Cyberbullying – Here’s what you should know

Written by Megan van Wyk

There are very few people in this world who have not fallen victim to some kind of bullying. Some people most definitely have it worse than others, and those people carry the scars and memories of their experiences with them for a very long time, if not for the rest of their lives.

When we hear the word “bullying”, we tend to think about the traditional “schoolyard bully” who torments children at school, with a bunch of their friends standing behind them. However, the advent of technology and the ease of access to it has brought with it a very dark, concerning threat – cyberbullying. Does your child have access to a smartphone, tablet or laptop? Can he/she access the Internet? If you answered “yes” to these questions, your child is at risk of being a victim of cyberbullying. Hopefully this blog will arm you with information about this awful reality and tools to help you, should you and your child ever be put in the situation where he/she is being cyberbullied.

What is cyberbullying?

According to the SAPS website, “cyberbullying occurs when a child or teen uses the Internet, emails, text messages, instant messaging, social media websites, online forums, chat rooms or other digital technology to harass, threaten or humiliate another child or teen.”

Cyberbullying takes on many forms – too many to mention. Your child may receive relentless, persistent nasty text messages; an embarrassing photo, taken out of context, could be posted on social media and shared to your child’s whole social circle; or a nasty rumour could spread on social media faster than wildfire. Cyberbullying can happen 24/7, and it follows the victim wherever they go. This means that no place is safe. With one click, your child’s humiliation can be sent to thousands of people online, going viral in an instant.

Cyberbullies hide behind their screens, often using fake profiles with pseudonyms so that they cannot easily be caught. They are also able to digitally manipulate images to create chilling photos and videos of their victims. And the worst thing about it – once something is on the Internet, it is permanent. While traditional “playground” bullying can be stopped, information that has been posted on the Internet can easily be dug up years down the line, causing the already bullied person even more pain.

What are the effects of cyberbullying?

The effects of cyberbullying are frightening and extremely serious. Effects can include low self-esteem, anxiety, depression and feeling worthless. It can even lead to suicidal ideation. Victims may feel angry, scared and frustrated, and may experience behavioural changes such as cutting themselves off socially (which is often exactly what the cyberbully wants), and isolating themselves in their room. Changes in sleeping patterns are also often experienced. The victim may struggle to fall asleep, or want to sleep all the time.

Because cyberbullying is difficult to escape, victims of cyberbullying could carry these effects with them into adulthood, influencing their future careers and relationships.

Signs of cyberbullying

Unfortunately, children who are victims of cyberbullying do not easily tell their parents or teachers because they often feel ashamed and do not want their phone or tablet to be taken away from them. There are, however, some signs that you need to be aware of:

  • Being very emotional after being on their phone, tablet or laptop.
  • Not wanting to see friends and family and and spending most of their time in their room.
  • Fear of others (especially you, their parents) accessing their phone or social media accounts.
  • Unexplained changes in mood, appetite and sleep patterns.
  • Lower marks at school, or not handing in assignments.
  • Suddenly not wanting to use their phone.
  • Becoming anxious when a text or notification is received on their phone.

Okay, I think my child is a victim of cyberbullying. What can I do?

Your first and most important concern should be your child. Make it clear that you are there for them, judgement-free, any time of the day or night. Please tell them that what the bully is doing is wrong, and should not be tolerated. Encourage your child to stop responding to the bully at once. Once you have ensured that your child is okay for now, do the following:

  • Gather evidence. Take screenshots of every single message that is offensive or threatening, and of every photo or video that has humiliated your child. This can be used if it becomes necessary to inform the police.
  • Inform your child’s school. Set up a meeting with the principal and/or teachers and tell them about the bullying. This will enable the school to implement anti-bullying campaigns, and set up an anti-bullying policy if they do not already have one. Intervention or mediation can be arranged, where the bullying is addressed and stopped as soon as possible.
  • If your child agrees to it, take them to a therapist. A trained therapist will help them work through the humiliation, and teach them some coping strategies.

How can cyberbullying be prevented?

In this day and age, nearly every child has easy access to social media, making it very difficult to prevent cyberbullying entirely. However, there are some things you can do:

  • Have a serious, frank discussion about cyberbullying with your child. Tell them that the risk is there, and that, should they ever receive any offensive or threatening messages, they should feel free to come and talk to you about it.
  • Use the block function to block the cyberbully. Most devices and social media accounts have a setting to block a certain person or account. Use it.
  • Be aware of the sites your child visits. While this is not easy, placing your home computer in a visible place is a good start.
  • If necessary, limit the amount of time your child spends on the Internet. Children who are being bullied often feel an indescribable need to check whether any other messages have been posted from their bully.
  • Ask your child to allow you to “friend” or “follow” them on their social media accounts. In this way, you will be able to see what is posted on their profile. However, please do not use this privilege to constantly comment on their posts. This may cause your child to feel embarrassed, and you could lose the privilege of having access to their social media.

Wait. What if my child is a cyberbully?

Don’t overreact. While this is certainly an upsetting realisation, you need to deal with the problem. It will not go away on its own. If you find evidence that your child is bullying another child, you need to let them know that it is not acceptable, and that there will be consequences to their actions should they not stop immediately. Set the consequences, and carry through if the behaviour continues.

Therapy will most likely also be helpful in this situation. If your child is a cyberbully, it is important to determine the underlying cause, and sort it out.

Our country has recently taken steps in developing legislation to protect children from cyberbullies. This means that, should your child be found guilty of cyberbullying, there will be very real consequences to be faced.

I have to admit that this has not been an easy blog to write. Doing the research has made me fear for my children and the dangers that await them when they are old enough to have their own social media accounts. I think another important thing to remember is that we are our children’s most important role models. Most of us have Facebook and Instagram accounts, where we share our lives and interact with others. If your child comes across your account, will they find offensive posts and mean, degrading comments when others do not share your opinion? If they do, they might think that cyberbullying is “just something that happens”, and not something to be taken seriously.

If you want to find out more about cyberbullying, here are a few sites that you can visit:

The Author - Megan van Wyk

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