While parents struggle to come to terms with the all-encompassing digital phenomenon, children themselves are so immersed in it that over half of them (55.2%) accept cyber-bullying as part of life, according to a survey commissioned by the Anti-Bullying Alliance.
But what exactly is cyber-bullying? It is the use of electronic communication – be it phone, tablet or computer – to bully someone by sending messages of an intimidating or threatening nature. And it is not a trivial matter – some children are driven to suicide by prolonged online bullying campaigns that they feel they can’t escape. Cyberbullying is an everyday problem for children,’ says Luke Roberts, national co-ordinator of the Anti-Bullying Alliance, ‘but teachers and parents aren’t able to provide the advice and support young people need.’
Victims of cyberbullying can find it hard to open up to their parents, explains psychologist Dr. Linda Papadopoulos, an ambassador for Internet Matters' cyberbullying campaign. “Sometimes children don’t want to talk about what is happening to them online," she says. "They may feel helpless or worry their parents will take away their phones or ban them from using tech. But it’s vital that parents learn how to engage with their children in a positive and reassuring way to open a dialogue channel which youngsters can feel reassured, not intimidated by.”
Cyber-bullying: parents' action plan
So, what can you do if you suspect your child is being cyberbullied?
Look for the signs
If bullying is going on there will be changes in your child's normal behaviour. These could include becoming secretive about what they are doing on the computer, keeping their mobile on silent, spending a lot of time in their bedroom, showing signs of anxiety, irritability and moodiness and being quieter than usual. There may be physical signs too including stomach aches, headaches and sleeping difficulties and if it is prolonged, there may be a deterioration in school work and a reluctance to go to school.
Talk it out
You need to talk to your child about cyber-bullying. Explain that if they are being bullied online that they need to talk to you, if not a teacher, or an adult they trust. Tell them they can call ChildLine free on 0800 1111 if they would rather not tell someone they know; they have trained counsellors who often deal with this issue and know how to advise on what to do next.
Never reply to messages sent by a bully, even in anger. Replying will often make the bullying worse, while ignoring it will give the bully the impression that your child didn't receive a message or simply wasn't bothered. Bullies want a reaction, that's why they do it.
Save and log
Save any messages, texts or online comments along with the time and date your child received them any details you have about the sender. Screen shots also mean that the evidence is visible. This information will be very useful when reporting the bullying.
Block and check profiles
Social networks have different ways of dealing with bullies but on Facebook, for example, it’s possible to remove tags and block people who are sending nasty messages. Abusive posts or groups can be reported so Facebook can take them down. Reports are anonymous so the person doing the bullying won’t know who reported it. Setting profiles to 'friends only' means your child can't be bullied by people he doesn't know. On other social networks you could also try changing their online user ID or nickname.
Change your child's number
If your child is being bullied by text or phone calls have the mobile number changed and tell him not to give out the number to anyone he doesn't know or trust.
Your child may feel they don't want to draw attention to the bullying but on social networks you can report bullying messages while remaining anonymous. If it is a fellow school pupil doing the bullying, encourage your child to report it to a teacher so the school can deal with the protagonist and stop it happening to someone else.
You can also report instances of cyber-bullying to mobile phone companies and internet service providers who can trace bullies. Report serious bullying, like threats of a physical or sexual nature, to the police.
Cyber-bullying: advice and help
The Anti-Bullying Alliance offers links to numerous resources, videos and helplines for parents dealing with cyber-bullying.
Internet Matters offers links to lots of resources and advice in their cyber-bullying hub.
Managing technology and your teen is a free guide to managing kids' safety online.
Be safe online offers free advice and information to help you discuss online safety with children.