Psychology expert Maria Guerrero’s tips for children and parents on how to stop bullies online and build resilience for life
Cyberbullying, the use of technology to harass, threaten, embarrass, or target another person, is a term that didn’t appear in any of my university manuals but it has become a problem I now see frequently in my consultancy. Before jumping into the topic, it is important to remember bullying occurs between peers, in other words, there must be minors on both ends of the attack. If there’s an adult involved, then we’re actually talking about cyber abuse. Though the advice is much the same, this article focuses on cyberbullying.
I see it again and again. Kids just don’t know what to do. One child who had been confronted with an embarrassing comment in a WhatsApp group said, “I freeze and don’t know how to answer. I’m scared of saying anything that will make it worse. I start to write, I delete it, and in the end I make the situation worse no matter what I say.” The same is true of children who are threatened with false rumors being started about them, or compromising photos being uploaded to the internet…and the list goes on.
These situations cause terrible anxiety and have many negative effects on a child’s self-esteem. In the worst cases they even lead to suicide, also known as cyber suicide. Cyberbullying can be even more hurtful than face-to-face bullying for three reasons:
- The abuser can easily remain anonymous.
- There is no direct or immediate perception of the harm it’s doing to the victim.
- The humiliation is witnessed by other people.
What should children do when faced with cyberbullying?
Avoiding technology altogether would be like deciding not to leave the house to avoid getting run over by a car. The smarter and more realistic option is to be fully prepared if a problem occurs. Here is what every child should know:
1. Don’t blame yourself.
And don’t be ashamed of anything either, no matter what your abuser says. They are the one with the problem, not you. Your abuser is an unhappy and frustrated person who wants to take control of your feelings to make you feel bad. Don’t give them the satisfaction.
2. Don’t retaliate!
Ignore it. Count to 100 and think about something else. Retaliating feeds the abuse because it spurs them on to think that they will get a reaction from you. Stay calm. Don’t do anything rash and don’t give them the satisfaction of a response.
3. Ask for help.
Go to your mom or dad, teacher, police officer, or any adult you trust, and make sure this person knows what is happening. They can help give you an objective perspective, because acting based on your feelings can actually cause more damage (see point number 1).
4. Capture proof.
Screenshots of cyberbullying instances will be very useful if things get complicated.
5. Ask the abuser to stop.
Let the aggressor know they are bothering you and ask them to stop in a non-aggressive and non-threatening way. It is very important to show your abuser the correct way to act.
6. Remind them cyberbullying is punishable by law.
Inform them that if it continues you will go to the police.
7. Don’t keep re-reading the messages.
Focus on positive experiences. There are so many great things in your life you can be proud of. Do things you like, such as sports or going out with friends. This will help you spend less time dwelling on it.
8. Talk about it.
Share how you are feeling. Silence won’t make the problem go away. It will just cause you more anxiety and make you feel helpless. Explaining to others what is happening to you will help you feel better and help you handle it. You may be surprised to learn that you are not alone and your bravery may not only make you feel better but inspire others.
9. Block the cyberbully or troll.
Use available tech tools or social media apps and services themselves allow you to block the person.
10. Protect your accounts.
Change your password immediately so a bully cannot try to impersonate you. Don’t share your passwords with anyone, even a best friend.
What should parents do to help?
We can’t control or change how other people interact with our children. What we can do is use parental control software to set time limits and block apps that are the source of cyberbullying. And, most importantly, it’s our job to help build our children’s character and make them resilient. Here’s how:
- Take immediate action! Never wait to see if the abuse will just go away or end by itself. It could get worse and our help might come too late.
- Listen and talk. We have to help our children to express their feelings and worries. It’s important to let them see we understand them, that we are really listening, and, above all, that they are not alone. Being heard is what victims need most.
- Build up their self-esteem. Emphasize that they are not facing this problem alone, it’s not their fault, and nothing justifies their suffering. Acknowledge their bravery in asking for help and let them know you’ll get through it together. Teach them to be resilient and grow through exposure to life’s challenges.
- Don’t give in to provocation. Your child must not retaliate or react to provocation. Paying no attention to the abuser weakens their hold over the victim.
- Keep proof. Help your child take screenshots of any interactions with the bully. These are crucial pieces of evidence when working with schools or the police.
It’s no surprise that we’ve seen an increase in cyberbullying with the increase in mobile phone use and with kids are getting phones at younger and younger ages. We don’t let children out on the street without teaching them about road safety, and we need to be doing the same when it comes to technology. Parental control software, self-esteem building, and teaching your children the best way to act when cyberbullying strikes can go a long way to keeping your child safe and mentally healthy over the long term.