Keeping safe online is extremely important but the increasing popularity of social media platforms combined with kids spending more and more of their time on computers, tablets and smart phones it can feel like an overwhelming situation for parents and teachers. While technology keeps family and friends connected and offers educational and meaningful opportunities, it also has a darker side. Cyberbullying, or online bullying, can happen anywhere at any time but fortunately, there are ways you can safeguard your children from online threats. This guide will help you to understand what cyberbullying is and what you can do about it.
Bullying is no longer limited to playgrounds, it is now also happening online. Cyberbullying, or online bullying, is the use of technology to hurt other people. Cyberbullying consists of online contact with the intent of harassing, intimidating, hurting, humiliating or embarrassing the target. It is important to note that cyberbullying occurs among young people. If an adult is involved it may be considered cyberstalking or cyber-harassment which can have legal consequences.
Examples of online bullying include posting embarrassing photos of others online, sending mean messages and spreading rumours.
Online Platforms Used – Social Media
This form of bullying often occurs via messaging apps, social networking sites, gaming sites and chat rooms with popular sites such as Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, YouTube and Xbox Live being common places for bullying to occur. Cyberbullying can be anything from sending mean direct messages and group chats, to posting demeaning messages and images for friends or public viewing, to creating pages or groups with the sole intention of upsetting or intimidating others. Some kids even create fake online profiles in order to bully or impersonate others. Cyberbullying can take many forms making it particularly difficult to monitor.
There are some key differences between cyberbullying and traditional bullying, not only is cyberbullying taking place online but it is also:
- More difficult for adults to detect and intervene in. Bullying in the playground or classroom can quickly be picked up on by teachers or support staff and can be dealt with efficiently and effectively. When someone is being bullied online it is considerably more difficult to spot and the victim may not want to tell an adult for various reasons such as fear or worry.
- Potentially anonymous meaning a child can bully someone else without being held accountable. Online, there are ways people can bully others while remaining anonymous, this can give the bully a false sense of security where they feel like they can get away with being mean to others. This also impacts the child who is being bullied as they do not know who is bullying them and this can cause isolation between friends.
- Capable of reaching larger audiences. This means hurtful and negative messages can very quickly be shared and spread between large numbers of people. For example, embarrassing photos can be shared into groups or shared with the privacy set to ‘public’ and this can make the bullied child feel like everyone is against them.
- Extremely persistent. Technology offers communication lines that are open 24 hours a day. Even a child’s home or bedroom is no longer a safe place from bully’s due to cyberbullying. This can make the situation particularly overwhelming for victims as they may feel as though there is no escape.
Many children who are being bullied online do not want to tell an adult about what is happening. As we mentioned, it is difficult to know when a child is experiencing cyberbullying but there are a few telling signs that you can look out for:
- Emotional upset during or after using phone, computer or tablet
- Becoming withdrawn
- Avoiding school
- Avoiding group gatherings
- Changes in eating habits
- Loss of interest in hobbies and activities
- No longer wanting to use phone, computer or tablet
- Being secretive or protective when it comes to their phone, computer or tablet and digital life
- Being nervous or jumpy when receiving messages
- Avoiding talking about activities related to phone, computer or tablet
As this topic is not something that is talked about and discussed as much as it should be, some people do not realise the extent of the issue. This is a serious problem that affects many young people on a daily basis. Cyberbullying can lead to increased anxiety, depression and in extreme cases can even lead to suicide. The statistics speak for themselves;
- Safety Net: The impact of cyberbullying on children and young people’s mental health found that within the UK, 47% of young people have received intimidating, threatening or nasty messages online. The report also found that there is a connection between intensive social media use and mental ill health, with 38% of young people reporting that social media has a negative impact on how they feel about themselves.
- The Annual Bullying Survey 2017 on 10,020 UK students aged 12-20, found that of those who experienced cyberbullying, 41% developed social anxiety, 37% developed depression and 26% had suicidal thoughts. They also found that Instagram, Facebook and Snapchat were the platforms that users most frequently experienced cyberbullying on.
