The statistics are staggering. According to a national study, between 6 and 35% of the young people in this country have experienced some form cyber bullying. It’s being recognized as a new form of violence, and it has potentially devastating consequences.
More than half of the school leaders interviewed for one study saw an increase in students’ stress levels and anxiety in the last few years, and 40% said they’ve noticed a big rise in cyber bullying. Many of them believe that this is leading to a rise in self-harm and suicidal thoughts in some students. Clearly, cyber bullying is a real concern.
The mental health effects for the victims of cyber bullying
According to the government website Stop Bullying Now, kids who are bullied experience a host of mental health difficulties, including:
- Depression and anxiety
- Increased feelings of sadness and loneliness
- Sleeping problems
- Eating disorders
- Trouble at school
- Increased health complaints
We’ve all heard the tragic stories of young victims of cyber bullying who have committed or attempted suicide. We have had our own experiences in San Antonio, including the suicide of David Molak, whose family and others advocated for a state law against cyber bullying. Senate Bill 179, dubbed David’s Law, passed the Texas Legislature unanimously and was signed into law by Governor Abbot in June 2017.
As Stop Bullying Now explains, “Although kids who are bullied are at risk of suicide, bullying alone is not the cause. Many issues contribute to suicide risk, including depression, problems at home, and trauma history. Additionally, specific groups have an increased risk of suicide, including American Indian and Alaskan Native, Asian American, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth. This risk can be increased further when these kids are not supported by parents, peers, and schools. Bullying can make an unsupportive situation worse.”
In other words, if your child has existing mental health challenges, being bullied can make the effects much worse. So it’s especially important to be aware of potential cyber bullying, and what you can do to help.
How parents can help prevent cyber bullying
The first thing you can do to help your child is talk openly about cyber bullying. Your child might not be aware that they are being “bullied” or even bullying others. For all they know, they might think this is normal behavior that all kids go through. Help them understand what cyber bullying looks like, and that it’s not okay.
Follow up this awareness with practical advice, like these tips from the National Crime Prevention Council. And be sure you are monitoring your child’s phone and computer use. Yes, you have the right – and the responsibility – to have passwords to all your child’s accounts, and check frequently to monitor what’s going on.
What to do if your child is being cyber bullied
Many kids will hesitate to tell their parents they are being bullied if they think they’ll lose their phone or computer privileges. Be fair with your child, and let them know that being bullied is not their fault. Tell them you won’t get it mad if it happens, and you won’t take away their online access. This is how they communicate with their friends, and it’s important that they can continue to reach out to people who support them in a healthy way.
There are some steps you should take if cyber bullying happens to your child, according to Cyberbullying.org:
- Make sure you child feels safe, loved and supported, no matter what.
- Talk with, and listen to, your child about what’s really going on.
- Collect evidence, including screenshots, texts, etc., and make notes on when and what happened and who might have witnessed it (other people in the group conversations, etc.)
- Talk to the school and ask for help. Due to David’s Law, Texas schools have expanded resources and jurisdiction to confront cyber bullying. Read more the role schools play here.
- Don’t contact the parents directly. This can cause more drama and may make things much worse for your child.
- Contact the content provider where the bullying is happening (Facebook, Snapchat, your phone provider). They may be able to stop it.
- If there are physical threats, contact the police.
- If the bullying is related to their mental disability, or to other factors like race or sex, contact the Office of Civil Rights for help.
- Seek counseling to help your child process the bullying, and to prevent possible escalation of the impact. In the San Antonio area, contact Clarity Child Guidance Center for help. In other areas of the state, contact the Department of State Health Services.
- Help prevent it from happening again by using the privacy settings in online accounts and banning the bully from your child’s contact list.
Cyber bullying is on the rise, and no child is immune from it. Talk to your child today, see what’s happening in their daily life, and be a supportive partner to their online activities.
With an eye to the best for our kids,
Michele Autenrieth Brown is the director of development for Clarity Child Guidance Center. She became passionate mental health advocate after trying to navigate the system of care to support a family member. When she is not shuttling kids to practices or spending time with her husband, Michele is perfecting just what to say to get the perfect eye roll and sigh from her teen and pre-teen children.
If you are experiencing an emergency, please call 9-1-1. If you need help locating mental health resources in your area, visit the Bexar County Community Resource website, call your local health department or the National Alliance Mental Illness's helpline at 800-950- NAMI (6264).