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Experiencing bullying is challenging and upsetting. It’s one of those situations that leaves a permanent mark on a person’s inner fabric and can forever alter the path a person takes, depending on how the situation is handled.

It’s no surprise that as more of life has become digital and online, bullies have gone there too. The problem with online bullies is that they are faceless and often harder to identify and stop than bullies in the off-line realm. The effect, though, is no less significant, especially on children. In fact, online bullying—cyberbullying—is the most common negative situation that can happen in the online space to any of our kids.

What makes cyberbullying so challenging?

Kids don’t report it to adults and don’t want to rat out their friends. To add insult to injury, schools uniformly don’t have great strategies for handling it.

How do you know if a child is being bullied?

It can be challenging to figure out. Look for subtle signs in behavior:

  • Not wanting to go to school or an activity
  • Becoming upset after using the computer or cell phone
  • Seeming unusually sad, withdrawn, or moody
  • Avoiding questions from you about what’s happening

Kids who bully may have similar signs, but you may notice unusual computer activity such as switching screens when you walk in or multiple log-ins that you don’t recognize.

As with all childhood changes from normative behavior, anything that’s extreme and interfering with home, school, and friends warrants further investigation. Call the school to see if grades are slipping, and call your pediatrician to arrange an evaluation including a discussion of whether it would be appropriate to obtain psychologic input.

Why is bullying on the rise?

Bullying expert and psychologist Joel Haber, PhD, notes that bullying is on the rise due to technologic changes in our culture. Dr Haber feels as other experts do that it’s the accessibility coupled with technology that is part of the issue. The indirect nature of the Internet allows even good kids to be mean because of the faceless power that the screen builds in. Dr Haber notes that “it’s easier to have fun at someone else’s expense” and that being online removes the empathy that face-to face contact creates.

Ross Ellis, founder and CEO, Love Our Children USA, a national nonprofit dedicated to stopping all violence against children, including bullying, agrees: “Cyberbullying is huge.” E-mails and calls she receives from families confirm the statistics, and she’s learned about cyberbullying by instant message (IM), e-mail, and texting. Her best advice to parents is to take all threats any child informs parents of seriously: “You don’t know the hatred of the bully.” She is so right about that. It is very important to evaluate all threats a child informs you of to determine the level of intensity and how much danger your child may be in.

What should parents do if their child is being bullied? 

  • Save all e-mails, IMs, and texts
  • Try to talk to the other parents and determine what may have transpired
  • Talk to the schools and be prepared for the schools not wanting to get involved

When to call the police

Call the police if the situation seems to place your child in serious danger with a significant threat, or the other parent will not help you.

Studies show that the child being bullied often knows the bully. The police can track the IP address to find the bully and keep your child safe, which is the ultimate goal. Even if your child claims to know the bully, knowing for sure by tracking the IP is the best insurance policy, as there have been cases of mistaken identity in the online world with people using other people’s computers and cell phones to send harmful messages and bully.

“If a child says he or she was bullied, take it seriously,” Ross told me. “That’s a form of violence against a child. It must be taken seriously and the child needs help to look into it and the tools to work it out. Adults must listen.”

Any child online is at risk for being bullied. Our off-line senses for detecting that something is off with our child will help us pick up that something may have occurred and questions should be asked. And monitoring programs that help you uncover situations that your child may not know how to talk to you about can help facilitate conversations that kids find very difficult to bring up to any adult, including parents.

It’s important to keep an open mind and listen without overreacting if your child comes to you with hard-to-hear information. And be on the lookout.


Gwenn Schurgin O’Keeffe, MD, FAAP
Last Updated
CyberSafe: Protecting and Empowering Kids in the Digital World of Texting, Gaming, and Social Media (Copyright © 2011 American Academy of Pediatrics)
The information contained on this Web site should not be used as a substitute for the medical care and advice of your pediatrician. There may be variations in treatment that your pediatrician may recommend based on individual facts and circumstances.