- During a Report Linker survey of 506 13-24 year olds representing the US population, 7 out of 10 individuals said they were concerned about Cyberbullying. During the same survey, 15% of respondents said they would keep the issue a secret while 38% would tell their parents and 27% would tell their friends.
- A Florida Atlantic University study using a sample of 5,600 12-17 year olds in the US found that 34% of students had experienced cyberbullying and 70% had rumours spread about them online. 64% of students who experienced cyberbullying said it affected their ability to learn and feel safe at school.
- According to a Cyberbullying Research Center study, within the US the percentage of individuals who have experienced cyberbullying has almost doubled between 2007 and 2016 with the figures rising from 18% to 34%.
- In the EU, a 2014 EU Net Children Go Mobile Report stated that 12% of the 3,500 children 9-16 year olds had experienced cyberbullying. Of the countries surveyed, the 2014 statistic shows that children in Denmark experienced the most cyberbullying with 21%, closely followed by Romania with 19%, then Ireland (13%), UK (12%), Belgium (7%), Italy (6%) and Portugal (5%).
As you can see, cyberbullying is a huge issue across the globe. With more children using mobile devices (according to Cyberbullying.org, 95% of US teens are online) there has been a rise in the amount of online bullying that is taking place. On top of this, cyberbullying has no geographical limits. The portability, easy access and constant connection brings with it a lot of opportunity for irresponsible use of technology. Cyberbullying may take place online but the negative impact reaches the real world with great force. It knocks victim’s confidence and leaves them feeling sad, frustrated, depressed and angry.
In order to prevent cyberbullying, it is important that both you and your child understand what it is. A great starting point is talking about cyberbullying and explaining to your child that if they experience something hurtful online it is considered bullying and it is important that you know about it. For many children, they worry that the technology will be taken from them if they tell their parents about a negative experience. Because of this, it is necessary to express your understanding of the importance of being able to communicate with friends online. This will put their mind at ease should they ever need to approach you about an issue.
It is good to set ground rules that promote cyber safety for your children. Take some time to sit together and discuss the terms of their online use and experiences. Examples of potential rules include;
- Do not say or do anything online that they would not say or do in person
- Never share passwords with anyone
- Discuss what is appropriate for online sharing and what is not
- Remember that you never really know who you are communicating with online so be very careful with online communications
- Keep social media account settings to private and only accept friend requests from people they know (establish rules about whether your child can accept requests from friends of friends that they have not met in person)
- Decide whether you will have access to or monitor the content they share on their social media
- Set limits for when social media will be used e.g. no computer after a certain time/ during mealtimes etc.
- Establish a code of conduct where social media will not be used in a negative manner such as to embarrass others
- Let your child know that they can talk to you if they are being bullied online and their use/ access of technology won’t be restricted. Also, discuss that if your child is the one who is bullying others there will be consequences for this.
Monitoring Your Child’s Online Activity
Monitoring their activity will help you to ensure your child is safe and responsible online. During the discussions of using social media we mentioned above you may have decided it is appropriate for you to have access to their account, texts etc. as a safeguarding measure (younger children may agree to this but many teens are fiercely protective of their accounts and will not be fond of this suggestion). There are also applications you can use to monitor your child’s activity or you may use parental controls through your internet service. It is important to protect and supervise your kids and this extends to their online habits too. Unless you monitor their activities, it is impossible to know what they are seeing or writing when online, you can sit side by side and not know what’s going on with them so pay attention and make sure they are being careful and nice to others.
Discussing Online Safety
Teach your children how to be safe online and ensure they understand the online risks. Key points to discuss include that once they share something online it does not go away, others can save it/ screenshot it/ share it and even if your child deletes it, it may still exist somewhere on the internet. Therefore, it is very important to think before posting and they should only post what they are happy for anyone to see. Discuss the difference between real friends and online friends and how the number of friends they have on social media is not a reflection of popularity. Discuss the importance of self-respect and being a good person online. In addition, discuss the consequences of their online actions as many young people do not feel as responsible for their online actions due to the lack of immediate consequence (according to DoSomething.org over 80% of young adults believe it is easier to get away with online bullying than bullying in person).
