Protecting myself from bullies was one of the most challenging skills I had to learn as a child. Being rather passive and with inadequate assertiveness, it was not easy. But I did it with the help of my mom.
As a child, it seemed astonishing when my mom told me she had bullies in her school too. As a grown up, I realize that bullying dates back to ancient times. Ever since people started living in communities, the strong have been exerting power over the powerless. But now it has taken on a new form, cyberbullying.
As a mother, cyberbullying came as a big challenge for me. Technological gadgets and social media were introduced quite late in my life. I am from a generation that still struggles with accepting virtual interactions in place of physical meetings. But not our kids. For them, virtual interactions are normal and real.
I felt less equipped to prevent my children form harmful interactions online. It required a lot of hard work and research to keep myself updated on the social realities of a virtual world. I had to immerse myself in their online lives to under their challenges and ensure their protection from hurtful experiences. I am learning and growing with my children.
October is commemorated as national bullying prevention month in the United States. Let us celebrate this month by empowering ourselves as moms.
It’s alarming to notice a constant increase in bullying at schools. In a survey, 73% children in the U.S. reported that they had been bullied at some point in their lives. 88% of children, bullied at school, reported being called names and made fun of in a cruel way. 77% reported social exclusion, and 20% were threatened with a weapon in school.
A child can be exposed to bullying in any social situation. Social media has become a new mode of interaction for young generation. 90% of teens use at least one social media network. Thus, their dependence on cyber networking is increasing.
Cyberbullying has become more evident amid the COVID-19 pandemic. During lockdown, screen time of children substantially increased. So did the risk of cyberbullying.
In a survey, 37% of middle and high school students reported experiencing cyberbullying in their lifetime. Mean comments and rumors spread online were the most reported types of cyberbullying. Girls were slightly more likely to be bullied. But more boys reported that they had bullied others at some point in their life.
Examples of cyberbullying
It is said that prevention is better than cure. And if we apply it to preventing cyberbullying, then we first have to understand what cyberbullying actually is.
There are different online mediums our children use for interaction and communication. Most commonly used mediums where child can be exposed to bullying involve:
- social media
- online gaming sites
- online chat rooms, etc.
- sending inappropriate texts or photographs
- accessing and sharing someone’s personal information
- sharing unsuitable, mean, hurtful, or offensive material about someone else
- threatening, blackmailing, and exploiting someone online
Strategies to protect children from cyberbullying
Read the definition of cyberbullying carefully. It gives us a framework for designing our strategies. On the one hand, we have to normalize the modes of online interaction because they are so basic and ubiquitous today. On the other hand, we need to prevent our children from hurtful content.
1. Start early
Children get introduced to technology very early in life. It’s wise to set healthy a routine for using technical devices at that time. Try to allow screen time within healthy limits.
This early routine will help in preventing children from overindulgence in a virtual world. For a balanced personality development, children need to know themselves apart from their virtual identities.
Limited use of technological gadgets will prevent them from cyberbullying and will positively contribute to their mental health.
2. Limit access to age appropriate sites
Make sure that your children only access age appropriate sites. Access to adult gaming sites or chat rooms simply increases the potential threats of cyberbullying.
Keep a check on what your child is doing online. For younger children, a very simple and practical rule is “no screen time without parental supervision.”
They should be encouraged to use their technical gadgets in the presence of adults. For example, place the computer in a place where you can easily see the screen.
Discuss bad reviews or potential threats associated with different online forums. It will gradually enable your kids to evaluate online safety of different forums.
3. Have cyber protection rules in place
I personally find it very convenient to jot down cyber protection guidelines for all members of family, including us, the parents. Once I drafted the family guidelines, we sat down and discussed it. After discussion, it was finalized, and we all try to abide by the laid down rules.
A good plan is well thought of and thorough. If you want to ensure that you have a comprehensive cyber protection plan for your children of different ages, take your time to discuss, explore, improvise, and then plan. Remember a good cyber protection plan should:
- have rules regarding all commonly used technical gadgets and mediums
- include preventive strategies.
