Signs Children May Be Experiencing Online Bullying – and What to Do If They Are

By on 04-21-2020

CEO of bullying prevention charity Kidscape - and mom of 2 - Lauren Seager-Smith shares her expert advice on how to identify and cope with cyberbullying.

Under “normal” circumstances, children spend an average of 2 hours a day online – around 20 minutes more than they do watching TV, according to a survey by Ofcom.  With the impact of school closures and lockdown, it’s likely that the amount of time children are spending online each day is currently much higher, with children (and parents) relying on the online world to provide opportunities to study, game, entertain and connect with others. 

There are lots of positives to this, not least the opportunity for children to stay in touch with their friends and family - but the longer children spend online, particularly if there is little parental support or supervision, the more likely it is that they could be exposed to online bullying (aka cyberbullying).

Kidscape is a bullying prevention charity, and as well as taking action to keep children and families safe, we support children who have been impacted by bullying. Almost 1 in 5 children who attended our ZAP workshops in the last year had experienced online bullying, usually by others in their peer group. 

It’s important for parents and carers to be aware of signs that a child might be experiencing online bullying so that you can give them the safety and support they need. 

Signs that a child may be experiencing online bullying:

  • Social withdrawal

    It’s common for children who experience online bullying to be targeted by their peer group rather than strangers, so if children express a reluctance to make contact with other children online, or they stop being in touch with others, it might be because they’ve had a negative experience. 
  • Obsessively checking their phone or device

    If a child is caught up in a cyberbullying or trolling incident they may feel a compulsion to keep checking for messages or notifications -– even if these are distressing. They may also become secretive and withdraw from family life. 
  • Changes in behavior

    You know your child best so if they are acting out of character, or are showing other symptoms of distress such as disturbed sleep, it’s important to check-in. Episodes of bullying can lead to depression and anxiety and so it’s vital that you intervene.

The good news is there are steps you can take to keep your child safe and support your child if they go through a bullying incident. 

Talk about the importance of listening to your feelings and emotions, connecting with others who make you feel good about yourself, treating others with kindness and respect and the importance of trust in relationships. 

Steps you can take to keep your child safe:

  • Technical support

    Depending on the age of your child and their developmental and emotional maturity, it’s important that you take steps to limit their exposure to risk – just as you would offline. This includes the use of parental control apps like Qustodio, and learning together how to navigate privacy settings and messaging capability on apps and games.

    Check apps and games for the age rating and even if your child is old enough to access, think about whether it’s a positive space for them to be and they have the emotional maturity to handle what they might see or experience. Consider whether this is a space you are happy for them to navigate alone, or whether it’s best for you to access together. Just because everyone else is downloading it, doesn’t mean it’s right for your child at this time.

  • Emotional intelligence

    You may not understand everything they are using if you’re not much of a gamer or a social networker, but you do have a role in sharing what it means to be a friend, and what a healthy relationship looks like. Talk together about the importance of listening to your feelings and emotions, connecting with others who make you feel good about yourself, treating others with kindness and respect, and the importance of trust in relationships. 

  • Learn their language

    It’s likely an older child will have different words and phrases for describing online bullying behavior. For example, they may talk about ‘ghosting’ or ‘scamming’. Find out what they already know about bullying and ask them to tell you the steps they take to protect themselves and others. 

  • Be their ally

    Make sure you keep the channels of communication open at home so they can always share with you if something has gone wrong. We all make mistakes and it may be that your child has shared something they regret, or has caused harm to others.  Let them know that you will fix it together. If they have hurt others they should do what they can to remove the post and make amends. 

If your child or someone you love is experiencing an online bullying incident:

  • Stay calm and create space to think

    It’s horrible to go through a bullying situation and your child will need you to be a source of comfort and strength. No matter how upsetting the situation is, stay calm and let them know that together you will sort this out. 
  • Don’t retaliate

    As much as they may be tempted to retaliate, this usually prolongs the situation, may cause it to escalate and get others involved,  and could make it harder to hold the moral high ground. 
  • Create distance from the person or people doing the bullying

    There’s usually an option to block, unfollow or mute. If the bullying is happening within a peer group, your child may worry this will further isolate them, so another option can be to take a break. Things move quickly in the online world so it’s likely that without retaliating and with a bit of time, the bullying behavior will stop. Your child will also be in a better frame of mind to deal with the situation when they are removed from the heat of the moment. 
  • Reach out

    If the person who has caused harm has acted out of character or is usually a friend, it can be worth reaching out offline to calmly explain the harm this has caused. They may be willing to remove a post and may not have realized the impact of their actions. 

The reality is that people often say hurtful things online, whether emboldened by anonymity and group behavior or caught up in the careless, reactive nature of fast-moving online chat. Help your child understand it is not a reflection on them, and that the situation will pass.
  • Help from friends and family

    When you go through an online bullying incident it can make you feel very low and you will need positive affirmation from friends and family. Don’t downplay the impact of hurtful words. Your child will need care and kindness to get back to a better place. 
  • Know how to report

    There may be occasions when a child is exposed to serious harm and criminal behavior online. This could include threats to harm, inciting your child to harm themselves, sharing of private images, or content that is discriminatory and fuelled by hate. In these instances, your child still needs you to create a calm and safe environment to help them recover, but you have options to report content through the platform, to the police, and to outside agencies. If the bullying involves the school peer group, you may also want to reach out to school staff. Most schools should include cyberbullying in their anti-bullying policy and help the behavior to stop. 
  • Help your child keep perspective

    The reality is that people often say hurtful things online, whether emboldened by anonymity and group behavior or caught up in the careless, reactive nature of fast-moving online chat. Help your child understand it is not a reflection on them, and that the situation will pass. With your love and support, they can regain their confidence, identify who is worthy of their time, love, and friendship, and enjoy positive relationships both online and offline. 

For more advice, support and resources on bullying and keeping children safe visit Kidscape.

For the parental control app from the leaders in digital safety and wellbeing visit Qustodio.

Lauren Seager-Smith

Lauren is CEO at Kidscape - an anti-bullying charity.

She has worked in the anti-bullying sector for over 10 years, leading the work of the Anti-bullying Alliance and more recently as CEO of Kidscape. Prior to that Lauren worked in education advocacy with Save the Children and specialised in the study of sexual bullying for her MA in Education.  She is passionate about all aspects of children's rights and is a member of the Action for Children England Committee, UK Safer Internet Centre Board and Internet Matters Advisory Group.

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