As the digital world hurtles forward at a seemingly unstoppable pace, our children are being given access to the internet, along with access to social media, earlier than ever before. While the internet can be a bottomless source of entertainment, information, and learning for your child, it also has many cons, including the ever-increasing occurrence of online abuse: cyberbullying.
As a parent, being alert to your child’s behavior both on and offline can help prevent situations of internet abuse. Watching for some of these warning signs may help you to spot signs of cyberbullying in your child and give them the help they need.
Signs that your child is being cyberbullied
1. They don’t want to go to school
In most instances of cyberbullying, the bullies know the victim personally – which means there’s a high chance the bullies could be students at your child’s school. By not going to school, or pretending to be sick, your child may be attempting to avoid seeing their bullies face-to-face.
2. A lack of interest in technology
Pay attention to how your kid uses technology: smartphones, computers, online gaming. If using technology was something your child once enjoyed, and they now display a lack of interest in their devices, stop using them completely, or seem anxious when they receive notifications, there may be a reason behind the sudden change in behavior.
3. They feel angry, upset, or frustrated after time spent online
Does your child ever slam their laptop shut, or throw their phone down? Perhaps they shout or get verbally aggressive while using their devices? While angry or upset outbursts can occur for various reasons (losing a game, being upset at something a friend said), they could be a reaction to online abuse.
4. Changes in sleep habits
Sleep and emotions are highly connected, and if your child is feeling worried, upset, or even depressed as a result of cyberbullying, this may manifest through changes in their sleep habits. They may find it difficult to get to sleep and stay asleep, or they may be increasingly sleepy during the day.
5. Changes in eating habits
As with sleep, your child’s feelings and reactions to cyberbullying may affect their appetite. They could also experience unexplained weight loss or weight gain, or begin to report physical problems such as stomach aches and headaches more frequently.
6. They want to spend more time with you than with peers
Don’t get us wrong – it’s great if your child expresses a wish to spend time with you as a parent, but your child regularly distancing themselves from their friends or people their own age can be a sign of bullying or cyberbullying. They may also unexpectedly begin to spend time with new friendship groups. Equally, they may become withdrawn, choosing not to spend time with peers, family, or friends.
7. They are increasingly secretive
Your child may be embarrassed or afraid to speak out, especially to a parent, and their reaction to this feeling may be to keep secrets or even lie about their behavior. They could also close tabs or screens when you enter the room, or hide their cell phone when you’re around. If it seems that your child is withholding information from you, especially surrounding online activity, this can be a red flag.
8. They suffer from low self-esteem
If your child often makes comments which are self-critical, this can be an indication their self-esteem is being affected by online or offline abuse. Comments such as “It’s my fault,” “I can never do anything right,” “Nobody likes me,” “I’m fat,” or “I look ugly,” can be indications of low self-esteem. They may also become overly concerned about other people’s opinions, or react sensitively to seemingly harmless comments.
Of course, every child is different, and if your child is being cyberbullied, they may react in all of these ways, or none. You are the best judge of your child’s day-to-day behavior, so if you feel something is wrong, keep observing your child’s behavior for signs of cyberbullying, and encourage them to open up to you.
The next steps: How to help your child if you think they’re being cyberbullied
While your child may not want to open up to you as a parent, it’s important that you let them know you’re emotionally available for them, and you’ll support them come what may.
- Let your child know that you’re always there for them to talk to, judgment-free. A problem shared is a problem halved.
- Listen to your child without attempting to fix the situation. By behaving in a reactionary manner, the issue may either go unsolved, or get worse. By showing your child that they are being heard and you are sensitive to their wants and needs, they will open up to you more easily about the situation.
- Offer advice if you feel it can help. You could share personal experiences to help your child feel less alone, or to offer practical advice that has worked in the past.
- If your child is being cyberbullied by someone at school, ask your child for their say in the process when you contact the school. They may even want to tell a teacher themselves, rather than through you, so they feel more empowered or comfortable during the process.
Cyberbullying and your child’s access to technology
While it might feel tempting to cut off your kid’s access to technology, this could feel like a punishment when they’ve done nothing wrong, making them feel even worse.
Instead of banning your child from online activity, encourage them to spend more time with you or their friends offline, so they value screen-free moments and have the opportunity to disconnect from the world of social media. Organize family time together, or engage them in activities that you know they enjoy.
Some other ways you can help your child navigate technology include:
- Encourage your child to play games where they can’t be direct messaged, or contacted by anyone who could harass them.
- Use the internet together to search for fun activities, such as new recipes to try as a family, or news articles or videos that interest them and serve as talking points.
- Program screen time – by allowing your child (or even all family members) moments of the day where they have access to social media, you can create healthier online routines, where everyone knows what to expect. Make use of a parental control tool to schedule in the screen time that works for your family.
- Teach your child to move on from negative content, such as online trolling, blog posts that make them feel bad, or images that upset them. Commenting on or reacting to negative content increases the likelihood it is seen by others – if nobody is reading or watching it, the faster it will be forgotten! Remind them that if something makes them feel bad, they can talk to you or friends about it instead.
By being involved in your child’s technology journey and keeping an eye on changes in their behavior, you’ll be able to spot signs of cyberbullying in your child and recognize when they need help. It’s important to help your child understand that they deserve to have a positive and productive experience on the internet, where they feel welcomed, and are treated fairly: just as they would be in real life.