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Cyberbullying: talking to your children

Smoking, drinking, drugs, sex, and now cyber bullying - parents have yet another worry for the safety of their children. Cyber bullying, also called cyber harassment, involves the use of technology to send harassing messages that harm the recipients.

Technological forms of communication such as cell phones and the Internet are here to stay. We can send messages to one another more quickly and conveniently than ever before. We also spend a considerable amount of time using these devices. Our children in particular spend much of their time online: surveys have shown that 15% of 14-year-olds spend 5 hours per day on the Internet, with the large majority of the time spent playing games, surfing the web, sending e-mails, and instant messaging.

In addition, just under a third of 13- to 14-year-olds have a personal web site, and about 10% have an e-mail address their parents do not know about. Youth can develop hundreds of online relationships that range from casual acquaintanceship to close friendship. Essentially, youth have created a new culture in this cyber world, to which parents' access may be limited. Even parents who spend a lot of time online may find their child's online world is a subculture they are not privy to, where the prevailing values, norms, and attitudes are very different.

Your own values, norms, and attitudes about acceptable behaviour will certainly guide discussions with your children about computer use. What you say to your children will depend on their age, maturity, experience, and understanding about themselves and others. Here are some general tips that can help you and your child use the computer safely and, if necessary, deal with cyber bullying:

  • Talk about safe ways to use the computer, including Internet safety, privacy, and sharing information online. Discuss and agree on reasonable rules about computer use.
  • It will be easier to keep tabs on your child's computer use if you put the computer in a public place in the home, place two or more chairs close by, and set up a password that only parents know.
  • Get a sense of your child's online world. Take time to go to the sites your child visits, ask your child to navigate you through his online space, and enter the social meeting places your child frequents. In this way, you can experience what may be a very important part of your child's life.
  • Talk with your child about online behaviour and social interaction. A good rule of thumb is that you should not say or do anything online that you would not say or do in 'real life.' Online harassment is just as hurtful as real-life bullying, and neither is ever acceptable.

What do I say to my child who has received bullying messages?

Be diligent, but not obsessive, in looking for signs of cyberbullying. Does your child's behaviour seem different, with no obvious explanation? Is he more angry, sad, or anxious than usual, sleeping or eating more or less than usual, or avoiding his friends?

If a child tells you that he is being bullied online or you discover such messages, your first response may be a strong emotional reaction. However, expressing anger may leave your child feeling he is to blame. Instead, show your empathy by saying something supportive like "These seem like really hurtful messages" or offering a hug. Assure your child that no matter what has happened, he does not deserve to be treated this way.

Do not remove cell phone or computer privileges, as children will see this reaction as punishment.

Read materials on cyber bullying with your child and talk about what ideas seem helpful.

Consider arranging other opportunities for face-to-face visits with friends so your child feels less lonely. Participating in volunteer, sports, and other leisure activities with same-age peers may also help boost your child's self-confidence.

Talk to your friends about the issue and find out how they managed or would manage this type of situation. Seek support for yourself as well. Cyberbullying is a sensitive and hurtful behaviour: parents can feel hurt about it too.

Encourage your child to stay in control and not return harassment with angry or threatening messages. This type of revenge will likely exacerbate the harassment.

Consider talking to a teacher or principal at your child's school. First, discuss the pros and cons of this action with your child.

Many blogging and social networking sites offer various levels of privacy. If your child is receiving harassing messages on one of these sites, he may be able to increase the privacy levels, ban certain users or anonymous users from commenting, or only allow trusted friends to post messages.

Harassment violates the terms of service of most websites. If another user is persistently victimizing your child, your child should report that user to the site administrator.

In extreme cases, your child may change his username or start a new account, and only give the new information to trusted friends.

What do I say to my child who has sent bullying messages?

Children may send harassing messages for many reasons. Calmly ask about reasons for this behaviour, without grilling your child, and try to confirm the facts. If your child tries to minimize the messages, confront her with the impact it has on others. Address the reasons for the bullying - perhaps your child wanted revenge, does not like the person, or wanted to get attention from others. Discuss other ways of dealing with these problems.

Be sure to model positive behaviour for healthy conflict resolution: calm down, identify the problem, explore and evaluate solutions, then take action to resolve the conflict.

Use fair and reasonable consequences to discipline your child. These strategies should focus on repairing the harm that was done to the targeted child, if possible.

As much as possible, regularly monitor your child's online behaviour.

Invite family discussions about hurtful and acceptable behaviours. These discussions may be more meaningful at calm and quiet times of the day when everyone is relaxed. Emphasize everyone's rights to feel safe and respected, regardless of his or her characteristics.

Involve your child in volunteer, sports, or leisure activities she enjoys to encourage positive and prosocial interactions.

Communicate with your child's teacher to encourage consistent messages about bullying and harassment between home and school.

Make sure your child understands that what goes on the Internet stays on the Internet - forever. It may feel private because messages can be sent from a private location, but in fact it is the most public medium in existence.

What do I say to my child who has seen bullying messages?

Acknowledge the negative emotions that witnessing harassment or threats can have on your child. She may feel just as afraid and intimidated as the targeted child.

Encourage your children not to minimize the impact of harassing messages or threats they may see in chat rooms, web sites, and text messaging. Ignoring the messages leaves the victimized child thinking she deserves the attack and that no one cares enough to say anything.

Talk to your child about how to speak up in a safe way. Banding together with others and making a collective statement against harassment can have a powerful impact on the aggressor.

Discourage your child from taking matters into her own hands by sending threats in order to 'protect' a friend. She could become the next targeted victim.

Inform your child about the difference between tattling (ratting) and telling (reporting). When someone does not feel safe, is unable to make the harassment stop, and needs help, encourage your child to get help; this is reporting. Tell your child she may need to tell several people until something is done.

Give responsibility to your children: let them know that what they say to a targeted peer may have a greater impact than what adults say to them.

A final note for parents

In the past, what differentiated adults from children was the amount of knowledge we had access to. This has become reversed: youth now access more information, at a faster rate, than adults. Of concern is that they do not always have the maturity or problem-solving skills to manage the information and online relationships. Indeed, 'the future is friendly' only if we teach, model, and monitor technology use to ensure that it is used for good rather than harm.

For more information on bullying

Please see the AboutKidsHealth features on cyberbullying:  Part One and  Part Two.

Tanya Beran, PhD is a Registered Psychologist and Associate Professor  in the Department of Community Health Sciences, Faculty of Medicine, University of Calgary. Her research focuses on the bullying and cyberbullying.