Bullies have been around for ages. But with social media, they have a bigger playing field. For today’s children, cyber-bullying is a real threat that can have serious mental and physical health consequences.
“Many parents don’t know what to do because social media is such a huge part of young peoples’ lives,” says Ashraf Ismail, MD, medical director of emergency room psychiatry at St. Joseph Hospital, Orange. “Telling a young person to stay off social media probably won’t work. Instead, you have to have your child’s confidence so that he or she will come to you when there’s a problem and work with you to keep the harmful elements at bay.”
What exactly is cyber bullying? It’s more than just someone spreading unfavorable messages about another. Some cyber bullies stalk their victims, sending personal, targeted messages with the intention of scaring them. Others intentionally exclude someone from a group and torment them after they’re left out. Still, others pose as someone else to damage their reputation.
There are far too many tragic instances where teens who have harmed themselves or even committed suicide may have been influenced by cyberbullying inflicted on them via the internet and social media. If you’re the parent of a teen, talk with them today about suicide and mental health. Learn how to navigate this sensitive but vital conversation.
It’s not always easy to tell if your child is being cyber-bullied because although some will suddenly drop off social media, many will stay active online, trying to reach out to friends or respond to the bully. However, a child who is being bullied tends to show signs of stress, aloofness or depression. He or she can also begin falling behind in school work and grades start to suffer.
If your child lets you know they’re being bullied or you suspect it’s happening, don’t let the problem fester. Continued bullying will affect your child’s mental –and possibly physical –health. Take these steps to make sure bullying stops:
- Talk about the situation. Listen and support your child, understanding his or her concerns. A child may feel guilty about responding to an inappropriate message in a manner he or she knows is inappropriate. Don’t be quick to judge, but talk it out and help to find better solutions.
- Understand what is happening. Ask your child to describe how and when the bullying happens and who is doing it. Assure your child that you’re going to develop a solution together rather than retaliating by yourself.
- Formulate a sensible response. Fighting back against a bully rarely helps. Instead, develop a strategy in which your child tells the bully to leave him alone, virtually "walks away" from the bully, or has a teacher or coach step in. Also offer help in blocking the bully on the phone and social media.
- Encourage safe use of social media. Make sure your child isn’t venturing onto unsafe sites or corresponding with strangers. Develop family rules for safe use of electronic devices.
- Develop trust and get passwords. Ask your child his or her social media passwords so you can monitor activities. Make it understood that this is for safety reasons, not a breach of privacy. Don’t just take away devices, but find a way to encourage safe activity together.
You’ll also need to take action with others to ensure the bullying stops. Report cyber bullying to your child’s school or coach. If your child has been physically attacked or you feel there is imminent physical harm, talk to school officials and call the police. You should also find out if your child’s school has an anti-bullying policy and, if there isn’t one, insist that a policy is established.
“Some parents might be inclined to just let the situation work itself out and not get involved,” says Dr Ismail. “But we now know that bullying is a serious and dangerous situation. Putting an end to cyber-bullying helps everyone in a community. By addressing the problem early, you will assist your child and others who are or could just easily become victims.”
This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional's instructions.