Dealing with Cyberbullying: 5 Essential Parenting Tips

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Cyberbullying is back in the news, most recently because of a so-called “smut list” published online that targeted 100 teenage girls, some as young as 14, for being promiscuous. So Healthland asked two bullying experts — Elizabeth Englander, author of Understanding Violence, and Jonathan Singer at the Temple University School of Social Work — for tips for helping parents teach kids to avoid, cope with and understand the harm of digital abuse:

Make sure your kids know cyberbullying is wrong. Many kids don’t understand that when they write down and disseminate feelings of frustration, jealousy or anger toward others online, it can quickly escalate into problems in the real world. They also tend to think that what happens digitally “doesn’t count” and that digital abuse doesn’t hurt, especially since parents usually focus on their kids’ behavior in person.

So parents should educate themselves and their kids about the real-world impact of cyberbullying. If you see a story about cyberbullying in the newspaper or online, discuss it with your children and express your feelings of disapproval; reiterate your values and expectations for your children’s behavior. Encourage your kids to come to you quickly if anything gets out of hand online, and make sure they understand never to take revenge on anyone in cyberspace. (More on Lessons on Cyberbullying: Is Rebecca Black a Victim? Experts Weigh In)

Take an interest in your kids’ online behavior. Kids tend to think their parents don’t know or care about their online lives. They fear that their parents, in not understanding, will simply take away their cell phone or computer if anything goes wrong.

So get involved in your children’s online behavior before harm occurs: make sure your kids know how you expect them to behave toward other people online; ask them how they communicate with their friends digitally and what kinds of problems typically pop up; explore with them how they think social networking may affect relationships between them and their friends.

Finally, ask your children to show you how they would report digital abuse if it happened to them, and reassure them that if they run into a problem online, you will talk first before taking any action. (More on The Tricky Politics of Tween Bullying)

Check school policies on cyberbullying. Contact your child’s teacher or a school social worker or administrator and find out whether there is an official policy on cyberbullying. If there is one, read it and discuss it with your kids.

If there isn’t a written policy in place, ask about how cyberbullying is handled and whether there are any plans to create an official policy. Better yet, step up and join — or push to create — a committee to set the standards. Though children spend the majority of their waking hours in school, many schools are ill prepared to deal with cyberbullying — many have neither an effective policy on cyberbullying nor the staff equipped to address it. (More on Cyberbullying? Homophobia? Tyler Clementi’s Death Highlights Online Lawlessness)

Set guidelines about cell-phone use. Many parents give their kids cell phones, so they can stay in closer contact with them. But that’s typically not the reason kids want cell phones. Rather, kids use them to surf the Web, send text messages to friends, update their social-networking status, and share pictures and videos.

Review with your children the laws that could affect their cell phone use, including limitations on where and when they can legally take photos or videos, and how you expect them to handle text messaging or Internet use. If you choose to monitor what’s on your kids’ phones, be aware that more than 70% of kids delete messages or photos before giving their parents their phones for checks, according to research from the Massachusetts Aggression Reduction Center. (More on A Glimmer of Hope in a Bad-News Survey About Bullying)

Help your children respond appropriately if they are cyberbullied. First, talk with your children about what happened and how they feel about it. Be supportive. Remember that your kids feel that they are under attack. Second, report the abuse to the website on which it occurred. This can often be done via an “abuse” or “report” button or link on the site. Lastly, report the bullying to school administrators and ask them to look after your children.

Research from the Massachusetts Aggression Reduction Center suggests that most repeated online attacks also involve in-school problems between kids, so be sure to alert the school to the situation. Even if the school cannot discipline a cyberbully — which may be the case unless the cyberabuse happens at school — teachers or school social workers can do a great deal to support the bullied child. They can also watch over troublesome situations brewing between kids. (More on ‘It Gets Better:’ Wisdom From Grown-Up Gays and Lesbians to Bullied Kids)