Cyberbullying: Warning Signs for Parents and Providers
In a simple black and white video on YouTube, a girl tells her story in hand-written flash cards against a soundtrack of somber piano. The first card she holds says, “Hello!” in girlish writing, the exclamation point dotted with a heart. The girl only shows part of her face, letting her cards tell her story, but she looks like she’s smiling at first. Over the next eight minutes, though, she details her “never-ending story” of abuse, betrayal, stalking and shame at the hands of her peers - her cyberbullying story. As the video draws to a close, she laments, “I have nobody…I need someone.” Less than a month after posting the video, a month before her sixteenth birthday, Amanda Todd would take her own life.
Bullying – the act of using force, threat or coercion to abuse, control or isolate another person – has been around since the dawn of time, but cyberbullying is a new and rapidly growing threat. Quite simply, cyberbullying is bullying-by-electronic-device and can include posting rumors about a person, making threats, posting photos, revealing victims' personal information and more. The ease and anonymity of cyberbullying make it more common than “traditional” forms of bullying – and much more dangerous. In a 2015 paper published by the Cyberbullying Research Center, authors Samir Hinduja, PhD and David Patchin, PhD found that 34 percent of middle schoolers reported being a victim of some form of cyberbullying, and 15 percent reporting being the perpetrator of cyberbullying. The authors also found that cyberbullying victims were 1.9 times more likely and cyberbullying offenders were 1.5 times more likely to have attempted suicide than those who were not cyberbullying victims or offenders.
Cyberbullying is not only growing in prevalence, but many adolescents who experience it don’t report it. Hinduja and Patchin provide some warning signs that might indicate a child is engaged in bullying, but also caution that not all youth who are cyberbullied or who cyberbully others will display these signs, and some who do show these signs may have other problems in their lives that should be addressed. Parents and caregivers should take the time to investigate further if they see any of these red flags:
A child may be a target of cyberbullying if he or she:
- unexpectedly stops using their device(s)
- appears nervous or jumpy when using their device(s)
- appears uneasy about going to school or outside in general
- appears to be angry, depressed or frustrated after going online (including gaming)
- is oversleeping or not sleeping enough
- becomes abnormally withdrawn from usual friends and family members
- shows increase or decrease in eating
- seems regularly depressed
- makes passing statements about suicide or the meaninglessness of life
- loses interest in the things that mattered most to them
- avoids discussions about what they are doing online
- frequently calls or texts from school requesting to go home ill
- desires to spend much more time with parents rather than peers
- becomes unusually secretive, especially when it comes to online activities
Your child may be cyberbullying others if he or she:
- quickly switches screens or hides their device when you are close by
- uses their device(s) at all hours of the night
- gets unusually upset if they can’t use their device(s)
- laughs excessively while using their device(s) and won’t show you what is so funny
- avoids discussions about what they are doing online
- seems to be using multiple online accounts or an account that is not their own
- is dealing with increased behavioral issues or disciplinary actions at school (or elsewhere)
- appears overly concerned with popularity or continued presence in a particular social circle or status
- demonstrates increasing insensitivity or callousness toward other teens
- starts to hang out with the “wrong” crowd
- demonstrates violent tendencies
- appears overly conceited as to their technological skills and abilities
- is increasingly withdrawn or isolated from the family
Another challenge for parents is deciphering the wealth of social media apps and venues that adolescents use. Parents may be on Facebook and Twitter, but their kids are often elsewhere, using apps their parents have never even heard of! For example:
- Askfm: A social networking site that allows users to ask other people questions, often anonymously.
- Chatroulette: There are over 20 different chat roulette sites that allow users to instantly connect via webcam and video chat. Sites typically pair the users randomly and instantly.
- Kik: Messaging app that allows users of all ages to contact others anonymously.
- Line: A messaging app that allows users to make free phone calls, leave voice messages and text. Users can delete texts or chats from recipient’s phone using a timer.
- Reddit: A site that stores social news, rates and evaluates web content and discussion threads.
- Sarahah: An anonymous messaging app that allows users to send anonymous messages to people they may know.
- Snapchat: A photo messaging app that allows for sharing pictures and short videos that are intended to be erased shortly after delivery.
- Telegram: Messaging app that allows users to share photos, videos and files; make calls and delete texts or chats from recipient’s phone using a timer.
- Tumblr: A social networking site that allows posting of short blogs and media.
- WeChat: An app that allows user to chat with friends, and to search for people nearby and around the globe.
- WhatsApp: A private messaging app that allows users to text, send photos, videos and location information to their contacts.
In the past, bullying behavior was often excused as an unpleasant but normal part of growing up. “Boys will be boys,” they would say. With the growth in cyberbullying, and the resulting increase in self-harm and suicidality among those who experience some form of cyberbullying, parents and caregivers must be aware, informed and keep open lines of communication to protect the kids they love.
References and Resources
Stopbullying.gov: A federal government website managed by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Cyberbullying Research Center: A website dedicated to providing up-to-date information about the nature, extent, causes, and consequences of cyberbullying among adolescents.
The Megan Meier Foundation: Organization founded by the mother of a cyberbullying victim who took her own life, to support and inspire actions to end bullying, cyberbullying, and suicide.
MyDigitalTat2: Organization that facilitates conversations that inspire safe, ethical, and conscious digital use by educating people about their power and responsibility in our connected world.