With so many of our children learning virtually this fall and otherwise having to keep in touch with their friends by electronic means, cyberbullying is likely to be a bigger problem than usual. According to an industry study last year, almost 30% of children had experienced some sort of cyberbullying before the pandemic isolated everyone. Another study estimates that cyberbullying has almost doubled since the pandemic began.
As the school year starts, parents will be stressed trying to balance work, childcare, and virtual learning. Adding cyberbullying concerns to our lists may seem like more than we can handle. Fortunately, there a few things that parents can do that will have a big impact. One good resource for techniques is stopbullying.gov. Another is cyberbullying.org.
The first principle is to be aware of our children’s moods. It can be hard to find the time, and some children will be more open than others. Developmental stages also will impact our commuications with our children. Teenagers, for example, often become cave-dwelling mammals who leave their dens only to forage for food. Nevertheless, we have to find time and ways to have conversations with our children. They cannot tell us about being bullied if we are not listening to them.
Next, know the difference between bullying and conflict. Not every insult is "bullying." Sometimes the disagreement is just plain old conflict, and children need to learn how to deal with it. Negative feedback is a normal part of human interaction, andlearning how to respond is an important part of growing up. We should not get involved in developmentally normal disputes between children. True bullying that warrants adult intervention is a much more serious, and sustained, activity.
On the other hand, this pandemic is causing a spike in mental health problems, and our children are not exempt. A given child may be more vulnerable than usual, and normal disagreements can become magnified on social media. What would have been normal pre-pandemic can be a serious problem for an isolated child.
If you are concerned that what you are hearing is more than normal disagreements, or your child is particularly vulnerable, bring to bear whatever resources you can marshal. Perhaps limit your child’s screen time. Definitely find ways for them to be involved in outside activities, as both exercise and the outdoors will help combat depression and anxiety. Also look for helpful resources such as virtual group meetings with positive peers or peer mentors.
Finally, for severe cyberbullying, report to whatever schools or authorities need to be involved. Cyberbullying may be a violation of the school’s rules, or the messages may be criminal threats. We have the ultimate responsibility for our children, but these organizations also may be able to help.
Navigating these issues will require empathy and experience. We are all under stress in the new normal, but our children are uniquely vulnerable during this time. We have long lists of things to do, but this danger to our children is very real. We need to be aware of it and have resources at hand to help us help our children.