Cyber Bullying: Impact and Prevention

By Sandy Derks, LCPC, CADC, CCJP

Would you let your child answer the door to a stranger? Would you let just anyone babysit your child? We all try to protect our children and teach them safety, yet Internet crime often remains invisible to many parents. Unfortunately, it is the fastest growing crime in the U.S. and children are the fastest growing victim pool. How do we teach our children Internet safety? Too often we can’t teach them because our children are ahead of us on the Internet learning curve!

Over 45 million children ages 10 to 17 use the Internet. Unfortunately, the statistics for Internet crimes on this age group of users are staggering. These crimes fall into two main categories: cyberbullying and cybersolicitation, which often leads to sex crimes. One in five children have been sexually solicited, one in four has encountered unwanted pornography, close to 60% have received communication from a stranger, and 50% have communicated back to a stranger, all while parents struggle to keep up. Twenty percent of parents do not supervise their children’s Internet use at all, 52% moderately supervise, and 71% of parents stop supervising by the time their child is 14 years old. In fact, 62% of teens say their parents know little or nothing about the websites they visit. Sadly, 72% of the Internet-related missing children cases involve children 15 years of age and older.

Because these crimes seem unthinkable, it may cause us to minimize the real impact and severity of cyberbullying. There is no doubt that cyberbullying can result in deep and lasting scars. It is a hidden crime in that most children do not inform their parents as to what is happening to them. Over 50% of kids using the Internet become victims of cyberbullying and over 25% have been bullied repeatedly through their cell phones and the Internet. With instant technologies like texting, snap chat, pictures, etc., cell phones, especially smart phones, are quickly becoming the number one way vehicle for cyberbullying.

So what exactly is cyberbullying? Cyberbullying is using interactive digital technology to harass, humiliate, or threaten another child. These attacks happen both directly and by proxy. Direct attacks can include: sending embarrassing photos; posting mean blogs or chat room postings that can cause damage to another child’s reputation, or reveal private information about the victim; and intimidating a peer to engage in sexting (sending sexually explicit pictures or graphic language via digital technology). Attacks by proxy may include posting private information about the victim in a hate group in a chat room or gaining control of the victim’s account and sending hateful or rude messages to the victim’s buddy list from the victim’s account. Adults are often involved in cases of bullying by proxy.

The effects of cyberbullying impact all realms of a child’s well-being. It causes psychosocial distress often appearing as anxiety or depression. A child may also start to withdraw from parents and close friends. It can also trigger school problems often manifesting through conduct, academic difficulties, and/or school refusal struggles. In some cases, it may manifest itself in a sudden hyper-focus on school. In rare cases, cyberbullying has led to murder or suicide. Just having one of these symptoms may not mean your child is being bullied, but knowing what is going on with your child is critical to being able to intervene. Two important key factors for parents are developing open communication with your child, and creating safety boundaries.

Effective communication within families often takes hard work and movement through some discomfort. As ridiculous as it sounds, it is helpful to talk about “when” to talk, “where” to talk, and “what” to talk about. Most importantly, be open to talking when your child brings up an issue. When communicating, say what you are feeling. Using emotion words and speak in the first person; this can really help break through resistance or discomfort. For example, “When...happened, I felt (scared, worried, pleased, content, etc.).” It is also helpful to be specific; define what is up for negotiation and talk openly about limits. It also helps to brainstorm ideas
together about an issue. Make Internet activities family activities and open yourself up to learning from your child. If conflicts arise, it is often most effective to work through them calmly and without lingering grudges.

Developing a technologically safe environment often involves creating a safety contract with your child. These safety contracts can help children feel a sense of “buy-in” when it is created with the child. It also provides a written agreement to fall back on. There are great contracts available onine. Some key components of a good parent/child contract are:

  1. Not disclosing any personal information online or through texting, including name, phone number, email address, passwords, parent information, or any club or team information
  2. Understanding that parents may choose to use a filtering service for protection
  3. Not disclosing the child’s whereabouts without parental permission
  4. Not agreeing to meet up with anyone they met online without parental permission
  5. Communicating only with people I know in person and that parents have approved
  6. Treating others online as one would want to be treated. Not sending mean or threatening messages, and not responding to mean or harassing messages, whether it is an attack on you or someone else
  7. Report immediately to parents, or another trusted adult, anything that makes the child feel uncomfortable, or that the child recognizes as inappropriate.

Other boundaries include: parental monitoring of phones, iPods, tablets, computers, etc.; time restrictions for the use of technological devices; and use of these devices in public areas of the home. The earlier these parameters are created, the easier it will be to implement and enforce without resistance.

Cyberbullying is a real and growing problem among youth; the impact can be devastating. Although parents can’t insulate their child from it completely, creating an environment of open communication and safe boundaries can improve the likelihood of prevention or early intervention.


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