10 Steps to Help Your Child Prevent and Address Cyberbullying
Your tween or teenager spends a lot of time on the internet, smart phones, and video games. I’m sure you wonder if this is ok, but you trust your child and you know this is common among their peers. In this digital era, technology has become intertwined with socialization, education, creativity, and play. And it is always available. In addition, the COVID-19 pandemic increased the use on virtual social interactions as the main form of interacting among peers. Close friends, acquaintances, friends of friends, and even bullies have constant access to them through digital devices.
What is Cyberbullying?
Cyberbullying is defined as repetitive and non-accidental harm that is perpetrated through the digital world via electronic devices.1 It can include name calling, threats, rumor spreading, sharing of explicit images, and so on. Cyberbullying is pervasive and may take advantage of anonymity and large audiences of the virtual world.2
The 2019 Youth Risk Behavior Survey identified that 20% of high school students were bullied on school property and that 16% were cyberbullied.3 However, some data has suggested that most teens have been victims of some form of cyberbullying. Furthermore, 85% of those involved in cyberbullying are also involved in traditional bullying4 and many victims of cyberbullying are at higher risk of becoming perpetrators later on.5
How does Cyberbullying Affect Mental Health?
Tweens and teens are vulnerable to the negative impacts of cyberbullying. It can be emotionally and psychologically devastating for youths Research has indicated that 94% of tweens that have been victims of cyberbullying reported that it negatively impacted their life.2 Victims are at higher risk of developing depression, self-harm, suicide attempts, substance abuse, and anxiety.6, 7, 8 Despite the negative impact, many teens and tweens may be reluctant to discuss their experience with cyberbullying with their parents or adults. And it can be challenging for parents and families to detect and intervene. Therefore, ensuring that you know how to talk to your child about this is of utmost importance.
Cyberbullying Among Marginalized Populations
There has been more emerging research looking at cyberbullying's impact on mental health among minorities. A study was looked at high school students in Hawaii that are of Asian and Pacific Islander descent and found that cyberbullying is common and causes serious potential consequences that includes youth reporting feeling badly about themselves.9 A cross sectional study was done on 1,031 adolescents and assessed the prevalence of cyberbullying among minority populations compared to non-minority in an emergency room setting. Sexual orientation and increased use of social media were found to be significantly correlated with higher incidence of cyberbullying.10
10 Steps to Help Your Child
As a technology consultant and child psychiatrist, Jacques Ambrose, M.D. often receives inquiries from parents about how to protect their children from cyberbullying. In response, he has developed the following guidelines to help parents approach their children about cyberbullying:
- Focus on the relationship with your child – In combating cyberbullying, one of the most important tools for parents is cultivating their relationships with their children. Many youths have mentioned to Dr. Ambrose that when they inevitably encounter problems, they are unsure if they could turn to their parents/guardians for help: Would they be met with yelling and screaming or guidance and support? Do your children share exciting news about their new friends, seek comfort when there are disappointments in their friendships, or ask for help in potentially perilous social situations? If you are uncertain of the answer, lean into the discomfort and ask your children for specific ways to build better communication.
- Underscore the pillar of safety – As children navigate their own interactions at different stages of their lives, they may attempt new experiences without recognizing the consequences. In navigating your involvement in your children’s social world, it is helpful to emphasize and contextualize your priority as safety.
- Acknowledge the necessity of virtual social interactions – Given the vast variety of social media platforms, it is futile and unhelpful for parents to know and block them all. As a result, aim to cultivate a curiosity about your children’s virtual social interactions as a way to better inform yourself and build connections with your child.
- Establish a regular routine for checking in – Try to create a foundation of trust, openness, and security by proactively establishing a regular schedule to ask about your child’s social interactions. For example, ask about your child’s friends and online experiences during a weekly one-on-one parent-child lunch.
- Validate your child’s emotions – When your child does share about their social lives, you can reinforce further sharing by listening emphatically and mirroring your children’s emotions. For example, “This morning, you said that John sent you a message calling you a demeaning name. It seems to deeply hurt your feelings. Since you considered John a friend, it must have felt like a betrayal.”
- Give your rationale if there will be restrictions – In certain situations, it can be appropriate for parents and guardians to impose healthy boundaries. However, by taking the time to explain your rationale, you can link the restrictions to the concerning behaviors, further reinforcing the focus of safety. For example, “I've noticed you spending a lot of time on Instagram and often comparing yourself to people you see on Instagram, and it seems to bring you down. Could we agree on a limit on Instagram time?”