Bullying in any form causes significant stress and anxiety, cyberbullying is no exception to this. Anxiety, depression, fear and low self-esteem are commonly experienced by those being bullied. This impacts concentration levels and focus, making learning more difficult which can impact school performance and grades. Children being bullied may try to avoid group activities and discussions, may appear to lack motivation and interest and might also try to avoid school altogether.
One of the core differences between bullying and cyberbullying is that there is no ‘safe haven’ for kids who are being cyberbullied as it can happen anywhere, at any time. Many young people are never far from their phones or laptops and while this keeps them connected to friends it also means that bullies can reach them via messaging or social media at any time of day, no matter where they are. This can be a very overwhelming situation to be in.
Another key difference is that some cyberbullies decide to remain anonymous which means the person being bullied may not know the true identity of the bully, although they may have suspicions this can lead to alienation among peers.
Cyberbullying can make teens feel overwhelmed and distressed. It can impact their everyday lives and they may feel unable to confide in an adult or parent about the issue. Earlier we mentioned The Annual Bullying Survey 2017, this survey also found that 25% of those who experienced cyberbullying self-harmed, 20% skipped class, 14% developed an eating disorder and 9% abused drugs and/or alcohol. This demonstrates just how serious the effects of cyberbullying are.
Common Feelings Cyberbullied Kids Experience
- Feeling Overwhelmed – being cyberbullied can be very overwhelming, particularly in instances where a lot of kids participate in the bullying or where photos and text are shared ‘publicly’. It can feel as though the whole world knows what is going on and this is a very stressful situation which, to the child being bullied, can feel like more than they are able to handle.
- Feeling Powerless – someone who is being bullied online may feel vulnerable and unsafe. Bullies can contact them whenever and wherever so even the victim’s own home may no longer feel like a safe place. It can feel like the bullies are everywhere and the victims are unable to get away from them.
- Feeling Exposed – online bullying can feel permanent, kids know that once something is shared it is very difficult to stop or control or remove. This can result in posts reoccurring later on and messages, posts or photos being shared with large numbers of people. This can leave the person who is being bullied feeling exposed and humiliated.
- Feeling Angry – some people feel angry about being bullied and may wish to retaliate or have some kind of revenge on the bullies. This can worsen the situation.
- Feeling Unhappy with Themselves – a victim of bullying may doubt their own value. They may experience low self-esteem and this could lead to eating disorders, self-harming, suicidal thoughts, or trying to change themselves in some way in an attempt to avoid cyberbullying in the future.
- Feeling Isolated – someone who is being bullied online may feel excluded and left out. They may be being purposely left out of conversations and groups. They may experience online bullying but they probably don’t want to turn off their phone or computer because it is their connection to friends. Removing the connection may stop the bullying but can result in worsening the feelings of isolation and seclusion.
- Feeling Disinterested in Life and/or School – avoiding school or activities may be a way to try to avoid the bullies or may be to avoid seeing people who have seen the content that was shared. Losing interest in interacting with others may also be a sign of depression.
- Feeling Anxious and Depressed – increased anxiety and depression is quite common in victims of cyberbullying. Being bullied knocks a person’s self-confidence and they may feel anxious about dealing with the bullying on a regular basis. This can result in feeling depressed and hopeless.
- Feeling Suicidal – there has been links made between cyberbullying and an increased risk of suicide. The constant nature of cyberbullying and the content being shared can result in feelings of hopelessness. Suicidal thoughts may begin to occur as a way to escape the pain the victim is feeling.
Finding out that your child is being bullied online is a painful experience and you may feel helpless. Here’s what you can do when facing this situation:
First of all, make sure your child is safe and feels safe. They will feel vulnerable so your response is very important. Support them, listen to their feelings without any judgement and demonstrate that you both want the same thing (to stop the bullying).
Next, talk about what has happened. It’s important to be calm and listen without panicking, getting angry or trying to make light of the situation. Work with your children and provide them with support. If there is evidence of the cyberbullying such as screenshots, saved messages etc., you should also save them as proof in case they are needed.
