Cyberbullying can start as early as second grade, often peaks in fourth grade, and returns in the seventh and eighth grades, according to Parry Aftab, an Internet safety and privacy lawyer.
More than 85 percent of 45,000 students at North American schools admitted to being targeted in the past year, according to a survey conducted by Aftab.
Cyberbullying is so pervasive because it occurs in a virtual world without physical borders, and so it can follow a victim wherever they have a cell phone or Internet connection. In addition, the anonymitythat's often afforded to cyberbullies—aided by a physical separation from their targets—makes it easy for them to disassociate their actions from their real-world impacts. But as any parent knows, the impact on bullied children is real and tangible, damaging to their self-esteem, to their personal relationships, and to their reputation.
The time to talk to children about cyberbullying is now, and ideally before they experience it or are tempted to engage in it themselves.
Read on for tips to get you started:
- Establish clear guidelines with your kids for their own cyber behavior. Make clear that the golden rule applies to all interactions, including virtual ones: Do unto others as you would have done unto you. Use the conversation as a platform to talk about the values that are important to your family, such as kindness, respect, integrity and compassion.
- Take steps toward prevention by ensuring that your children’s devices have screen locks that are password-protected and, in general, that any passwords used by them—say for a social networking or gaming site—are strong. Be sure also to educate kids about the importance of keeping passwords private. That way no one can access their accounts to do them harm.
- Talk to kids about how to respond, should they find themselves cyberbullied. Encourage them to walk away (or turn off their device) rather than lash out in response and risk becoming a bully themselves, however unintentionally. Urge them instead to come to you or another trusted adult such as a teacher or guidance counselor; many kids fear retaliation for “snitching,” but assure them that you will be there to listen and to help them find an appropriate solution. And, if/when your child approaches you with a problem, offer lots of emotional support in addition to practical recourse.
- As the parent, familiarize yourself with the next steps to take in the event your child is cyberbullied. Most websites, including gaming and social networking sites, have a way to report abuse. Other solutions might include helping your child change passwords, shutting down accounts, or contacting your child’s school or law enforcement officials.
- Keep the lines of communication open and have regular check-ins with your kids. Ask specific questions about whether anyone is picking on them and, if so, how. You can also role-play or engage them in broader discussions about the implications of communicating in a public space like the Internet.
- Monitor your children’s attitudes and online activities. If their habits change, whether because they withdraw or dramatically increase their Internet usage, this can be a sign that something is wrong. In general, monitoring can be done informally, through participation in and supervision of their behavior, or more formally, through software.