Bullying and Social Media: Tips for Parents

For many young people today, a huge threat to their safety and wellbeing is hidden in their laptops and cell phones.  Parents are often oblivious to this menace or how they can help.  What is this hidden threat?  It’s the 21st century social media phenomenon of cyber bullying.

The Nature of Cyber Bullying

Cyber bullying is a form of harassment that takes place through electronic technology – in particular, through social media outlets such as Facebook or Twitter, as well as emails and texts.  From posting of embarrassing photos online to spreading rumors on social media sites, cyber bullies seek to humiliate their victims.  Often anonymous, cyber bullying can be more vicious than traditional schoolyard bullying and more difficult to control.  Online distribution creates a wider audience, and attacks can be made 24 hours per day.

A 2011 Pew survey found that only 7% of parents worry about their child being cyber bullied, although approximately one third of teenagers have been victimized at some time.  A Consumer Reports report estimated that one million young people were harassed on the most popular social media site, Facebook, in the past year.

Effects of Social Media Bullying

Young people who are bullied online are more likely to:

  • Skip or drop out of school
  • Have failing grades
  • Use alcohol and other drugs
  • Suffer poor self-esteem
  • Have increased health problems
  • Engage in risky behaviors

In some cases risky behavior can include suicide attempts.  In one 2011 Associated Press/MTV poll, cyber bullied teens reported more thoughts of suicide than their peers.  Media reports have highlighted recent cases in which teens committed suicide after online harassment.

Warning Signs

Warning signs for cyber bullying are similar to those for traditional bullying.  Victimized children and teens may exhibit such symptoms as:

  • Avoidance of social situations
  • Anxiety about school
  • Drops in grades and school performance
  • Changes in mood; e.g., frequent sadness or irritability
  • Obsessive checking of email, texts, and internet

How Parents Can Help

You can play a major role in helping to prevent or end your own children’s cyber bullying.  Start by teaching self-respect and modeling positive relationships, empathy, and impulse control.  The better adjusted your child, the more resilient he or she can be if confronted by bullying.

In this social media age, it’s critical for parents to be aware of online hazards and to teach children how to avoid them.  Have a discussion with your child about responsible online behavior and practice online safety.  Teach your child to block or delete disrespectful friends from social media sites.  Encourage use of the most restrictive online privacy settings.  Speak frankly about the dangers of online bullying.  Teach boundaries by setting limits on daily computer and cell phone usage.  Place computers in common areas only.

Don’t hesitate to exert your parental prerogative and monitor social media and other online usage.  Tell your child or teen that online communications are subject to monitoring.  Periodically check cell phones, Facebook pages, Twitter accounts, etc., to monitor the content of messages and posts.  Discuss any concerns you have as they occur.

Most importantly, be available.  Remind your teen that you’re always willing to listen, then make yourself accessible when you are asked, “Can we talk?” Encourage reporting of concerns to any trusted adult if you are not available.

If you believe that your child has been bullied and is having difficulty coping, don’t be afraid to seek professional help.  A counselor can provide valuable support and teach better coping skills.

In the anti-bullying movement, young people are taught the mantra: “stand up; don’t stand by” to promote reporting of peer bullying.  Likewise, responsible parents should stand up for their children’s welfare and not just stand by, through discomfort or ignorance.  It’s never too late to have that first conversation with your child about responsible online behavior.