One of parents’ greatest fears is that their kids will become the victims of cyberbullying, and for good reason: research shows that almost half of all middle and high school students are cyberbullied at some point. If that’s the case, what can you do to protect your kids?
First, monitor your kids’ online behavior on a regular basis and pay close attention to which sites they’re on, who they interact with, and the nature of their interactions. As Sarah Brown, an expert on children’s use of technology, says “Being familiar with their online world is the best way for you to notice if something is wrong.” Research shows that parents who don’t monitor their kids’ online behavior are more likely to be unaware that their kids are being cyberbullied. There are many ways to monitor what your kids are doing online, including setting up their online accounts together with them so that you know their usernames and passwords, creating Google Alerts with your kids’ names, installing monitoring software on their devices, and requiring them to allow you to “friend” or “follow” them online.
If you notice any interactions that could be the cause for alarm, speak to your kids right away. Since kids often try to hide the fact that they’re cyberbullied, ensure them ahead of time that they can always come to you with any problem, no matter how big or small. It’s very important, say Drs. Sameer Hinduja and Justin Patchin of the Cyberbullying Research Center, to “cultivate and maintain open, candid lines of communication with your children, so that they’re ready and willing to come to you whenever they experience something unpleasant or distressing in cyberspace.”
Ensure your kids ahead of time that you won’t ban them from going online if they come to you for help. As Dr. Michael Nuccitelli, a well-known child psychologist and expert on cyberbullying, says, consistently remind your kids that “they’ll not lose their online privileges, interactive online gaming time, mobile devices or social network site privileges due to cyberbullying issues provided they are open, honest and forthright.” Try not to overreact to situations as this will make your kids think that you’ll overreact if they tell you about being cyberbullied.
When you speak to your kids about their online activities, encourage them not to respond in kind to wannabe cyberbullies: this will only exacerbate the problem. Tara Fishler, a prominent expert on mediation and conflict resolution, says that “responding lets the bully know they affected you. Not posting a response gives you some control so you are not sucked into their harmful activities.” Instead, help block any wannabe cyberbullies from reaching your kids.
As part of your regular conversations with your kids, teach them safe online habits. This includes such basic online security measures as never revealing identifying, personal information like their home addresses, phone numbers, and where they go to school; not sharing their usernames and passwords with others; not leaving online accounts accessible and vulnerable on public devices; and never opening messages and links from people they don’t already know.
Your kids should also learn to select appropriate privacy settings on their online accounts, so that they only accept friends or follow requests from people they personally know, and allow posts to be broadcast only to their circle of friends or followers. As Mrs. Brown succinctly puts it, “Limiting online exposure helps keep the bullies at bay.”
More generally, teach your kids to think carefully before they post anything online. They need to understand the potential repercussions from anything they post, including how certain posts could be used maliciously. A good rule of thumb is to say and do online only what you would say and do face-to-face to someone. Your kids should understand that as soon as they post something, it’s out of their control. Their posts can be forwarded without their knowledge or consent. Ruth Carter, a lawyer who specializes in social media and internet law, says “Kids should be taught early and often that they have no idea when a post will take on a life of its own and go places they can’t control.” A more strict but no less useful approach would be to establish actual “rules” for your kids’ online activities, including by deciding which sites they’re allowed to access, for how long, and what they are permitted to do on those sites.
A final way you can protect your kids from becoming the victims of cyberbullying is to stay in regular contact with their teachers. Since a kid’s cyberbullies are often to be found among his or her class – or school mates, teachers are some of the best sources of information about any potential problems at school. It’s important that you speak to their teachers not just about how they’re doing academically, but also socially. Teachers may notice troubling interactions inside or outside the classroom.
Tanni Haas, Ph.D. is a Professor in the Department of Communication Arts, Sciences & Disorders at the City University of New York – Brooklyn College.