- Seek your child’s inputs in building a safer online presence – Leaning on your children’s inputs signals that you respect their individuality and growing adulthood and can foster parent-child trust for future social situations. For example, “Since reading the mean comments on your Youtube videos really upset you, I worry about how they may be affecting your emotions. Do you think we should disable the comment section or take a break from Youtube all together?”
- Avoid overly harsh punishments/restrictions – Extreme restrictions and punishments may exacerbate the anxiety in your child for fear of further restrictions, and it may deter them from informing you about precarious situations. For example, in lieu of taking away your child’s internet access for a month, consider a shorter duration or having ways that they can regain access by demonstrating safe and appropriate internet-related behaviors.
- Recognize warning signs – Parents and guardians should be mindful of signs and symptoms where cyberbullying may have already occurred. Depending on the developmental age, children may express irritability and anxiety surrounding online situations. Some children may have trouble with schoolwork. . In severe cases, some children may exhibit severe mood symptoms such as, hopelessness, profoundly depressed mood, or expressing self-harm and suicidal statements and acts.
- Seek professional assistance in refractory and/or dangerous situations – In any situation where you are concerned about significant distress and mental health impacts on your child consider reaching out to a mental health professional, such as a child and adolescent psychiatrist, for help. In certain situations, it will be essential to involve the school or the social media platforms to intervene on the cyberbullying behaviors by blocking or banning the offenders. In particularly predatory situations, parents and guardians may even consider legal involvement. However, the crux of all these interventions should centralize around protecting the child.
Although navigating the quagmires of virtual social interactions and cyberbullying can be daunting, parents and guardians can model appropriate boundaries and effective communications for their children. Given the ever-changing nature of the internet and social media, investing in building a trusting foundation and framework to maneuver uncomfortable conversations can pay dividends for future parent-child interactions and can help your child manage the challenges of growing up in a digital world.
By Jacques Ambrose, M.D., M.P.H., Rana Elmaghraby, M.D., and Stephanie Garayalde, M.D.
on behalf of the APA Council on Children, Adolescents, and their Families
- Cyberbullying Research Center: https://cyberbullying.org/what-is-cyberbullying
- Hinduja, S. & Patchin, J. W. (2021). Cyberbullying Identification, Prevention, and Response. Cyberbullying Research Center (cyberbullying.org).
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report Supplement on the 2019 National Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS). MMWR.2019;69(SS-01). https://www.cdc.gov/healthyyouth/data/yrbs/pdf/YRBSDataSummaryTrendsReport2019-508.pdf
- Khan, F., Limbana, T., Zahid, T., Eskander, N., & Jahan, N. (2020). Traits, Trends, and Trajectory of Tween and Teen Cyberbullies. Cureus, 12(8), e9738. https://doi.org/10.7759/cureus.9738
- Yudes, C., Rey, L., & Extremera, N. (2020). Predictive Factors of Cyberbullying Perpetration amongst Spanish Adolescents. International journal of environmental research and public health, 17(11), 3967. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph17113967
- Englander E, Donnerstein E, Kowalski R, Lin CA, Parti K. Defining Cyberbullying. Pediatrics. 2017 Nov;140(Suppl 2):S148-S151. doi: 10.1542/peds.2016-1758U. PMID: 29093051.
- John, A., Glendenning, A. C., Marchant, A., Montgomery, P., Stewart, A., Wood, S., Lloyd, K., & Hawton, K. (2018). Self-Harm, Suicidal Behaviours, and Cyberbullying in Children and Young People: Systematic Review. Journal of medical Internet research, 20(4), e129. https://doi.org/10.2196/jmir.9044
- Zhu, C., Huang, S., Evans, R., & Zhang, W. (2021). Cyberbullying Among Adolescents and Children: A Comprehensive Review of the Global Situation, Risk Factors, and Preventive Measures. Frontiers in public health, 9, 634909. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpubh.2021.634909
- Goebert, D. Else, I. Matsu, C., et al. The impact of cyberbullying on substance use and mental health in a multiethnic sample. Matern Child Health J, 2011 Nov;15(8):1282-6.
- Duarte, C., Pittman, S. K., Thorsen, M. M., Cunningham, R. M., & Ranney, M. L. (2018). Correlation of Minority Status, Cyberbullying, and Mental Health: A Cross-Sectional Study of 1031 Adolescents. Journal of Child and Adolescent Trauma, 11(1), 39–48. https://doi.org/10.1007/s40653-018-0201-4