Cyberbullying and Parenting: Back to the BASICS

As a parent, you might feel ill-equipped to respond to cyberbullying. You're not alone. A 2009 survey (www.netsmartz411.org) indicated that 84% of parents do not know how to respond to cyberbullying. If you didn't grow up in the online world, you may be unfamiliar with certain technologies and “cyberspeak.” You may be convinced that you were born a generation too late to relate to current online etiquette or to know what behaviors are appropriate. Even if you are internet savvy, you may be astounded by how easily young children adopt and adapt each new advance in technology.

You may also be dealing with the biggest roadblock to feelings of parental competency: your adolescent. Many teens, as they try to separate themselves from authority figures, make it their mission to keep their online world – with all its positive and frightening attributes – their own. In doing so, they faithfully follow in the footsteps of myriad teens before them who posted DO NOT ENTER signs on their bedroom doors, spent hours whispering to friends on the phone, and wrote their journal entries in code.

That knowledge should help today's parents take heart. Because while bullying has now taken on a new dimension, the behavior itself is ancient. Parents should not feel powerless; instead, you should feel confident about responding in ways that are familiar and in concert with your own well-established parenting values and style.

Remind yourself to rely upon the basic strategies you successfully employ on a day-to-day basis: NURTURE your children, provide STRUCTURE that is developmentally sound, and JOIN your children in their world in appropriate ways.

Nurture Your Children

Before we can nurture children around the issue of cyberbullying, we must first know how to recognize it.

Cyberbullying is defined as a word, action, or other electronic communication or behavior that is:

  1. Aggressive, cruel and/or threatening
  2. Repetitive
  3. Characterized as an imbalance of physical, psychological, and/or emotional power. The power advantage may be due to social status, age, size, ability, and/or popularity. (I would add that anonymity adds to the power advantage.)

Note that except for the addition of the word “electronic,” the definition could be describing bullying we have all witnessed, experienced, or perpetrated. By focusing on the familiar, we remain empowered to confront bullying in its newest form.

If, as a parent, you do not want your child to be aggressive, cruel, or threatening in the off-line world, what do you do? Or, if your child is experiencing threats or cruelty from others in the off-line world, how do you respond?

You might begin by thinking about the age of your child and ask, Is this behavior or privilege developmentally appropriate? For instance, a four-year-old may hit other children just to experiment with reactions and responses, and an eleven-year-old may laugh when another child is ridiculed. While we may not like these behaviors, they are developmentally appropriate, and they do provide us with teaching opportunities. But does your child repeat such actions without remorse? Or is he/she consistently on the receiving end of such abuse? In either case, it is time for you to step in with appropriate measures, such as re-direction, modeling expected behavior, discussion, positive discipline, and/or consequences.

And so it goes when there is an early question of cyberbullying, whether your child is a potential victim or bully (or witness/bystander). Remind him about your family values regarding friendship and respect for self and others –  and reiterate that those values apply whether you are dealing with in-person or online relationships. Be a role model for him; do not use the internet as a place to carry out – or accept – cruel, aggressive, or threatening behavior. Encourage him to come to you for non-judgmental assistance if he runs into trouble. And help your child have successful, safe online relationships by offering guidance and appropriate oversight, and by setting limits. In other words, provide structure.

Provide Structure

In order to provide meaningful structure, you must become familiar with the online world of your child. What do you really know about your child's internet use?

Ask yourself:

  • How much time does my child spend on the computer?
  • Do I know her favorite sites?
  • Does he have a Facebook or MySpace page? What's in his profile? Who are his online friends?
  • Is our home computer kept in a central, high-traffic area?
  • Am I (or another adult) aware and nearby when my child uses the computer? (Not surprisingly, research indicates that bullying, online or off, is not likely to occur in adult presence.)

Just as you would ask about her school day or attend her basketball game, show friendly interest in your child's online activity. Ask her what she likes about the internet world, what she likes to do online, what her friends do online. Visit some of the sites frequented by your child and other children her age.

Once you begin to feel educated about your child's internet use, decide what structures can be put into place that reflect and reinforce your family values. Use the same familiar criteria you consider when you set your child's “real world” privileges and limits, such as age, relative maturity, problem-solving skills, reliability, and so on. Weigh his desire to use the computer versus legitimate need (homework, reasonable peer networking). Take into account the developmental changes that may affect your child's online use: A six-year-old may not “push the envelope” while exploring the basic internet features of your cell phone or your computer, but an eleven-year-old may not be able to resist the lure of off-limit sites. An independent high school student who maintains good grades and is working to save money for college may understandably resist any parental attempt to oversee internet use, while you, understandably, want to keep her safe. Be ready and willing to reevaluate limits and privileges in response to growth and appropriate and inappropriate behaviors.

As you might with off-line limit setting, ask your child what he thinks are reasonable limits. You may not follow the advice given you by your child, but allowing him to participate in limit setting often opens lines of communication. Despite protestations, children of all ages need and want to feel safe and protected, and they depend on you to provide structure and a web of safety.

Remind your child that although internet use seems ordinary and expected to them, the online world is actually still young and evolving. Where parents once taught their children “not to put anything in writing you may regret,” today's children must understand that anything posted on the internet can live forever, in ever new and misrepresented forms. Personal information and photos intended to be shared only with one's closest friends can quickly be passed around the world. Natural consequences of your child's internet carelessness or naiveté could be strangers on her Facebook page and danger at her door. Therefore, parental limits and consequences must be clear and firm. You must be consistent with enforcement.

Get help with that enforcement. Let other caregivers and family members know the limits you have set for online behavior and check on compliance. Inform friends, the parents of your child’s friends, and teachers about the guidelines for online behavior in your family.

