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Cyberbullying: Important Information for Parents

Experiencing bullying is challenging and upsetting. It's one of those situations that may negatively impact a person's mental health and can alter the path a person takes, depending on how the situation is handled.

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 who are off-line. The negative effect, though, is no less significant, on children and adolescents. In fact, online bullying—cyberbullying—is the most common negative situation that can happen while spending time in the online space to any of our kids.

What Makes Cyberbullying So Challenging?

Kids do not report it to adults and do not want to rat out their friends. To add insult to injury, schools may not always 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 or changes in behavior:

  • Not wanting to go to school or an activity
  • Becoming upset after using the computer or cell phone
  • Seeming more sad, withdrawn, or moodier than usual
  • Avoiding questions from you about what is 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 do not recognize.

As with all childhood changes from usual behavior, anything that is extreme and interfering with home, school, and friends warrants further review. 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 is on the rise due to technologic changes in our culture. The ease of access coupled with technology is part of the issue. The indirect nature of the Internet allows kids to be mean, because of the faceless power that the screen builds in. Being online also 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 has learned about cyberbullying by instant message (IM), e-mail, and texting. Her best advice to parents is to take all threats any child tells them about 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 gone on
  • Talk to school staff and be prepared to help if school staff are not sure how 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 and tools to figure out how to be safe and prevent them from being hurt physically and emotionally.  . Adults must listen."

Any child spending time 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 you may want to consider using  special software monitoring programs that help you uncover situations that your child may not know how to talk to you about to  help make conversations that kids find very difficult more easy 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.

​For More Information

The AAP has an Internet Safety site that provides resources from the AAP and other organizations to help kids, teens and families use websites and social media safely. In addition to recommendations from pediatricians, the SafetyNet site has a Family Media Use Form, and links to external sites including On Guard Online (an comprehensive guide to being smart and safe online) and NetSmartz (an interactive, educational safety resource). Click here to visit SafeyNet.

Additional Resources

Gwenn Schurgin O’Keeffe, MD, FAAP
Last Updated
Adapted from 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.
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