I was lucky. I'd never been bullied ... until that time. I was thirteen and it went on for nearly a year. It wasn’t physical. It wasn’t aggressive. But it was repetitive and demeaning: a rumour contorted, embellished and thrown around the classroom with wild abandon by those who wanted to humiliate me.
And they succeeded. I was mortified by the teasing, paranoid about the gossiping and dreaded going to school each day. I was given an embarrassing nickname that lasted throughout High School, long after anyone remembered its origin. I didn't even have the courage to tell my mum about it till I was 23!
Looking back it all seems really silly and trivial and I'm sure none of my peers would have any recollection of it now.
But that was before social media.
Today's kids are navigating problems we never had to experience. Cyberbullying can be crueller and happen anywhere and everywhere, not just the school playground. It can stick around online to haunt victims ten years on and generate an audience of hundreds, thousands ... more sometimes: American teenager, Lizzie Velasquez, was labelled 'the world's ugliest woman' in a YouTube video that went viral. Over a million people viewed this abusive clip, posted by one of her peers. (Velasquez suffers from a rare disorder known as Marfan Syndrome and Lipodystrohpy)
The news is awash with stories of teenage depression, anxiety and even suicide resulting from cyberbullying. Parents have never had to face these challenges before.
What is cyberbullying?
Threats, harrassment or humiliation of another person via the Internet - through social media, instant messaging, web sites, online forums, chat rooms, text messages, emails or other digital technology.
- messages of hate or death threats sent by text
- lies and rumours posted on an online forum
- mocking or offensive comments posted on social media
- embarrassing or explicit photos circulated online
Unlike physical or face-to-face abuse, cyberbulling is frequently anonymous, can be viewed and exacerbated by a large audience and leaves a digital footprint. The old expression, "Today's news is tomorrow's fish and chip paper" no longer holds true. Today's defamatory post can be copied, liked and shared and found on the Internet many years on.
Young people are particularly vulnerable to cyber abuse as they are at an age where other people's opinion of them is desperately important. (See our blog on the anonymous feedback app sayat.me)
In Australia, 10-20% of children (aged eight to 15) report being cyberbullied (Joint Select Committee on Cyber-Safety).
Signs your child may be the victim of cyberbulling:
- Shows changes in behaviour, sleep, appetite or mood
- Is secretive about their computer or cell phone activities
- Shows signs of depression or anxiety
- Becomes sad, withdrawn, angry or distressed afer using mobile phone or Internet
- Experiences an sudden and unexplained drop in school grades
- Withdraws from friends, family and/or activities they previously enjoyed
84% of students bullied online are also bullied in person (Australian covert bullying prevalence study, 2009).
How to protect your child from cyberbullying
Keep communication channels open
It may be difficult to talk to your teenage child - particularly when they don't seem to want to talk to you. But it is important to be available to them, to listen to them and to stay non-judgemental. Help your child to build a support network of other trusted adults they can talk to should they feel uncomfortable talking directly to you. This might include uncles/aunties, a family friend, youth leader, church pastor or teachers.
Reassure your children that they won't lose their computer or mobile phone privileges if they do report threatening or abusive behaviour.
Consider placing information about where they can get help for cyberbulling somewhere prominent in the house, eg on the fridge. (See resources below)
Parents can't afford to be luddites. Wherever your children are active in social media, you need to be there too. Learn the common acronyms young people are using in messaging. Keep on top of current trends.
Keep devices out of the bedroom
Don't snoop on them but make sure they use their tablets and laptops in a busy area of the house where you can 'shoulder surf', if necessary. Make sure devices are switched off and handed over an hour or more before bedtime. Set limits on screen time.
Lock down your child's devices
Set filters on your child's devices to block inppropriate content, check privacy settings, turn off geolocation data and remove the faclity to purchase new apps or features within apps without your permission.
Limit data access to your child's smart phone if used for apps or to surf the web. Some wirelss providers allow you to turn off text messaging during certain hours.
It won't make you popular with your children, but if you pay for their internet access and they are minors under your care, it is completely reasonable to insist on knowing your child's passwords. Carry out regular audits (monthly is fine) on their devices - not to read all their their personal emails and texts but to see what apps are installed and who they are communicating with. Make sure your child is with you while you do this so you can ask who people are and how they know them.
Watch out for vault apps, which hide content or block other apps kids don't want their parents to see. Clues are:
- multiple versions of the same app, such as calculator apps
- apps that would normally work when you tap on them requiring an additional username/password to get access
- a huge amount of storage use for a single app - check the device's storage settings (vault apps require an enormous amount of storage).
Encourage your children to do other activities
Get fresh air, exercise, enjoy a sport or hobby. Make sure they have a life outside their online world.
What to do if your child says they're being cyberbullied
1. Collect proof
Ask your child to show you what has been posted online or what they have been sent. (If they are too awkward or embarrassed to show you directly, ask them to show another trusted adult/witness). Note the app or website address, dates and times of posts and collect any other information you can.
TAKE SCREENSHOTS and keep any texts/emails your child has received. You may need them as evidence should you report the bullying.
2. Do not engage with the bullies
Do not comment on or reply to cyberbullies' posts, texts or messages (except to tell them - once - that their behaviour is harrassment and will be reported). Tell your child to delete messages they receive from cyberbullies without opening them (or forward to you to keep as evidence first).
Cut off cyberbullies' access to your child by blocking their email address with your email provider, blocking them on social media sites and blocking their telephone number from being able to send your child text messages
Inform the social media company or website owner about any abusive posts your child has received on their site or app. Such behaviour will, quite probably, be a violation of their terms of service and could lead to them disabling the bully's account.
If the perpetrator is known to your child, report it to your child's school.
If the cyberbullying is threatening or illegal, you can contact the Office of the eSafety Commissioner (Australia) or go directly to the police. (Note: The distribution of naked/sexual photos of a minor is illegal in Australia)
King's students can report incidents of cyberbullying to kings.concern.net.au during school hours.
5. Start over
If nothing else is working, consider changing your child's email address and deleting their social media profiles. Start new ones with different usernames and passwords. Change their mobile phone number. Caution your child about how they share this information, to prevent it falling into the bully's hands.
6. Provide emotional support
Build up your child's confidence. Make sure they have people and activities in their lives that make them feel good about themselves. If necessary, consider support groups or counselling.
- Office of the eSafety Commissioner (Australia) - Information, support and reporting on cyberbullying issues
- Kids Helpline: kidshelpline.com.au, tel: 1800 55 1800 - Free, confidential phone counselling helpline for young people aged 5-25
- cybersafetysolutions.com.au - Information and support website of leading cyber expert, Susan McLean. McLean has also published an excellent book, "Sexts, Texts and Selfies" to help parents navigate around important cybersafety issues.
- kings.concern.net.au - Online cyber-reporting service for King's students concerned about any kind of worrying, harmful or plain illegal cyber activity they have witnessed or experienced. Operated by qualified King's staff during school term hours.