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By Saneeha Shamshad, B.A

Meet Aleena. She’s a vibrant eighth-grader who loves reading, playing basketball, and hanging out with her friends. Since the pandemic began, much of her life has shifted online. Recently, Aleena’s mother, Fatima, has noticed some concerning changes in Aleena. She seems on the edge all the time and stays in her room more and more. She hasn’t been sleeping well and doesn’t care for her usual activities like playing basketball. While Aleena once enjoyed school, she now looks for any excuse to avoid her online classes. Like any teenager, Aleena could once be found glued to her phone– she now flinches at any notifications and has dropped off of her once active social media accounts. 

What is cyberbullying? What does it look like in today’s world of virtual learning? 

Fatima is observing classic signs of cyberbullying in her daughter. A once lively child has become a hollow version of her former self due to this new form of bullying. With more of our lives being online than ever due to the pandemic, internet access can provide children with a wealth of positive opportunities to enrich their education–but it also poses a threat to their wellbeing if mishandled. Now is a crucial time for parents to be well informed about what cyberbullying is, how to spot it, and how to support your child if he or she is being cyberbullied. The Family and Youth Institute is here to help with our newly updated bullying prevention toolkit. 

About 43% of kids experience cyberbullying (Stomp Out Bullying). A serious mistake many parents make is assuming that cyberbullying is less real and less hurtful, when in reality, it can prove to be a more vicious threat than in-person bullying. Cyberbullying allows the bully to stay anonymous, making it easier for them to evade any responsibility for their actions. This anonymity, coupled with how viral social media is, allows the bullying to quickly reach a higher level of intensity. Boundaries are crossed much more easily when the bully is hiding behind a screen– comments that are unthinkable in person become commonplace online. Cyberbullying isn’t just something a child can just walk away from; it has pervasive effects on a child’s emotional well-being, friendships, and feelings of self-worth. The solution is also complex because leaving social media may only serve to further isolate them. 

So how can you help your child have a healthy online presence? There are some strategies that you can share with your child for daily media use:

Encourage netiquette

  Remind your child that just as it’s important to be kind and courteous in person, extend the same manners online. They should be conscious and intentional about what they say online and never say anything online that they wouldn’t say in-person. Read more about netiquette and healthy social media habits through The FYI’s Digital Parenting Toolkit.

Keep an open-door policy

  It’s difficult for children to open up about being bullied, whether it’s online or offline. It’s essential for your child to feel comfortable about opening up to you.

Listen without judgement. Sometimes your child will just want someone to talk to–not a problem solver, and not a judge. Don’t blame or shame them when they come to you.

  Make time to have fun with your child. Your child needs to be able to see you as more than just an authority figure, but also as someone he or she can relax with–and then open up to when needed.  

Cyber stranger danger 

  Encourage your child to avoid speaking to strangers online, particularly adults. Teach them not to accept friend, follow, or DM (direct message) requests from people they or you don’t know. They should never tell someone your address or full name. Teach your children how to recognize if someone is “safe” to talk to or not.

Consider childproofing your child’s social media by making the most of privacy settings and parental permissions. Learn more through The FYI’s Digital Parenting Toolkit.

Keep it age-appropriate

  Try to ensure that your child does not have unrestricted internet access, particularly at a young age. Not every social media site is appropriate for every age group, consider easing your child into social media through highly monitored, child-friendly sites

  Have a family contract so your child knows what the expectations are for media use.

Be your child’s biggest advocate

If your child is facing cyberbullying, make it clear to him or her that you are on their side. Avoid pitfalls such as victim-blaming (“why did you talk to that kid in the first place?”) or making your child feel guilty for being cyberbullied (“if you were nicer, this wouldn’t happen to you”).

What can you do if you think your child is experiencing some form of cyberbullying?

The majority of cyberbullying occurs during social media interactions–online platforms that children visit, such as Facebook, Twitter, TikTok, and so on. Cyberbullying can be anything from receiving hurtful messages, to serious death threats. Depending on the severity of the bullying, different responses are warranted. If cyberbullies are threatening your child’s life, it is worthwhile to take these threats seriously and report them to law enforcement–follow these steps. Cyberbullies can be anyone; they may be your child’s classmates or a stranger they’ve never met before. Let’s revisit Aleena. 

After noticing that Aleena’s laptop and phone have hardly been touched for days, Fatima sits her down and asks her what’s wrong. Aleena tearfully confides in her that over the last few months, she has been the target of a vicious bullying campaign at the hands of her classmates. It started off as hateful chat messages during online classes as well as on her social media posts. The messages made even her friends turn on her. Very quickly, it progressed to the point where they have created entire accounts dedicated to tearing her down, and are now openly encouraging her to harm herself. Aleena has felt isolated and helpless, as the bullies are known to her and what they are doing is publicly humiliating. With the help of The FYI’s Bullying Prevention Toolkit and digital parenting toolkit, Fatima takes action. 

Fatima is supportive and avoids blaming Aleena for the bullying; she also avoids telling Aleena to simply log off or toughen up. Opening up about a traumatic experience can be difficult for children, so Fatima gives Aleena space and lets her know that if she wants to talk about her experience, she’s always there for her. Many parents may consciously or accidentally blame their children for bullying by trying to fault their own children for their traumatic experiences. Examples of this include asking your child what they may have done to deserve such treatment or having a “told you so” moment. Avoiding comments like these is crucial as your child is likely already feeling guilty and ashamed. Making such comments may prevent your child from opening up to you in the future.

With Aleena’s help, Fatima immediately documents all of the examples of bullying through screenshots. Since Aleena’s bullies are known to her, she makes note of their names and contacts Aleena’s school with the screenshots as evidence.  She checks in with Aleena about possible solutions and next steps so that Aleena feels empowered to be part of her own solution. With Aleena by her side, Fatima works with the school to address the bullying incidents and to increase anti-bullying school programming. Aleena also starts to engage in much-needed self-care to heal and recover from the effects of the bullying–she gets back to basketball and takes on painting whenever she feels stressed out. 

Once Aleena starts to feel better, Fatima provides some guidance and support to empower her to deal with experiences like this in the future. The first conversation they have is about how to be resilient even in the face of bullying–that sometimes other people will be mean but she can try to not let their own negativity affect her. Fatima reminds Aleena that a lot of times, bullies attack others due to their own insecurities. They also discuss how to handle negative interactions online. If a cyberbully pops up in her inbox, she has every right to simply block them and move on. Many children might be overly polite and feel obligated to give bullies a response or explanation when a simple “no” reply is the best reply.   

With technology changing rapidly and new social media popping up daily, it can be hard to keep up as a parent. Cyberbullying is rampant and evolving, but it is possible for parents to stay in the know and be well equipped to help their children deal with bullies online. While cyberbullying can cause lasting damage, involved and supportive parents like Fatima can ensure that their children are empowered to deal with and overcome difficult situations. 

Your Child is Being Bullied Online – How to Spot it and How to Stop It
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