How to Address Cyberbullying with Children and Parents

Cyberbullying is become a household name, yet many clinicians and parents find it difficult to discuss the topic with children.

During the past year, there have been a number of high-profile cases in which adolescents and young adults who were victims of cyberbullying committed suicide. But despite the flood of media coverage on the topic, many child psychiatrists, pediatricians, and parents don’t feel comfortable discussing the topic with children.

At a presentation held Thursday, Oct. 28, at the AACAP 57th Annual Meeting in New York, NY, Elizabeth K. Englander, PhD, director of the Massachusetts Aggression Reduction Center, addressed the issue, providing tips and talking points for broaching the subject with both pediatric patients and their parents.

It is critical, she said, for providers to understand that through the proliferation of smartphones, social networking has become an extremely important part of children’s lives. In fact, research conducted at MARC found that 51% of kids reported feeling pressured to stay in touch electronically. It may not seem like a big deal to parents, but to kids, being "out of touch" can result in high levels of anxiety.

Because there is a significant disconnect between how children use smartphones, and how parents think they are using them, communication on the topic can be difficult. Therefore, Englander offered the following advice for clinicians in discussing the issue with parents and children.

Tip 1: Don’t be afraid of cyber issues

Clinicians don’t have to possess technological know-how to speak with children about their Internet and cell phone habits; in fact, said Englander, children might open up more willingly if they believe they are teaching an adult about how they utilize their phone.

Questions to ask kids:

  • Do you have a cell phone? Do you use it for texting? When you have problems because of texting, do you do you talk with your parents about it? Do you have an online profile, and if so, are private settings in place? Have you been ridiculed or embarrassed online?

Talking points for parents:

  • Be aware of what your child can do with a smartphone (including texting and using the Internet)
  • Be sure kids know that the “fun” uses of computers are a privilege, not a right, and decide on the rules that need to be followed for that privilege
  • Talk with kids about cyberbullying, sexting, and privacy before you think there is a problem (if you bring up these issues with children, they are more likely to approach you if there is a problem)
  • Understand that kids will say horrible things online that they would never say in person

Tip 2: Most cyberbullying is about small issues

The problems most children encounter with cyberbullying include name-calling, deliberating ignoring each other, and spreading false rumors. This, she said, should be parents’ primary concern, rather than issues like death threats that are actually very rare.

Clinicians should ask children what types of bullying they see at school and online and ask what they think about it, and urge parents to tell their children that they want to hear about the problems—even if they seem minor.

Tip 3: Start the discussion long before the teen years

According to Englander, 72% of first graders are online, and cyberbullying starts in elementary school; therefore, parents can’t wait until a children is in seventh grade to broach the subject.

Questions for kids:

  • What type of games do you play? Are there ever any problems? Did you learn about cyberbullying in school? What did you learn? Do you know what the rules are for online game safety?

Points for parents:

  • Start online education before kids are given computer or phone access, and make sure that your children understand that you expect nice behavior everywhere, including online. Have kids make a safety rules sheet with you and post it above the computer. And finally, think carefully about buying a cell phone for elementary school kids a cell phone (and if you do, disable text messaging).

Tip 4: Focus more on girls

Data show that while boys tend to be focused mainly on online gaming, girls gravitate to social networking, which unlike gaming, is not a structure activity, said Englander. Her research has also found that girls tend to take cyberbullying personally, which can lead them to feel isolated.

Parents, she said, need to explain to girls that posting a comment or photo online out of anger can be very costly in the long-term, and that they need to consider the consequences before doing this. They should also speak with kids about how to deal with conflicts in a way that doesn’t destroy the relationship.

Finally, clinicians need to avoid the following common mistakes:

  • Don’t tell parents if their child is bullying someone online, that it is because of something happening at home
  • Don’t denigrate what is important to children
  • Parents can encourage less screen time, but don’t advise them to remove electronics entirely. Kids need practice and guidance on how to use electronic communications effectively.
  • Don’t be afraid to involve law enforcement if necessary

Most importantly, it is important that parents keep an open line of communication, and make sure that their children are comfortable approaching them in the event that a problem occurs.