In the past year, a million children were victims of cyberbullying on Facebook, according to a recently released Consumer Reports survey. About 20 percent of students age 11 to 18 surveyed in 2010 by the Cyberbullying Research Center said they'd been cyberbullied at some point in their lives.
Typically, victims of cyberbullying have embarrassing pictures of themselves posted online without their permission, are the targets of lies or vicious gossip or are victims of impersonation. The rate of victimization is expected to increase as more teens use smartphones and share information on social-media sites.
The consequences of cyberbullying can be severe. In the past two years, a 15-year-old girl in Massachusetts hanged herself after being bullied both physically and online, and an 18-year-old student at Rutgers University in New Jersey threw himself off the George Washington Bridge after his roommate used a laptop camera to Webcast footage of the student kissing another man.
Because many teenagers won't tell their parents they're being cyberbullied, parents need to watch for potential warning signs.
According to Marie Newman, co-author of "When Your Child Is Being Bullied: Real Solutions" (Vivisphere Publishing, 2011), signs of cyberbullying to look for include:
- Your child is suddenly spends much more — or much less — time texting, gaming or using social-networking websites. Any rapid change could be an alarm bell.
- After texting or being online, he or she seems withdrawn, upset or outraged.
- Your child asks to have a social-media or online account shut down.
- He or she suddenly avoids formerly enjoyable social situations.
- He or she blocks a number or an email address from his or her account.
- Many new phone numbers, texts or email addresses show up on your child's phone, laptop or tablet.
- He or she acts frustrated and impatient, or simply acts out more.
- Your child notices that he or she is being gossiped about online, or that others are using "code words" in place of his or her name.
- Strangers have opened Facebook or other social-media accounts in your child's name.
Approach subject gently but firmly
If you believe your child is being cyberbullied, initiate a conversation, but take care to do so in such a way that your teen feels your unconditional support.
"Parents must demonstrate to their children through words and actions that they both desire the same end result: that the cyberbullying stop and that life does not become even more difficult," said Sameer Hinduja, Ph.D., co-director of the Cyberbullying Research Center.
"This can be accomplished by working together to arrive at a mutually agreeable course of action, as sometimes it is appropriate (and important) to solicit the child's perspective as to what might be done to improve the situation," Hinduja added.
Newman advises that parents print out or save evidence of cyberbullying for future reference — especially if school or other officials need to be involved.
Then, she suggests, parents should close down their children's accounts on the social networks where the cyberbullying has taken place, particularly if the incidents have been going on for a long time.
Newman added that parents should consider reaching out to their children's teachers and principals — and, if necessary, any cyberbully's parents or guardians.
"While some schools do not have the protocols to help, many do," Newman said. "Starting with school officials can help in stopping the bullying. If teachers and principals can't help, go up the chain of command to superintendents and school board members."
Both Newman and Hinduja agree that if the cyberbullying continues or gets worse, or if other parents aren't willing to help, then it is okay to contact the police.
"The police should also be approached when physical threats are involved, or a crime has possibly been committed," Hinduja said.
As much as parents would want to, it's impossible for them to watch everything their teens do. And even cyberbullied teens will continue to use social media, cellphones, text messaging and other electronic communications to stay in touch with their friends (and their "frenemies").
That's why parents must also educate their teenagers about appropriate online behaviors and take the time to monitor, however informally, their children's Internet-related habits.
"Cultivate and maintain an open, candid line of communication with your children, so that they are ready and willing to come to you whenever they experience something unpleasant or distressing in cyberspace," Hinduja said.
It may also be useful to draw up an "Internet Use Contract" and a "Cellphone Use Contract" for your child to read and sign. It may seem harsh to do so, but it will foster a crystal-clear understanding about what is and isn't appropriate online and on the phone.
"Kids need to learn that inappropriate online actions will not be tolerated," Hinduja said. "Victims of cyberbullying (and the bystanders who observe it) must know for sure that the adults who they tell will intervene rationally and logically, and not make the situation worse."