Your knee-jerk reaction may be to take the phone or computer away, but don’t do this. Your child was likely hesitant about approaching you with this issue and this is an opportunity to talk about the problem. Rather than removing their access to the technology, you should look at the applications they are using together in order to move forward, one key thing to do is ensure their privacy settings are set as they should be.
If your child didn’t come to you immediately with the issue, don’t get mad at them for this. Instead, be grateful that they have come to you now and re-iterate that they can talk to you about anything. Remember, your child will be feeling a lot of emotions because of the cyberbullying and these may include anxiety, depression and fear.
Reactions to cyberbullying differ depending on the situation, find out if your child has retaliated to the situation. If they have, they may be responsible for cyberbullying others which leads to further conversations about their behaviour and the consequences of this.
Once you know the full extent of the situation, there are several options on how to deal with it. If it is possible to resolve there and then, then discuss this and keep monitoring the situation. Help your child to block and report cyberbullies on their phone and on the social media platforms they use. Showing them how to do this will help them to regain power in a situation they will be feeling helpless in. Depending on the situation, you may want to take the issue to your child’s school and discuss it with their teachers. This is a particularly good idea if the bully is in the same school. Generally, it is not the best idea to approach the bully or the bully’s parents directly and the situation will likely be handled better if dealt with through the school. Discussing cyberbullying with the school is important to help safeguard other children too. The school should have cyberbullying policies in place and will hopefully be actively discussing safety online during classes and assemblies.
The cyberbullying may also be criminal and therefore, if the situation warrants it e.g. if there are realistic physical threats, it may be necessary to involve the local law enforcement.
It may also be necessary to set up appointments with the school counsellor or a therapist in order to help your child work through the effects of cyberbullying.
Social media is one of the main methods of communication for young people. Statista estimates there will be 2.77 billion social media users around the globe in 2019, an increase from 1.91 billion users in 2014.
Social media has its advantages but unfortunately, it also plays a role in cyberbullying. Cyberbullying is present on virtually every social media platform, with it being more prevalent on some platforms than others. During the Young Minds report it was found that 61% of young people had a social media account when aged 12 years old or younger which is younger than the age restriction set by most social media companies (often set at 13 years old). This shows that the age restriction is rarely enforced across many platforms.
According to a news report by Daily Sabah, 20% of social media users are exposed to cyberbullying every day. As such a large number of young people use social media on a daily basis and the majority of cyberbullying takes place on these platforms this brings with it certain expectations and requirements of these companies. Although not currently a legal requirement, increasing pressure is being put on social media companies to play a role in protecting users from harm such as cyberbullying.
When asked during The Annual Bullying Survey, 71% of respondents said social networks do not do enough to prevent cyberbullying and only 6% said social networks are safe with 65% saying it depends, 14% saying no and the rest being unsure. The Young Minds report also found that social networks are failing to tackle cyberbullying and stated that 83% of young people feel social media companies should do more to tackle cyberbullying.
With more pressure being put on these companies, they are being urged to take complaints more seriously, respond more quickly, give young users clear guidelines related to online behaviour and take tougher actions on those who behave inappropriately on the platforms.
As cyberbullying is such a broad and varied topic, there are many methods of prevention that can be implemented. Below, we have summarised the core ways parents, children, schools and social media platforms can prevent cyberbullying.
Prevention by Parents
- Talk openly with your child about the dangers of cyberbullying
- Let your child know it’s ok to talk to you about issues and that you won’t overreact or take their phone/computer etc. away from them
- Listen to your child and ensure they feel like they are being heard
- Monitor your child’s online activities
- Limit screen time and maximise time with friends and family
- Make sure your child does not become friends with people online that they do not know
- Keep up to date with the schools cyberbullying policy
- Show your child how to block and report bullies
- Teach your child not to share passwords with anyone
- Teach your child not to respond to cyberbullying
Prevention by Children
- Check your privacy settings to keep content private
- Think before you post – once you share something it cannot be erased even if you delete it, someone else may have screenshots etc.
