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Cyber-bullying: how to identify it, and how you can help

04 August, 2015

It’s a worrying thought but one that’s all too true - cyber-bullying now affects an estimated one in five children. It can leave victims feeling powerless and vulnerable, exposed and humiliated, overwhelmed, isolated, anxious and lonely. It can cause disinterest in school, social activities and life in general, and can even result in depression. In fact, cyber bullying, in extreme cases, can have fatal consequences.

What is cyber-bullying?

Cyber-bullying is the use of technology to harass, threaten, embarrass, or target another person. Sometimes it’s easy to spot in the form of a tweet, text or Facebook post, but sometimes it can be hidden away for a victim to battle alone. Most kids are reluctant to report bullying, so it’s impossible to know exactly how many people have been affected.

Cyber-bullying can sometimes happen accidently, with the impersonal nature of text messages, IMs, and emails making it hard to accurately interpret the sender’s tone. But repeated message posts that attack someone directly on a personal level are undeniably online harassment.

Examples of cyber-bullying include:

  • Mean text messages;
  • Harsh emails;
  • Starting or spreading rumours about someone online;
  • Posting or sharing embarrassing pictures or videos of someone without their permission;
  • Setting up fake profiles and posing as someone else;
  • Creating cruel websites as an attack on someone. 

What’s to blame for the surge of cyber-bullies?

Mobile phones and computers cannot be solely blamed for today’s cyber-bullying trends. Social media sites can be used for positive activities, like connecting with friends and family, education and entertainment, but they can also be used to hurt other people. 

It has been suggested that cyber-bullying is on the rise because people generally feel safe to say what they want when they’re tucked behind a computer screen or device. 

What are the signs of cyber-bullying?

As long as kids have access to a phone, computer, or other communication device, they are at risk of cyber-bullying. Signs to look for include:

  • Being upset or unusually quiet following use of the phone or Internet;
  • Emotional withdrawal;
  • Being secretive or protective of a device;
  • Sudden disinterest in social activities or sport;
  • Reluctance to go to school
  • Slipping in grades or lack of focus on study;
  • Changes in mood, behaviour, sleep or appetite;
  • An increased susceptibility to illness; this could be real or used as an excuse to avoid the source of the bullying;
  • Sudden withdrawal and dislike of social media;
  • Nervous behaviour when getting an instant message, text or email;
  • Avoiding discussions on bullying. 

What to do if you suspect your child is being cyber-bullied

Kids may not always recognise teasing as bullying, but if you notice signs that your child might be being hassled online or by text, address it with your child. Even if you don’t notice the signs, still have the conversation. It’s never too early to learn how to deal with bullies. 

Victims of cyber-bullying are in a vulnerable state, so how you respond to your child is crucial. Your first task is to listen to your child without judgement, blame, or attempting to ‘solve it’. Let them know you appreciate them opening up to you, and reassure them that you are there to listen and not out to restrict their online access. This is a fear that holds many children back from opening up about what’s happening to them. 

Acknowledge your child’s pain. Help them see that that the bully’s actions are not a reflection of something they’ve done, but is a fault of the bully. It’s important that you do not do anything to alienate your child further by angering, confusing or embarrassing him or her.

 Try to refrain from using the words ‘just ignore them’. It’s not always that easy. 

Assessing the problem

Gently ask questions about how long the bullying has been going on for, and how many persons are involved. If they are willing to share with you names then great, but if not, don’t push it until you know exactly what’s going on. Be patient and allow your children to take their time in talking to you about it, as it may be very hard for them to open up about. 

Ask your child if they would like to share any of the messages or comments with you. At the very least, encourage your child to print or save hurtful examples and place them in a saved file. Should the situation worsen, or if you need to take further action, you will need the conversations documented. 

Ask about any retaliation on your child’s part. Ask them to be entirely honest, and remind them that you won’t get angry - we all do things we regret when we’re scared and confused. Do, however, explain that it’s important that they try to stay calm and not do anything that might get them in trouble.

What to do next

Now you know the scope of the problem, assess what support your child needs and the best way to achieve it. Don’t wait to see if the bullying goes away. 

Report the bully and any bullying behaviour to the websites where the bullying occurred, and block the bullies from making further contact. Most social media sites and apps have easy ways to report users and harassment. 

This will help to empower your child, and will reduce the number of attacks. You can also enquire about receiving a new mobile phone number from your child’s phone provider. Many providers will supply this free of charge if you mention the reason. 

Ask your child to tighten up the security and privacy settings on their social media accounts and encourage them to purge their list of friends or followers. These should be limited to their friends of people whom they know they can trust. 

If your child is at school, think about contacting their school principal. Staff will be able to provide support for your child, and you’ll be able to familiarise yourself with the school’s bullying policies. If the bully is a student at the same school, they may be able to step in. 

In the case of severe cyber-bullying (or any bullying, for that matter) away from school grounds, consider speaking with the police. Cyber-bullying can be a crime and can result in serious consequences in extreme cases. To read about the laws related to cyber-bullying in your state, please visit 

As always, it’s important to ensure that your child feels they have a safe and secure environment in their home. This doesn’t necessarily mean taking their computer away; rather, work with them on ways to make sure their online activity is safe and fulfilling. Distract them with fun activities away from the online world, give them plenty of support and remind them that you are there whenever they need you. Increase the amount of time you spend together as a family, and find ways to strengthen these positive friendships. 

You may also wish to consult a counsellor. 

Throughout these processes, monitor your child’s emotional wellbeing and create moments in which your child can feel good about him or herself.

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