PART 6: Cyberbullying

Parenting has never been an easy job. Each day we give it our very best and strive to support our children to be the best they can be, all the while wondering if we are doing a good job as parents. For decades the care of our children was always very tangible — you could see that they were fed, clean and clothed, and when they attended birthday parties and social gatherings you could get a gauge on how they were going socially. It seemed so simple. However, with the introduction of the vast array of digital platforms over past few years, what was once so tangible has become less so.

As our children become more immersed in the online world, we have become aware of an entire new parenting dimension. Navigating the online space and monitoring how our children are going with their friends and peers is now much more difficult. There can be a physical disconnect for parents in this space if we are not incredibly careful within our own personal learning, savvy in our technological prowess, and most importantly — open in our dialogue with our kids. At times as a parent we can feel overwhelmed, lacking in control and terrified by all of the messages we are hearing from family, friends and the media.

Keeping our kids safe online is first and foremost our responsibility as parents. It is our job to watch out for the signs of distress in our children that may be caused by negative online interactions. After all, who knows our children better than we do? This is so critical today as we hear of the devastating effects of  cyberbullying through the media, or perhaps via our friends and families, and possibly even through our own experiences.

As an educator now for 20 years, student-care online has been a significant area of interest for me as I grapple with the demands of how technology is used in education. As I give consideration to the benefits and pitfalls of technology, and consider the educational elements of the cyber dimension that schools can (and must) delve into, I am reminded of the vital role that schools play in working in partnership with parents on this journey. In part, this is why Tech T@lk came about and why I feel so strongly about it!

So with all of this in mind I want to discuss cyberbullying with you. We are going to step through this together. In partnership, let’s unpack cyberbullying a little more.

What is cyberbullying?

Cyberbullying is a form of bullying or harassment using electronic means. It is also known as online bullying. Sadly, today cyberbullying has become increasingly more common amongst children. While statistics indicate that it is on the increase within the teenage years, I would suggest that cyberbullying can occur in any age group where a person has regular access to digital messaging, video and photo platforms, and also within gaming platforms. It is important to be vigilant and not assume that we have a ‘few more years’ before we have to worry about this.

Harmful cyberbullying behaviour can include such things as posting rumours, threats, remarks of a sexual nature, victim’s personal information, or even hate speech. Bullying is widely defined as repeated behaviours targeted towards another individual with an intent to cause harm. This is no different online. A child who receives regular hateful, hurtful, and targeted messages or images that seek to demean, isolate or intimidate them via any online platform, is a child who is being cyberbullied. 

There are some important signs to look out for if your child is being cyberbullied:

Victims of cyber bullying may show some of the following signs:

  • Lower levels of self-esteem. This may present as them withdrawing from what were typically comfortable social settings for them, or you may detect an increase in negative self-talk.
  • They may begin exhibiting strong emotional responses such as being scared, becoming easily frustrated, angry or depressed, and in extreme cases — sadly too frequently seen these days — they may exhibit evidence of self-harm or express the possibility of suicidal intentions.
  • Victims of cyberbullying may exhibit changes in their regular behaviours at home, such as changes in their diet, sleep habits, self-drive or academic output.
  • Some students experience unexpected changes in their friendships suddenly.
  • Others appear upset and withdrawn after having spent a period of time on their device.
  • In other cases, the child will become secretive about their online use, choosing to hide what they are looking at, and seeking more private avenues to use their devices.

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What do I do if I suspect or know that my child is being bullied online?

It is vitally important that as parents and educators we act immediately to bring any cyberbullying activities to a halt. In many cases our children feel helpless to act, caught in a cycle between knowing what is right and wrong, hoping they can still fit in with their friends, blaming themselves, thinking that they must have done something to start this, and ultimately feeling humiliated about the circumstances. Remember that as a child or young adult, it is completely overwhelming for them to sense that ‘everyone knows’, that ‘everyone is talking about it online’ or that ‘everyone believes it and agrees with it’. Often children want it to stop, but in many cases they are embarrassed to tell someone, or are worried about getting into trouble, or simply still believe that it is not too bad yet and that they can fix it alone.

The Office of the eSafety Commissioner recommends four clear steps under its iParent resources. They are:

  1. Start a conversation with your child and seek support

As mentioned in many previous Tech T@lks, open, honest dialogue with our children is the bedrock of helping them overcome the adversities that life can throw at them. Knowing that they can come and talk to us as their parents or teachers at any time is vital. Our children need to know that they will be listened to patiently, and without judgement. Knowing that ‘they matter’, is so important for our children!

At this point it is vital that you are monitoring your child’s online and offline behaviours carefully for any indications that there is a decline in their mental or physical health, which could indicate a continuation of negative online behaviours. There are many avenues for support. If the concerning behaviour involves a peer or friend from school — contact the school and discuss the matters that you have become aware of. Discuss the school’s policy and procedures for handling such matters and seek support avenues that may be available on site such as a guidance officer, counsellor or Pastor.

  1. Open the lines of communication

Sometimes what our children need is another trusted adult in their life that they can connect with, someone that we trust as parents, and who our child respects and feels comfortable to speak.  This person could be someone such as an aunty, uncle, a young adult from church or a grandparent. Sometimes allowing them to remove themselves one step from mum and dad opens the dialogue up even further.

It is important that as parents we do not overreact to what our children tell us. We must manage our emotions in order to help them to manage theirs. If your child believes that they will be blocked from all online access if they speak to you honestly about what is happening, they are far less likely to speak to you when they have a problem. Be measured in your response, ensuring that your child does not feel blame for the actions they are experiencing from others.

  1. Collect evidence and report

First, it is critical that you report any cyberbullying to the online platform provider on which it was found, for example Facebook. This also includes reporting bullying behaviours in games, such as consistent targeting of a player or false reports being made about a player resulting in them being ‘kicked’ from the game for a period of time.

Next, contact your child’s school. This may take two different forms. The first is letting the school know that you are worried about your child as some online issues have been happening at home. In this case you may just want the school to keep an eye on your child’s well-being, and let you know if they notice any changes in behaviour. On other occasions, it may be that the online activity has occurred through the use of a school platform, or may involve other students from school. If the relationships of students are impacted at school due to online activity at home, or if the activity occurred through a school platform, it is critical that the school is aware so that they can monitor student relationships during school time, while addressing any online bullying occurring through digital platforms.

Finally, report online bullying to the eSafety Commissioner via their online complaints form, and gather evidence of the bullying behaviours through screen shots, collection of emails and texts etc.

  1. Manage contact with others

Finally, assist your child to manage their online profile more safely moving forward. Such steps may include blocking or unfriending the bully, reviewing and updating privacy settings on your child’s device, reminding your child not to retaliate or respond to any further messages or communication from the bully.

Bullying is never okay in person or online. Sadly, the anonymity of the online world, and the instantaneous nature of its delivery is often an effective method of delivery when it comes to unkind and hurtful words. It is vital as a community of parents and educators, that we work together to reaffirm positive self-images in our children, maintain trusting relationships built on open communication, and follow through with careful, considered and supportive responses when issues arise. Together we can make a difference for our children and all children in the online world.

Till next time,

 Mrs V

(Novice Minecraft player, Level 11 Clash Royale Clan Leader, firm but loving digital parent, mistake-maker and Head of Junior School)