Parents have a key role to play in protecting children from cyberbullies, writes Professor Mona O’Moore
Difficult as it has been to prevent and counter traditional bullying, cyberbullying poses signiﬁcant new challenges for society.
While much cyberbullying among children and teenagers is activated outside of school hours, the hurtful behaviours and damage caused arise largely from relationship problems (e.g. intolerance, envy, break-ups and ganging up), which are formed during school hours.
Thus, it is crucial that schools take leadership of this problem and develop policies and practices that will help all their members, namely the teachers, parents, pupils and the wider school community, to understand the problem and to take effective action.
In Ireland we are seeing an increasing growth of cyberbullying, with approximately one in four girls and one in six boys reporting that they have been targeted. Internationally, there is evidence which indicates that the more technogically advanced children become, the higher the rate of cyberbullying.
As children of increasingly younger ages are gaining access to smartphones and personal computers – the two main tools used to cyberbully – there is a clear risk of the problem growing. This means that younger and younger children, through no fault of their own, are at risk of being under attack from humiliating, threatening and sexually explicit messages and/or images. The perpetrators of cyberbullying also stand to lose as school bullying is a signiﬁcant risk factor for a range of anti-social, criminal and health outcomes in later life.
The most common methods that children and teenagers use to cyberbully one another are text messaging/images, emails, instant messaging, blogs, chat rooms and websites. Cyberbullying, like traditional bullying, is most often deliberate and persistent, but unlike traditional bullying it can more often be anonymous.
It is this anonymity of cyberbullying that can be particularly unsettling and frightening for the victim. Adding salt to the proverbial wound is also the knowledge that any deeply disturbing messages and images that are sent or posted online are there for millions of people to see and potentially for an unlimited period of time.
It is critical that children from as young an age as possible learn to refrain from cyberbullying. They must learn how to cope with it should they ﬁnd themselves subjected to it or indeed be witness to it. It is also important that all who care for children and teenagers learn how they can best assist to prevent cyberbullying and to deal with it effectively.
It cannot be emphasised enough that to progress our understanding of a ﬁeld that involves children as much as cyberbullying does, we need to listen to them. It is what they say that will enhance our understanding and guide us in developing the most effective policies and practices to tackle cyberbullying.
Every day, children and adolescents across the globe go online and make decisions that can compromise their safety, security and privacy. They can chat with each other, listen to music, view videos, go shopping and ﬁnd information to almost all of their queries. In Ireland, half of all nine- to 16-year-olds have been found to use the internet on a daily basis, with this rising to three-quarters of all adolescents.
Children as young as ﬁve are members of virtual worlds such as Moshi Monsters and Club Penguin, and it has been noted that young children become more distressed when things go wrong; for example, when they are socially excluded from games by friends, when friends and siblings misuse their online proﬁles and when they encounter virtual losses (games being hijacked or ruined, or losing virtual currency).
The ﬁrst step for parents in safeguarding their children from being cyberbullied is to determine their child’s level of understanding of the risks involved when they are accessing the internet. The knowledge they possess should guide the level of ﬁltering software, supervision and monitoring that may be required to keep them safe from inappropriate content and undesirable online friendships.
Although sites such as YouTube, Facebook, Flickr and Twitter stipulate that members must be 13 or older, there is evidence to show that close to 40% of 11 to 12-year-olds have a social networking proﬁle despite the age restriction. It has also been shown that 80% of children under 13 years of age who have an account on a social networking site received help to set one up from their parents (33% from a father; 30% from a mother), siblings (17%) and friends (30%).
Parents need to be aware that young children’s knowledge about internet risks may not always translate into safe behaviours during internet encounters. Parents must stay vigilant about their young children’s online behaviour. Also, to reduce unnecessary risks regarding online contact and material, parents should install ﬁltering software to prevent upsetting and inappropriate content when children navigate the web.
Family safety settings in Microsoft Windows 8 and parental controls in Windows 7 and Windows Vista help to create a safer online environment for children by allowing parents to track and monitor their online activities. Blocking or allowing access to selected websites and choosing which games or apps children can access is also possible.
One way to overcome the potential problems of allowing children to connect to the internet in their bedrooms is to sign up to a parental control system, such as Norton 360. This will allow you to know which websites and social networks your child visit.
But no amount of software will be foolproof in avoiding hateful or sexual content. It is well known that children and adolescents often access the internet using smartphones or computers outside the home. Also, many technologically-sophisticated children can get around the ﬁltering and blocking software used by parents. So the solution to protecting children from harmful material and contacts is to strike a balance between monitoring and digital literacy.
However, most beneﬁcial is building trust and encouraging non-judgmental open dialogue with children. Adolescents in particular can become defensive and irritated when they are made to feel that they cannot manage their own affairs – it strips them of their conﬁdence, making them feel inferior and dependent.
Children thrive when they are given the freedom to discover things for themselves and to overcome obstacles. They tend to conﬁde in their parents more when they feel valued and listened to and receive feedback which is non-judgmental and positive.
Parents should take the precaution of talking to children about cyberbullying and not wait until it happens. They should emphasise that it is not uncommon for children to feel shame or to blame themselves when they are victims of cyberbullying, and explain that they understand why children may be reluctant to share their problem. However, it is important to let children know that, should they ﬁnd themselves subjected to cyberbullying, no one will think worse of them or deny them their phone or online access, but that they will get help to resolve the situation.
* Professor Mona O’Moore is the founding director of the National Anti-Bullying Research and Resource Centre. Extract taken from her new book Understanding Cyberbullying: A Guide for Parents and Teachers published by Veritas.