cyberbullying
As mentioned previously, parents can feel helpless in the face of cyberbullying due to the fact that they are unfamiliar with the technologies that youth now use to communicate. Fortunately, there are currently numerous resources available online for parents who want to know how to keep their children safe from cyberbullying and other online dangers, including:
- The Cyberbullying Research Center: In addition to having resources for educators, the Cyberbullying Research Center has a section specifically for parents who want to learn more about how to avoid or address cyberbullying. Several resources that parents may wish to refer to include the Cyberbullying Scripts to Promote Dialog and Discussion, an article that helps guide parents through starting a conversation with their child about online safety, and the Top Ten Tips for Parents on how to prevent and respond to cyberbullying incidents.
- Stop Bullying Now: This government website has numerous tips and guides to help parents work with their children to prevent, as well as document, report, and address cyberbullying and traditional bullying.
- National Crime Prevention Council (NCPC): In addition to hosting trainings and providing information to school personnel and other professionals who wish to combat cyberbullying, the NCPC provides articles, FAQs, and Tip Sheets for parents and youth about identifying cyberbullying, counteracting its effects, and promoting an anti-bullying culture at their school and in their community.
- Facebook Family Safety Center: Facebook’s Safety Center’s new Bullying Prevention Hubhas information and advice for teens, parents and guardians, and teachers about detecting, preventing, and addressing bullying and cyberbullying. It also provides instructions for individuals who wish to report cyberbullying or harassment incidents that occur on Facebook.
- Twitter Help Center: The Safety & Security section of Twitter’s Help Center has advice for teens and parents about controlling privacy settings, tweeting safely, and handling offensive or abusive content on Twitter.
- WiredSafety: An organization founded in 1995 and run entirely by volunteers, WiredSafety provides the public with free information about privacy issues, technology safety, and bullying prevention. WiredSafety has parented numerous educational organizations and programs, including StopCyberbullying.
- StopCyberbullying: The first cyberbullying prevention program in the United States, StopCyberbullying organizes summits and provides toolkits, quizzes, and other information to help people of all ages detect and fight against cyberbullying in their midst. Furthermore, parents whose children are suffering from cyberbullying can ask volunteers at WiredSafety, StopCyberbullying’s parent organization, for free assistance in evaluating cyberbullying cases and locating cyberbullies offline.
- The Tyler Clementi Foundation: Established in the memory of a gay college student who committed suicide due to cyberbullying and social media harassment, this organization provides resources to help parents, friends, and family members who wish to support LGBT individuals.
- The Megan Meier Foundation: Founded in 2007 by the mother of Megan, a teen who committed suicide in response to cyberbullying, this organization has a wealth of information for children and parents about cyberbullying, its effects, and how to prevent, report, and address cyberbullying incidents. This Foundation also hosts staff trainings and presentations to help teachers, school social workers, school counselors, and school administrators effectively respond to cyberbullying occurrences, as well as presentations for students from elementary school on through high school that discuss the importance of online safety and ethics.
- The Anti-Defamation League: Founded in 1913 to fight anti-semitism and promote the civil rights of all populations, the Anti-Defamation League has developed a highly detailed and useful anti-cyberbullying resource for both parents and teens. The materials they offer parents include their Bullying Prevention and Intervention Tips for Families, andWhat to Do If Your Child Exhibits Bullying Behaviors. Resources for teens and youth include their 10 Ways to Respond to Bullying handout, and their Internet Safety Strategiesarticle.
- The Alberti Center for Bullying Abuse Prevention works to combat bullying, cyberbullying, and school violence through a combination of educational materials for the public and focused research on such topics as the causes and effects of bullying, school crises prevention, and best practices for student safety. The Center provides parents withfact sheets and other publications that discuss how they can help prevent and address bullying, cyberbullying, and discrimination at school and at home.
- The Massachusetts Aggression Reduction Center (MARC) is an organization that provides high-quality educational materials and curricula on child safety, bullying prevention, and responsible use of technology to communities nationwide. In addition to offering workshops, trainings, and bullying prevention curricula to school personnel, MARC has numerous resources for parents, including downloadable guides such as Understanding Cyberbullying & Social Networking and What To Do If Your Child Is Being Bullied. MARC also hosts free, customizable presentations on bullying, cyberbullying, and school safety for parents and other members of the community.
