Years ago, before anyone had ever heard of an iPhone or Instagram, no matter how mean a bully could be on the bus, at school or on the playground, when a child got home, they were safe. The bully could not pass through the door to torment them when they were home relaxing, doing homework or watching TV.
Now, with more and more of our children’s time spent online, the bullies are everywhere, all the time, insinuating themselves and their damaging behavior into nearly every waking minute. Cyberbullies are on social media platforms, messaging apps, gaming platforms and devices, text messages and emails; there is nowhere safe. Even worse, while older generations were able to leave bullies behind after graduation, cyberbullying taunts are now shared, saved and repurposed, making the impact seem ever-lasting.
At Bay Street Pediatrics, we have seen first-hand the harmful effects of bullying and cyberbullying. The Pew Research Center reports that nearly half of all teens ages 13-17 reported experiencing some form of cyberbullying. The study suggests that teen girls are more likely to experience cyberbullying than teen boys, with the difference getting more pronounced especially in girls ages 15-17. Research also shows that while digital devices and platforms have expanded the venues for bullying, bullying is more common among children or teens that know each other from school or other in-person social contexts.
While most adults in previous generations told kids, “ignore it and the bully will go away” – which kids knew never ever worked – today, we realize in-person bullying and cyberbullying can cause intense and lasting damage to children and teens. In 2011, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services launched stopbullying.gov, a resource aimed at treating this increasingly significant public health burden. The site lists common components to identify, prevent, report and suggest consequences for bullying.
Connecticut’s bullying policy contains all of these common components, with clear definitions and policies that explain the process for addressing cyberbullying. Connecticut’s Department of Education explains that a clear bullying policy fosters better learning outcomes for all children. Crucially, Connecticut also has policies that cover conduct out of school, bringing accountability to the digital spaces where cyberbullying occurs. Federal law does not specifically address bullying, but it can be used to protect victims when any type of bullying infringes on specific civil rights or when bullying escalates to a recognized crime such as stalking or blackmail.
While support from school and legal authorities is paramount, parents themselves are typically the first line of bullying prevention and protection. Unfortunately, chances are high that your child will witness or become a victim of cyberbullying.
As soon as your child goes online, start talking about digital safety and don’t stop explaining and cautioning as your child’s online activities grow.
Explain that bullying is any behavior or speech that is unwanted, aggressive and used to control or harm another person. This can include purposefully excluding someone from a group, making threats, attacking someone verbally or physically, and, especially in the case of cyberbullying, spreading rumors, lies or embarrassing or personal information about another person. Even if your child is not an active bully, explain to them that allowing bullying to happen makes them a real part of the problem.
Clearly state your family’s rules about digital activity and make it clear that your child should inform you of any harmful activity they see. Review their privacy settings and make sure they are set to the highest levels.
Consider this: in our real world, you’re not letting your children hike in the wilderness by themselves. In the wilds of cyberspace, chaperone your child by installing parental control and/or monitoring software so you can watch how and with whom they are interacting.
Be a positive role model. Reduce the time you spend on social media and digital entertainment. Talk to your child about troubling situations you’ve seen both in real life and in digital environments and discuss possible solutions and responses.
Monitor their behavior as well as their digital life. Is your child increasingly avoiding real life social situations? Are they withdrawing from family, and from activities that they previously enjoyed? Is your child using their devices a lot more or less than usual? Is the device causing strong emotional responses, either positive or negative? Is your child creating and/or deleting social media accounts? Increased digital usage could indicate cyberbullying, be it as bully or victim.
If you think your child is being bullied, act very quickly. Bullying of any type needs to be dealt with and shut down as soon as possible to avoid long-term mental health challenges. Talk to your child. Work with their teachers and school administration. If needed, review Connecticut’s anti-bullying laws and consult legal help.
Make an appointment with your Bay Street Pediatrics provider when your child has been bullied. We can provide the tools your child will need to deal with both their own intense emotions and with the bullies themselves, building strength and resilience to come through this trauma.