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How do I start a conversation about cyberbullying with my child?

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The internet is the newest place for children and teens to communicate and share moments with their peers. While it can be a positive place for students to interact, the rise of technology has also led to a new and serious form of bullying, known as cyberbullying. Cyberbullying is defined as the use of technology to send or share mean, threatening, or embarrassing messages or images to or about someone. It might be in a text, email, message, on social media, or in a post online. Just as it’s important to talk with your child about bullying, it’s important to discuss cyberbullying as soon as your child starts to interact online. Discuss what information is and isn’t appropriate to share online, as well as establishing cyber rules together, such as what sites your child will be allowed to use and hours of usage. During this conversation, explain that if something hurtful is shared online (via words, images, videos, etc.), it counts as cyberbullying, and it’s important that you know about it. Together, you can strategize a plan to respond to the cyberbullying and keep kids safe online.

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Imagine walking the hallway of a middle school and seeing the words “ugly loser” written on the locker of a sixth grade student, the bold letters overshadowing a student’s personal space at school. Some peers point and laugh as they pass by; others look away with expressions that can’t be read. Someone notifies school staff and they react quickly and it’s removed, but the light shadows of the black marker remain smudged on the door, ever present as a daily reminder of someone’s intent to publicly humiliate another student.

Now imagine that same message posted within an anonymous app or sent in a group text message. It’s not only those walking in the hallway that see the hurtful words. Now, peers share the message through social media or text, and the number of those who can access the image and words grows significantly over time.

The internet has become the new bathroom wall, a place where children post mean and inappropriate comments about their peers. Not just a few people within a school can see them, but literally an audience of thousands now has access. The rise of technology has led to this new and serious form of bullying, known as cyberbullying.

Cyberbullying is defined as the use of technology to send or share mean, threatening, or embarrassing messages or images to or about someone. It might be in a text, email, message, on social media, or in a post online. What makes cyberbullying unique is that it can happen any time, day or night, and it’s public — an online incident could be instantly seen by hundreds of peers. It can also be anonymous, which can induce greater fear for the target of bullying. Below are five tips to start the cyberbullying conversation with your child and keep them safe online.

1. Help your child define cyberbullying

Just as it is important to talk with your child about bullying, it’s important to discuss cyberbullying as soon as your child starts to interact online. It may be hard for children to talk about bullying with their parents for many reasons — they could be embarrassed by what’s happening or believe it’s their fault. Children may also worry that they will lose access to their technology if they tell an adult. Cyberbullying adds additional complications, as students might not interpret the mean and hurtful behavior online as bullying.

2. Open the conversation about what information to share online

As you begin this open conversation, start by discussing what is and isn’t appropriate information to share online. This is often talked about in the same way you would talk with your child about being safe at school, at the neighborhood park, or in playing sports.

Let them know it’s fine to use phones and computers, as well as being online with friends, but you want them to be safe. Explain that if something hurtful is shared online (via words, images, videos, etc.), it counts as cyberbullying, and it’s important that you know about it. Reassure them that you won’t respond by removing access to their accounts, but that together you will handle the situation.

3. Establish cyber rules

It’s also important to set up cyber safety rules. Together, create a code of conduct you both agree on. This can include times your child is allowed to be online or points such as “We will treat others online with the same respect that we do in person.”

After these guidelines are set up, make sure to keep the door of communication open regarding online safety and cyberbullying. This will help your child know how to recognize behaviors that are inappropriate and feel comfortable telling you about it. The established rules can also include what sites your child will be allowed to use, hours of usage, and if you will check their account.

4. Strategize a plan to respond to cyberbullying

If your child does experience cyberbullying, know there are several steps that can be taken to make it stop. Share tips for responding with your child, so they are empowered with options if they encounter inappropriate behavior online.

Emphasize saving all cyberbullying content, including emails, messages, posts, and screenshots. If the cyberbullying occurs on social media, your child can untag themselves from the post or photo, unfriend or block the person, and report the content. Check with your child’s school to see if cyberbullying is included in the school policy. Report the online bullying behavior to your child’s school, principal, or superintendent and include copies of the hurtful content.

5. Encourage students to be good bystanders if they see cyberbullying

Just as it’s important for your child to demonstrate positive behavior online, encourage your child to be a good bystander if they see inappropriate behavior happening to others. There are a variety of steps they can take, whichever feels most safe to them.

Your child can choose not to “like” or share posts that are bullying someone. Even if the content is not targeting them, the child can still report the bullying to the site or any adult they trust. They can also respond with positive support, whether it’s posting a comment showing solidarity or privately messaging the person being bullied. A kind comment or message among a bunch of mean ones can make a huge difference!

A version of this article was printed in Our Children, the National Parent Teacher Association’s magazine in April 2017. Read here

Posted May, 2017

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