- Do not accept friend requests from people you do not know
- Keep your personal information personal
- Never share your passwords
- Do not respond to online bullies
- Save the evidence of the bullying
- Speak to your parents or a teacher if you are being bullied online, or if you have witnessed bullying online
Prevention by Schools
- Establish firm policies regarding the use of technology and unacceptable behaviour
- Teach kids that the same rules that apply offline apply online too
- Teach students how to be safe online
- Openly discuss bullying and cyberbullying in class
- Supervise students use of on-site computers
- Encourage students to report online bullying to a teacher or staff member
- Give students a voice by letting them play a role in decision making e.g. which sites do they find useful and which sites are a distraction and should be blocked when in class
- Make the most of community resources when necessary
- Encourage education regarding online safety for all teachers and staff members
- Make parents aware of the online risks including cyberbullying
Prevention by Social Media Platforms
- Respond to reports quickly
- Take complaints seriously
- Enforce the age restriction
- Teach young users how to be safe online
- Take tougher actions on those who disregard the rules
Cyberbullying is a complex issue that impacts many young people in a variety of ways. Due to the nature of the online world it can be very difficult to monitor what is going on and young people tend to be particularly private and defensive when it comes to their social media accounts. However, cyberbullying is a very real issue and one that is getting worse as more and more youngsters take to social media.
Powering off, which may be the first-response solution to some, is not the answer. We mentioned this briefly previously due to the isolation that it would bring. Being online has become a very important part of young people’s lives and plays a significant role in their socialising and communications with each other. Therefore, a far more sustainable approach is educating young people about not only the dangers of being online but also how to behave appropriately online.
Educating children, teachers and parents about cyberbullying can help in preventing it and increase the efficiency of handling any issues. Education will also open the lines of communication between youngsters and their parents. Getting the conversation started, whether it’s in the classroom or between parents and their children, is a vital step in dealing with the problem.
It’s not just about knowing the dangers and what to do if you are being bullied online. It’s also important to discuss the consequences of actually being the one bullying someone else. It seems many students feel there is less responsibility when you say something online as oppose to saying it in person, this leads to people saying and posting things they would never actually say in person. By talking about the danger and consequences it can help young people understand that, even online, their words and actions impact others.
Due to the extent and reach that cyberbullying has, there needs to be a multi-layered approach to solving the problem. Schools, parents, students, social media platforms and law enforcement (in some circumstances) all have a role to play in helping to prevent cyberbullying from occurring.
Cyberbullying YouTube Videos
Internet Safety – a short film, this film covers the topics around giving out personal information, how to use your personal photos and maintaining private social media accounts to prevent any malicious behaviour.
The Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (UK Police division) have put together a short film where kids (suited for ages 8-10) share their insights on day to day behaviour around social media, mobile phones and how that impacts behaviour in schools.
We’ve also created an embeddable version of this page in the form of a video that you can share if you prefer to read via video
To embed this video on your site simply copy-paste this URL.
If you’re looking for more information on eSafety, Cyberbullying & Children’s wellbing in general, here are some useful websites we’ve put together:
ChildNet International – Childnet works to ensure that the internet is a great and safe place for children and young people.
StopBullying.gov – Provides information from various government agencies on what bullying is, what cyberbullying is, who is at risk, and how you can prevent and respond to bullying.
Bullying.co.uk – Whether you’re a child being bullied, a mum struggling with their teenager, or a dad who needs some extra support coping, Family Lives are here for you; on the phone, online and in person through our supportive groups and befriending services.
KidsHealth.org (Nemours) – Nemours is a nonprofit children’s health system. Neil Izenberg, MD, a physician at Nemours, founded KidsHealth.org in 1995. Our goal is to help parents, kids, and teens take charge of their health.
InternetMatters.org – Non-for-profit organisation that has a simple purpose – to empower parents and carers to keep children safe in the digital world. Learn more about why we do, what we do.
Anti-bullyingalliance.org.uk – The Anti-Bullying Alliance is a coalition of organisations and individuals that are united against bullying.
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