Bullying is an old problem that remains difficult to bring under control, in part because technology offers new ways for kids to pick on one another. Indeed, cyberbullying can extend the reach and power of some of the worst bullies, subjecting kids to taunts from beyond their own schools and neighborhoods.
Cyberbullying also means the problem can be constant — gone are the days when kids just dreaded an encounter on the bus or during the schoolday. Through cell phone texts, emails, and social media sites, bullies can torment their victims 24 hours a day. Picked-on kids can feel like they're getting blasted nonstop and that there is no escape.
Because many kids are reluctant to report being bullied, even to their parents, it's impossible to know just how many are affected. But it's estimated that one third of teens have been victims of some form of online bullying. Yet they often don't realize it happens to so many of their peers, adding to their sense of isolation.
As the pressure builds, victims can experience anxiety, depression, and other stress-related disorders. As recent well-publicized cases have shown, some kids and teens ended their lives to escape bullying. Experts say that kids who are bullied — and the bullies themselves — are at an elevated risk for suicidal thoughts, attempts, and completed suicides.
What This Means to You
Parents are often desperate to help when their kids are bullied. It's hard enough to combat the typical schoolyard thug — so what can be done about the sometimes anonymous tormentors who strike from behind a computer screen?
Warning signs of cyberbullying to watch for can include:
- emotional distress during or after using the Internet
- withdrawal from friends and family members
- avoidance of school or group gatherings
- slipping grades and "acting out" in anger at home
- changes in mood, behavior, sleep, or appetite
- wanting to stop using the computer or cell phone
- appearing nervous or jumpy when getting an instant message or email
- avoiding discussions about computer or cell phone activities
Why don't kids tell their parents about cyberbullying? Despite the torment they might find online, they still want to be connected to friends and are afraid they'll lose their online privileges. So it's important for parents to reassure them that they won't lose their access, though what transpires online should be carefully monitored. When possible, block the bully from your child's online groups and profiles, and on cell phones and email accounts.
Encourage your child not to respond, because doing so just fuels the fire and makes the situation worse. But do keep the threatening messages, pictures, and texts, as these can be used as evidence with the bully's parents, school, employer, or even the police. Also consider involving officials at your child's school, especially if the bully also goes there.
And if your son or daughter is doing the bullying, take steps to end the negative behavior. Explain that joking and teasing might seem harmless but can hurt feelings and lead to serious consequences at home, school, and in the community. If it continues, put tracking or filtering software on the computer, impose restrictions on computer and cell phone use, and consider having your child talk with a counselor.
Reviewed by: Larissa Hirsch, MD
Date reviewed: December 2010