Then, expect that even the best limit setting and structures will be tested. Intervene when necessary without overreacting. Keep the lines of communication open so you and your child can navigate the online world and combat cyberbullying together.

Join Your Children in the Internet World

In order to nurture and guide a child, it is important to become part of her world. When we want to be sure to have a toddler's attention, we kneel down to her level. To know what she's interested in and how she's developing, we don't just observe her from afar; we get down on the floor and play with her and spend time with her. In the same way, if we approach our older children at their level we'll improve our communication and increase our knowledge of them. So how can you become a participant in your child's online world?

Does your child have a Facebook page? If so, then you should have one, too. Learn how to use it and “friend” your child. Check out MySpace.com if this is a site your child or his friends use. In either case, don't abuse these golden opportunities to be part of his world. If you scrutinize every aspect of his page, and comment on his “conversations” with his friends, he will quickly shut you out. Choose your battles wisely and intervene only when necessary – just as you would in the off-line world. Remember, not every indiscretion is potentially life-altering; let your child be a child. Respect his privacy, unless he gives you reason to reevaluate.

If your child is a fan of a particular TV show, like American Idol, ask her if she visits any official or fan-run web sites. Take a look to see what sort of conversations, language, photos, etc., may be posted there. This is a great opportunity to engage her in conversation about her favorite artists and music styles, and to talk about how fans can share views in appropriate, non-offensive ways.

You may also introduce your child to sites you like, or sites that have family-friendly or educational games. Perhaps you both like the books of a particular author, and you can check out the web site together. Your choices will remind him of your personal values.

There are many monitoring programs one can be install on a computer, which can help you depersonalize potentially charged situations of inappropriate internet use. Decide if this is an appropriate strategy for your family computer. Don't, however, let a program take the place of your parenting. Monitors alone cannot keep children safe, or prevent bullying behaviors.

Don't be afraid to do a little investigating if you suspect that your child is getting in over his head or is involved in bullying. Learn to recognize the e-mail addresses and screen names of his “real world” friends, and keep an eye out for unusual or unfamiliar names. You can Google the names of people you are unsure of to learn more about them. Check your computer's history to see what sites are visited often. Look into excessive or unexpected phone charges.

Remember, you don't have to sort out this strange, new, ever-changing world without help; old-fashioned networking is still a reliable resource. Ask other parents how they stay connected with their children's online lives. Drawing on each others' experiences, brainstorm ideas for dealing with safety issues. Attend a community seminar on children's online use, safety, and cyberbullying. Ask your child's school to invite an expert to visit and educate parents about internet concerns. Establish a partnership with the school, and become an active participant in designing and reinforcing school internet safety and cyberbullying policies.

Perhaps most importantly, you can be an active participant in your child's online life by paying close attention to her off-line life. Watch for changes in behavior that may be symptoms of a problem in either world. Ask teachers, coaches, and other adults who know your child well to let you know if they notice any odd or worrisome developments.

The following questions may help you be aware of behaviors or behavioral changes that may indicate trouble online or off, including bullying.

  • Does your child spend over-long hours on the computer?
  • Is she seeming to shy away from all computer use?
  • Does he close the computer screen when you enter the room or come near? (Keep a log of how often this happens. It is good to have details and facts when you engage in conversations about concerns.)
  • Is she secretive about internet activities?
  • Is he expressing body aches or pains or visiting the school nurse more often?
  • Is she dressing in a manner that is unfamiliar to you?
  • Is he acting out aggression at home?
  • Does she cry more?
  • Have you noticed changes in his eating and/or sleeping behaviors?
  • Does she not want to go out of the house as much as usual?
  • Does he go out with new friends he won't bring home for you to meet?
  • Has she lost interest in longtime friends or hobbies?
  • Have his grades slipped?

If you notice any of these – or other – troubling behaviors, engage your child in conversations about your observations. If something major is going on, it may take some time for her to open up to you. Let her know that you are always available to listen, and that you are there to help her; no matter what the issue, she doesn't have to face it or solve it alone. You should also empower her to turn to other trusted adults, because sometimes children are afraid of disappointing or burdening their parents. When you have gathered all the details you can, determine your course of action. If the problem turns out to be minor, you may simply have to restructure her privileges and limits. But, if cyberbullying or some other issue is involved, you may need to contact outside resources: school, other adults in the community, and even the police.
Since people first became parents, each new generation of mothers and fathers has had to learn to guide their children through the new and unknown, and that holds true today. But what also holds true are the time-tested parenting skills of nurturing, providing structure, and joining your child in appropriate ways. Turn and return to them as you help your child navigate the many incredible worlds that are his or hers to explore.

Back to the Basics... Principles that Help Prevent Cyberbullying

  1. Know your child, and watch for warning signs of cyberbulling.
  2. Reinforce family values around being a friend and respect for all individuals regardless of differences.
  3. Set limits for computer use and be consistent.
  4. Get educated about the cyberworld and continue to learn more. The online world is changing rapidly and it is important to keep abreast of changes and the implications for parenting and preventing cyberbulling.
  5. Talk with your child about online use. Listen to your child and your child’s friends about current trends for online use.
  6. Establish a partnership with the school about cyberbullying. Learn the school policies and become an active participant in reinforcing and designing cyberbullying programs.
  7. Teach your child to how to report cyberbullying to trusted adults.
  8. NURTURE your child and your relationship; Provide STRUCTURE for internet use that is developmentally appropriate; JOIN your child and the community to prevent CYBERBULLING.

Disclaimer: Material on the MSPP INTERFACE® Referral Service website is intended as general information. It is not a recommendation for treatment, nor should it be considered medical or mental health advice. The MSPP INTERFACE® Referral Service urges families to discuss all information and questions related to medical or mental health care with a health care professional.