Articles Technology

Help Children Recognize and Avoid Cyberbullying

By Alice Ann Holland, Ph.D., ABPP | Contributor

The internet and digital technology have made our world more connected than ever before, and during the COVID-19 pandemic, we have developed a new appreciation for how important that technology is. Online school, virtual meetings, and easy access to news updates have all been made possible via the screens that permeate our everyday lives. However, the ease with which we can connect with others in the modern world also brings its share of dangers, especially for children and adolescents.

Impulsivity can lead children and adolescents to say things online—or even via text—that they might not otherwise say in person.

The brain does not finish developing until the mid- to late-20’s, and the areas of the brain that support inhibition and emotional/behavioral regulation are the last to fully develop. This is why children and adolescents tend to be more impulsive than older adults—and that impulsivity can be particularly dangerous on the internet, where content can be posted in a millisecond and remain publicly accessible for a lifetime. In addition to making children and adolescents more at risk for manipulation by ill-intentioned individuals, impulsivity can lead children and adolescents to say things online—or even via text—that they might not otherwise say in person.

Children need to be reminded that their actions on the internet do not occur in a bubble. Texting with friends may seem particularly isolated, but anything on a screen can be captured and shared far beyond the individuals on that text thread. Similarly, children need to be reminded to interact with people online just as they would in person, and arguably with even more caution. They should never say anything to or about someone online that they would not say to that person’s face.

Unfortunately, cyberbullying still occurs quite frequently. Children and adolescents should be encouraged always to tell a parent about any online content or interactions that make them feel sad, scared, or uncomfortable.

Having a “safe harbor” rule can be helpful in encouraging your child to report any cyberbullying or other negative interactions they have online.

A “safe harbor” rule means that if your child is telling you about negative content they encounter online, your promise is that they will not get in trouble or be punished for using a social media platform that they were not supposed to be using, or for breaking any other household rules regarding internet use.

It is not always possible to avoid cyberbullying, but parents can teach children digital etiquette rules that may help reduce the odds of them encountering—or engaging in—any negative interactions online. Those rules may include the following:

  • Never “friend” or talk to anyone online whom you don’t know in real life.
  • Remember that people are not always who they claim to be online.
  • Always tell a parent about any scary or negative messages or posts.
  • Never post anything online that you would not feel comfortable showing to a wide audience (e.g., teachers, parents).
  • Never say anything to or about someone online that you would not say in person.
  • Never post negative or private information about someone else.
  • Never share personal information online (e.g., full name, address, phone number).
  • Never share passwords with anyone else.
  • Never post or trade photographs on sites without privacy controls.
  • Always use the maximum privacy controls on social media sites.

The reasoning behind these rules should be explained in a way that your child can understand, as this may help them feel more willing to follow the rules. At a certain age, children and adolescents may “buy in” to any such rules more easily if you share with them news stories about the negative effects of cyberbullying and other dangerous/negative internet behaviors. Hearing real-world examples of what can go wrong sometimes is more effective than any parental expression of concern.

However, even with rules in place, and even if you feel that your child understands and accepts those rules, parents also should stay vigilant for any signs that a child may be having negative or unsafe experiences online. After all, you may have some control over your child’s technology use and digital etiquette, but you have virtually no control over what others online may be saying to your child. If a child seems to become upset or depressed after being online or texting with friends, turns off or hides the screen when you enter the room, and/or starts to withdraw from family life or real-world friendships, there may be reason for concern about cyberbullying or other negative interactions.

To have a conversation about any concerns you have regarding your child’s use of the internet, social media, and texting, open the conversation in a loving way that focuses on your concern for your child’s well-being. Make it clear that you’re not trying to pry into their friendships, nor are you trying to get them in trouble. If your child does disclose that he/she is engaging in unsafe, negative, or cyberbullying behaviors, try not to respond with immediate punishment. Instead, talk with your child about why these behaviors need to stop, focusing on your child’s safety.

It is important for parents always to remember that technology (social media, texting, etc.) is a privilege for children and adolescents, not a right. If your child is unable to stop engaging in negative or unsafe behaviors online, you may need to remove access to certain aspects of technology and/or install secure parental controls that cannot be overridden by simply deleting and reinstalling an application.

However, prior to reaching this point, it is important to have a detailed conversation with your child about household rules regarding technology use, how those rules will be enforced, and what will happen if those rules are violated. Again, as with any conversation regarding internet safety and digital etiquette, it is important to discuss technology rules with a focus on your love and concern for your child’s safety and well-being.

Helping your child learn good digital etiquette can promote enjoyment of those social connections via technology while also protecting your child’s overall well-being and promoting safety.

Finally, parents should acknowledge and discuss their own social media use with their children—or, if not engaged in social media, ask your child to help you set up an account. Such conversations can help you connect with your child on that level. By making social media part of the conversation, you can more easily check in on what your child is doing and understand how social media may be used in safe or unsafe ways. You will also increase your understanding of what your child may be doing online.

Remember that being connected to peers online and via texting is a positive aspect of technology for many children and adolescents, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic when in-person gatherings may be limited. Helping your child learn good digital etiquette can promote enjoyment of those social connections via technology while also protecting your child’s overall well-being and promoting safety.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Alice Ann Holland, Ph.D., ABPP, is an Associate Professor in Psychiatry at UT Southwestern Medical Center and Research Director of the Neuropsychology Service at Children’s Medical Center Dallas, where she also conducts clinical neuropsychological evaluations of medically complex children and adolescents, specializing in cancer and rare brain diseases. Dr. Holland served as President of the Texas Psychological Association in 2019. She currently serves on the boards of the National Academy of Neuropsychology and the Federation of Associations in Behavioral and Brain Sciences. She has been the recipient of numerous awards from organizations including the American Psychological Association, American Board of Professional Psychology, American Academy of Clinical Neuropsychology, National Academy of Neuropsychology, National Register of Health Service Providers in Psychology, Texas Psychological Association, and Dallas Psychological Association.

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