After arming themselves with education on the issue of cyberbullying, parents should proactively speak with their children about the importance of online safety and privacy, and set up rules to protect their children from misuse of social media and communication technologies. “I get to talk to parents a lot [about cyberbullying prevention] and I try to get parents to take charge of the technology–basically to realize that all of it is a privilege. It is not a right,” Dr. Poland explains. The Cyberbullying Research Center and Stop Bullying Now similarly recommend that parents get involved and remain involved in their children’s online life by being familiar with social media technology, asking for their passwords, keeping computers in a public space, establishing parental controls on computers and mobile devices, and checking in with their children regularly about their internet and social media usage.
Karin Stortz, LCSW recommends that parents regard their children’s use of online technologies and social media as being similar to learning how to drive a car. “When we teach kids how to drive, we’re able to communicate expectations and rules. Unfortunately, technology doesn’t have these safety features,” she told OnlineMSWPrograms.com. Parents must therefore set their own rules and expectations for their children, and be good role models in their own use of online media and social media.
In addition to establishing boundaries and presenting guidelines for their children on safe and responsible use of technology, parents should also try and foster an open and communicative environment for children to discuss their encounters with and concerns about bullying. “I think the most important practice for parents is to talk with their children about what they’re up to socially, how things are going at school, and what kinds of online and digital activities they enjoy,” Dr. Englander told OnlineMSWPrograms.com. “Explore what they like doing online, and ask them if they see problems with their peers or themselves, and what they think of that. What do they think is right, or wrong, behavior online? There really aren’t any rules, but should there be? How do kids handle things when people get mean online? What helps, and what makes things worse?”
Several key strategies that parents can use to help prevent cyberbullying:
- Establish a family agreement with your children that they will use the internet safely and responsibly. Set forth firm rules about responsible use of the internet and cell phones. For examples of such family agreements, refer to The Cyberbullying Research Center’s freeInternet Use Contracts and Phone Use Contracts; both documents explain core principles that both parents and children can follow to promote safe use of the internet and communication technologies.
- Explain the consequences that can result from misuse or abuse of online technologies, including the permanence of what is posted online, the emotional impact that online statements can have, and how irresponsible use of technology privileges can lead to serious ramifications (ex. damaged reputation, discipline at school, etc.).
- Keep computers in a public area, and take children’s phones away at night so that they have some separation from their online world.
- Cultivate trust and open communication with your children so that they feel comfortable approaching you with problems.
- Check in with your children regularly and in an approachable way to see if their internet, text, or social media usage has been negatively impacting them in any way.
- Be familiar with the warning signs of cyberbullying, which can include becoming overly fixated on social media or computer use, becoming depressed, moody, or withdrawn, or being overly protective of phone and computer privacy.
Parents whose children have been cyberbullied or who are cyberbullies should primarily work to protect and support their children, and to seek professional help when necessary. The Cyberbullying Research Center suggests that parents show their children through words and actions that they will unconditionally love and support them throughout their ordeal. Parents should also thoroughly investigate the cyberbullying incidents their children have experienced by speaking with school staff and to law enforcement if the cyberbullying is severe. Shellie Leger, LCSW, recommended to OnlineMSWPrograms.com that parents contact their internet service provider and keep track of all cyberbullying incidents in case they need to report severe cyberbullying to the authorities.
“I think we can really stop a lot of this with trained, involved, empowered parents,” Dr. Poland noted, “[A]nd I do believe that the school systems have the expertise and the technology to help parents keep up. I always recommend that school systems have meetings and trainings for parents on what to look for, what to do, and how to handle these situations.” As Dr. Poland indicates, parents should not feel alone if their child has experienced cyberbullying, but should instead actively work to reach out to their larger community and to experts in their area for aid.
