Virtual learning has given some victims of bullying a reprieve from the daily harassment they faced at school — in the hallways, the cafeteria, the locker room or at recess. For others, the taunting hasn’t stopped; it’s just moved online.
Cyberbullying may include sending mean-spirited or threatening text messages, posting embarrassing photos or videos of someone online or creating a fake social media account to harass or impersonate the victim, to name a few examples.
During the pandemic, cyberbullying has also been cropping up on digital school platforms like Google Classroom. Some have noted that requiring students to turn on their cameras during remote learning has highlighted inequities in living situations that could make certain kids targets for bullying. (Students may be living in a home that’s in disrepair, sharing a room with multiple family members or streaming classes from a homeless shelter or a car.)
Wondering if your child might be the victim of cyberbullying? Experts reveal the signs to look out for and how you can support your kid.
1. There’s a sudden change in the amount of time they spend on their devices.
As a parent, you probably have a sense of how much time your kid typically spends on their devices. So if you notice a significant increase or decrease in screen time, it could be one sign they’re being cyberbullied.
“If their tech use suddenly increases, they may be tracking what a cyberbully is posting about them online and how their peers are commenting,” Tenille Richardson-Quamina, a therapist who specializes in online bullying, told HuffPost. “If your kid stops using their devices, they may be trying to avoid the online bullying altogether.”
2. They seem moody or “off” after spending time online.
The occasional mood swing isn’t out of the ordinary, particularly for a teenager. But if you observe a pattern of edginess after they’ve been on their devices, it could be an indication something’s awry, said Richardson-Quamina.
“You may expect to see anger, sadness or frustration, but also look for signs like ‘forced happiness’ that may be your kid’s attempt to mask what is really going on,” she said. “When it comes to physical reactions to cyberbullying, look for signs of nervousness, anxiety or jumpiness.”
3. They become more secretive about their technology use.
That might look like leaving the room to use their phone, X-ing out of tabs when you walk by or avoiding conversations about what they’re doing on the computer.
According to a Maryville University blog, “If they unexpectedly shut off devices when others approach, refuse to discuss what they do online, or get upset or agitated when you try to discuss this with them, they may be attempting to hide the fact that they are being bullied.”
4. They mention that they’re dealing with “drama.”
If your kid does open up to you, know that they might not call what’s happening to them “cyberbullying.” Instead, they may make a comment about how they’re dealing with gossip, drama or trolling.
“Terms like cyberstalking, sexploitation, impersonation, denigration, outing or exclusion alert us to the magnitude of what they’re going through, but a kid is probably not going to use any of these terms,” Richardson-Quamina said. “Therefore, it is important for us to be able to ‘speak their language’ when it comes to cyberbullying.”
5. You notice changes to their daily habits — like sleep or eating — and overall demeanor.
Whether online or in person, bullying can lead to physical and mental health problems, said Bailey Huston, coordinator at PACER’s National Bullying Prevention Center.
“This can include sleeping problems, low self-esteem, increased fear or anxiety, or feelings of alienation,” she said.
Frequent stomachaches and headaches are also common.
“You might also see changes in eating habits, avoidance of social situations, frequent meltdowns or increased irritability,” said licensed clinical social worker Katie Hurley, author of “No More Mean Girls.”
Advice For Parents
If your child is being bullied online, your love and support can make a big difference. Here’s how you can help:
First, listen and empathize.
“Parents have a tendency to jump into fix-it mode, but it’s important to attend to the emotional needs of your child first,” Hurley said. “Gather information by asking your child to describe what’s happening. Ask your child to show you what’s happening and take screenshots.”
Remind them they’re not alone.
“If your child shares that they are being bullied online, chances are you might be the first person they’ve told,” Huston said.
Cyberbullying can make your kid feel isolated and like they’re the only one being picked on. Reinforce the message that they have people in their life who care about them and are here for them.
“One of the unique aspects of cyberbullying is that it leaves behind a trail of evidence documenting the hurt your child has experienced,” Huston said. “Save the URLs, print emails or web pages of negative behavior, screenshot any posts containing bullying and save texts.”
Don’t take away their devices.
One reason many kids don’t come forward about online bullying? They think their parents are going to confiscate their phone or limit their access to social media. Even if you do this with the intention of protecting your kid, to them it feels like a punishment, Richardson-Quamina said.
“If your child shares a cyberbullying situation with you, don’t take away their technology, but take steps together so that they can still engage online in a safe and supported way,” Huston added. “This will reinforce the message that this is not your child’s fault and encourage them to keep the conversation open about any other negative online behavior.”
Many schools include cyberbullying in their anti-bullying policy, even when the harassment occurs off-campus or outside of school hours, Huston said. Ask the school about its policy, figure out your point of contact and provide documentation you’ve collected.
Hurley said you should reach out to a teacher or school administrator when your child feels comfortable.
“Many kids resist seeking help because they fear the bullying will get worse,” she said. “Help your child talk through different scenarios to find the best course of action.”
Make use of the safety and privacy features available that may help curb online harassment — like blocking the bully’s email address, phone number or social media profile, Richardson-Quamina said.
Keep the conversation going.
Take some time each week to check in with your child about how they’re feeling online, in spite of the inevitable eye rolls and sighs, said Richardson-Quamina. Make these discussions ongoing. And remember that they don’t always have to be a downer.
“Once the plan is in place and the report made, don’t stop talking with your kids about their life online,” she said. “Have them teach you about the newest app, dance challenge or game, because we don’t want to just interact with them when something is wrong.”