- guide on how to take action if bullying occurs
- include practical suggestions on post bullying actions
- have age appropriate methods for children of different ages.
In our case, my daughter has given me access to the passwords of her social media accounts, while I am a member of the same social network my son belongs to. We all use our technical gadgets in our living room. And no cell phones are allowed during dinner time.
4. Immerse yourself in their social world
There is no way we can stop our children from using social media and online communication. We can only make efforts to keep it a safe and secure experience.
Try to model an open and welcoming attitude when it comes to using social media. If you share and tag your kids in your social media posts, it will encourage them to share their activities with you too. Immerse yourself in their virtual world to keep them secure.
5. Learn the warning signs of cyberbullying
Cyberbullying is a reality. It can happen anywhere, any time. If your teen exhibits the following behavioral changes, he might be experiencing cyberbullying:
- sudden increase or decrease in use of devices.
- avoiding social gatherings
- avoiding meetings with friends or peers
- becoming withdrawn or irritated without any apparent reason
- becoming secretive or hiding his screen
- a sudden loss of sleep or appetite
- suddenly deactivating social media accounts or creating new ones.
If you notice these changes, try to probe the reasons. Don’t look or sound suspicious. Rather, just look more closely at the social media posts of your child and those responding to him. Spend more time with him and try to make him comfortable to share his stress.
If you feel that potential threat might be more severe, you can try to enlist his siblings for support or contact his friends to know more about the situation.
6. Be available
In a study it was found that only 63% children being bullied reported it to anyone. In 90% of reported cases, children told family members.
Make sure that your children are not among those 37% who never report their cyberbullying experiences. Always be available to your kids for communication.
You can create a family discussion routine at dinner time, where everyone shares important events of the day.
Having a learning circle on weekends can be another interesting forum for communication. Each week, a topic can be chosen for discussion.
Select topics relevant to mental health, cyberbullying, handling hurtful comments, assertiveness, mindfulness, etc. It will improve communication skills, strengthen family ties, and keep you in the loop about what is going on with your kids at the same time.
7. Give your kids unconditional positive regard
I am a strong believer in giving unconditional positive regard to your children. Ingrain in them from a very early age that you love them unconditionally. They should know it’s the bad behavior you disapprove of, not them.
If your son is bullied due to a social media post or someone is threatening your daughter through a photograph or video she shared, they should have the confidence that you will not judge them for it. Rather you will be there by their side to solve the problem.
Even if you feel that your teen has fallen a victim to cyberbullying out of carelessness or immaturity, hold your guidance or judgement for later. First, get your child out of that uncomfortable situation.
8. Tackle mental health challenges head on
Children who get bullied in school are also more predisposed to cyberbullying. Children facing mental health issues are an especially easy target for bullying.
I have met children who were struggling with mental health issues. After getting bullied at school they fell into a vicious circle of mental illness, bullying, more severe mental illness.
Focus on physical and mental health of your children so they can face the adversities with courage.
As a mom, I often feel that we do not talk to our children enough about mental health. We tell them about infections, hygiene, and physical illnesses. But we rarely talk about depression, anxiety, frustration, or panic attacks.
Let your children look at psychological problems as any other physical illness, which can be and should be cured through appropriate treatment.
Making your children mentally healthy will shield them from negative attitudes and bullying. Psychologically strong children are better equipped to protect their rights.
9. Encourage an appropriate reaction to bullies
If your teen gets bullied online, he should know what to do. As a psychologist I know that in most of the cases, reacting to bullying can prompt the offenders to continue their hurtful actions. Attention from their victims motivates them to do more.
- That’s why no reaction or ignoring the hurtful posts or messages is the best response.
- If someone continues to bully your child, encourage him to block the offender.
- If personal or disturbing content about your child is shared by someone, he should report it.
10. Raise your voice against bullying
We are living among the first generation of cyberbullies. Efforts made today will have long lasting effects. Celebrate this national bullying prevention month by educating your children.
To develop as a united and just society, we need to educate our youth to raise their voices against cyberbullying. Encourage your teens to show solidarity with those being bullied.