Is your teen a cyberbully?

By Martha Li on March 21, 2013
We do our best to teach our kids of the potential dangers lurking in cyberspace – sexual predators, scams, identity theft – but a more common threat is the way kids behave towards one another. The taunts, teasing and bullying that happens in cyberspace can sometimes be more hurtful than what’s said in the real world.

So, what do you do if your child has been involved in a cyberbullying incident where he or she is the perpetrator rather than the target? Here are some expert tips:

Get the whole story

Often parents can’t imagine their child as the bully, even when faced with concrete evidence such as transcripts of an online conversation. “You’re not doing your child any favours by automatically presuming your child’s innocent,” says Jennifer Kolari, a Toronto-based child and family therapist and author of You’re Ruining My Life! Surviving the Teenage Years with Connected Parenting. Rather, it’s important to get to the bottom of why they engaged in a particular behaviour. Jennifer says sometimes kids don’t even know what they’re doing is wrong. “Ask your kid if what they wrote online is something they would feel comfortable saying in front of the entire school. Often the answer is ‘no’, and this makes them rethink their behaviour.”

Keep your cool

“Telling them to never do that again or screaming at them over how embarrassed you are is not going to help,” says Jennifer. Be empathic – sit down with them and talk about the incident. “Show them compassion. Say ‘Hey, what’s going on here?’ and allow them to explore their feelings so they will open up to you about why they did what they did.” Jennifer says it’s a good thing if they cry about the situation – it shows they are remorseful. “Once they’ve realized their mistake, you can then ask your child, ‘What can you do to fix it?’”

Set house rules

Limit the amount of time your child uses the Internet. The Canadian Paediatric Society recommends kids between the ages of five and 17 should have no more than two hours of recreational screen time per day (including television and video games.) Computers should also be kept out of bedrooms and only used in common areas where you can walk by and look over your child’s shoulder to see what they’re doing. “This isn’t about you reading their diary,” says Merlyn Horton, Executive Director of the mission-based Safe OnLine Outreach Society. “It’s about you making sure your kids are not doing anything life threatening or morally threatening.”

Check your own behaviour

Are you watching television and saying stuff like, “Look at what an idiot that guy is!” or “How could that girl be so stupid?” Kids pick up on these behaviours of mocking others and may emulate what they hear you saying in their online dialogue.

Stay up to date

Trends in social media change quickly and it can be hard for parents to keep track of the latest and hottest social networking sites. But keeping up is a must, for your children’s safety. This doesn’t mean having to be on these sites constantly, but do have a general awareness of what your kids are up to online and what they’re using a particular site for. If you feel overwhelmed, Merlyn suggests enlisting a family member or close friend who’s between the ages of you and your child. The “cool” aunt or older cousin could act as a role model for proper online behaviour.

Staying safe online

MediaSmarts, a Canadian not-forprofit centre for digital and media literacy, explains how teens should handle a cyberbully:

  • Stop: leave the area or stop the activity (i.e. chat room, online game, instant messaging or social networking site).
  • Block the sender’s messages. Never reply to harassing messages. 
  • Talk to an adult. If the bullying includes physical threats, tell the police as well. 
  • Save any harassing messages and forward them to the email service provider. Most service providers have Appropriate Use Policies that restrict users from harassing others over the Internet – and that includes kids.

Originally published in ParentsCanada magazine, April 2013.

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