Key steps that parents can take to help their child manage cyberbullying:
If your child is the victim:
- The Cyberbullying Research Center recommends that parents provide unconditional support and love to their child if he or she is the target of cyberbullying. Parents should refrain from increasing their child’s anxiety about the situation by acting angrily, forbidding him or her from using the computer, or resolving to confront the cyberbully or his/her parents. Parents’ focus should be on alleviating their children’s anxiety and making them feel protected and cared for.
- Take a calm, rational, and methodical approach towards investigating all past and present cyberbullying occurrences. Track these occurrences, and reach out to school personnel and bullying experts as necessary.
- Check in with your child regularly, and stay alert for signs of depression, anxiety, withdrawal, or suicidal thoughts. Seek professional counseling if your child shows signs of depression and/or anxiety.
- Ask a therapist to help your child work through any confidence, assertiveness, or anxiety issues that arise as a result of cyberbullying.
- Contact law enforcement in situations where a crime has been committed or physical safety is a concern–for example, internet stalking, threats of physical harm, hacking and invasion of privacy, etc.
- Encourage or guide your child towards activities that build his or her confidence and reduce anxiety, such as martial arts, dance or other physical activity, assertiveness training, meditation, writing, and other forms of artistic expression.
If your child is a cyberbully:
- Set firm consequences for your child when he or she cyberbullies another student. Stay consistent with the consequences you set forth, and escalate them to match the severity of the cyberbullying incident.
- Monitor your child’s web activity, insist on knowing or changing their passwords, and limit their internet, social media, and phone usage.
- Reach out to school officials and explain the situation so you can receive support and the school can address the effects of the cyberbullying in a timely manner.
- In addition to setting consequences, also provide support and ethical guidance to your child, explaining to him or her the ramifications of cyberbullying and online harassment. Explain the importance of empathy to your child, and reinforce this message through your own actions and by staying involved in your child’s online activities.
- Contact a therapist who can work with your child to understand and work past his or her cyberbullying tendencies.
Conclusion: Creating a Save Environment for Children and Adolescents
Cyberbullying is an incredibly prevalent and damaging phenomenon in America and worldwide. As recent events and in-depth research has shown, cyberbullying is directly linked to depression, anxiety, poor academic performance, and even incidents of suicide across the nation. For every tragic cyberbullying incident that makes headlines, there are no doubt even more that cause depression, low self-esteem, anxiety, and social issues among children, adolescents and adults. These unheard victims suffer quietly, and often without adequate support.
Fortunately, as cyberbullying gains more attention in the public eye, more resources for parents, schools, and children have become available, enabling individuals to prevent and respond to cyberbullying incidents that occur in their community. However, these efforts are only the beginning of a long and necessary battle. To truly combat cyberbullying, and all forms of bullying, we need to create school environments and larger communities that are committed to children’s emotional well-being and understanding of ethical principles.
In his interview with OnlineMSWPrograms.com, Dr. Singer explained, “The most basic and time-tested approach to reducing any school violence or victimization is establishing the ‘safe school environment,’” which is defined as an environment in which bullying, abuse, and similar acts of power are viewed as unethical, undesirable, and ineffective in gaining social credibility. “Bullying and cyberbullying is almost always a social act,” Dr. Singer noted, “It is something that is done in front of others for social gain or social status […or] to make [one] feel more powerful.” He suggests that school personnel and adults in the surrounding community work to reinforce the message that bullying is not only harmful, but also unattractive, uncool, and ultimately “no way to climb the social ladder.”
In addition to teaching children the right perspective on social interactions, empathy, and ethics, adults need to show all children under their care that they are loved, protected, and heard. Dr. Poland expressed his view that the solution to cyberbullying lies in addressing the needs of the children first and foremost: “I’m trying to think of who said this, but I certainly agree with it: Why don’t we realize in America that the most important thing is to put our children first?” he told OnlineMSWPrograms.com. “Once you decide to put children first, then you have funding for schools, you have smaller classes, you have more counselors, more social workers, you have more of everything, and the chance to really improve things. […] Somehow out of all of this, we have to have a kinder society, and one where everybody gets involved and stops these things early.”
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