The age of the cyberbully: How can we help our kids?

Stories in the media seem rampant these days about a child taking his or her own life after being bullied. Most recently, Gabriel Taye, an 8-year-old boy, hanged himself two days after being kicked and beaten by peers; an incident that was not disclosed to his mother until after his death.  But, what about the type of bullying that typically goes unnoticed and can go on even when school isn’t in session?

Cyberbullying is defined as “when someone repeatedly harasses, mistreats, or makes fun of another person online or while using cell phones or other electronic devices.” It includes posting embarrassing pictures or harmful comments, spreading rumors, recording conversations, pretending to be someone else online, sending harassing texts or emails, outing someone’s sexual orientation online, or creating humiliating internet polls, to name a few.

In a 2015 study, researchers found that 34 percent of middle school students reported having endured cyberbullying. The most common types they reported were having rumors spread about them (19 percent) or mean/hurtful comments made online (13 percent). Six percent noted that someone else pretended to be them and 5 percent had a mean or hurtful picture of them posted online. Five of the top six cyberbullying methods involved use of a cell phone and the majority of adolescents use Instagram as compared to Facebook, with few using Twitter or Ask.fm.

Cyberbullying of high school students is even more rampant. For example, one study of 12 to 18 year olds revealed that 72 percent reported experiencing cyberbullying at least once or twice in the previous school year, with about 2.2 million children enduring it annually. Three percent report being cyberbullied almost daily. Across middle school and high school, females experience more cyberbullying than males.   

What can be done to mitigate the effects of cyberbullying? At the individual level, all the popular social media channels, including Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Snapchat now have a way to report concerns regarding cyberbullying, including threats, explicit content, abuse, or other violations.

At the school level, all Pennsylvania public schools are required to develop a bullying prevention policy, which must include methods through which teachers and staff can report bullying; this was designed to help students feel their disclosures are being heard and acted on. Further, in 2015, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf signed Act 26, which amended the crime code to include a definition of cyber harassment of a child, thus making it a crime.

Howard County, Baltimore, can be considered a best practice for school-led bullying prevention.  In a recent study, 250,000 children in grades 4-12 were followed for ten years while bullying prevention programs were implemented. The study found that physical bullying dropped from 22 percent to 5 percent, and cyberbullying dropped from 6 percent to 4 percent.

For parents, it’s imperative that they educate themselves on the latest technologies, in order to better monitor their child’s social media activities, and that the monitoring is open and honest in order to build trust. This trust will help a child communicate if they are being cyberbullied, whereas spying will only create misgivings.

Here are a few tips colleagues and I recommend for parents: have your child share account and password information with you; monitor your child’s pages to ensure they aren’t too personal; discuss sexting with your child; and educate your child on how anything posted becomes public domain and to be discreet.

For more information on how parents, schools, and law enforcement can prevent and respond to cyberbullying, visit the following resources:

Cyberbullying.org

The Pennsylvania Bullying Prevention Toolkit

Cyberbullyhelp

Stopcyberbullying.gov

Stop Cyberbulling

PACER’s National Bullying Prevention Center

Erbacher is also a school psychologist for the Delaware County Intermediate Unit. She is co-author of Suicide in Schools: A Practitioner’s Guide to Multi-level Prevention, Assessment, Intervention, and Postvention.

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