When Julie, not her real name, found out that her 12-year-old son was the victim of brutal cyberbullying, she didn’t know how to respond. The Pine Bluff resident, who asked to keep her name anonymous, said she first turned to her pastor, then a professional counselor.
“There were a few kids at school who took pictures of my son and then wrote horrible things about him, posting them online,” Julie said. “It was just devastating. He cried and cried, and I didn’t know what to do. Finally, we pulled him off of social media altogether.”
Online bullying is on the rise among middle and high school students, even as overall rates of bullying in schools have remained steady, according to a federal report released Tuesday.
Twenty percent of students between the ages of 12 and 18 were bullied during the 2016-2017 school year, according to the report from the National Center for Education Statistics, the research arm of the U.S. Education Department. Among those students who faced bullying, 15 percent said they were bullied online or by text, a 3.5 percentage point jump from the 2014-2015 school year.
The report did not indicate why online bullying is increasing, and students were not asked about the websites or social media networks used as conduits for bullying. But Rachel Hansen, a project officer for the National Center for Education Statistics, told the Washington Post that the information can help guide efforts by schools to curb bullying.
“This can help schools and communities determine where to target their bullying prevention strategies,” said Hansen, noting that bullying has declined overall in the past decade.
Kathryn C. Seigfried-Spellar, an associate professor inPurdue University’s Department of Computer & Information Technology, told The Post that the reported increase could stem from a greater willingness to report online bullying or a deeper awareness among students about what it looks like.
Seigfried-Spellar said students become less inhibited with digital separation because they don’t have to witness the emotional toll exacted by bullying or deal with the immediate consequences.
“It’s easier to do something because you don’t have to worry about a physical repercussion,” she said. “It removes that personal experience.”
According to stopbullying.gov, a child may be involved in cyberbullying in several ways. A child can be bullied, bully others, or witness bullying. Parents, teachers, and other adults may not be aware of all the digital media and apps that a child is using. The more digital platforms that a child uses, the more opportunities there are for being exposed to potential cyberbullying.
Many of the warning signs that cyberbullying is occurring happen around a child’s use of their device. Some of the warning signs that a child may be involved in cyberbullying are:
• Noticeable increases or decreases in device use, including texting.
• A child exhibits emotional responses (laughter, anger, upset) to what is happening on their device.
• A child hides their screen or device when others are near, and avoids discussion about what they are doing on their device.
• Social media accounts are shut down or new ones appear.
• A child starts to avoid social situations, even those that were enjoyed in the past.
• A child becomes withdrawn or depressed, or loses interest in people and activities.
WHAT DO TO WHEN CYBERBULLYING HAPPENS
If you notice warning signs that a child may be involved in cyberbullying, take steps to investigate that child’s digital behavior. Cyberbullying is a form of bullying, and adults should take the same approach to address it: support the child being bullied, address the bullying behavior of a participant, and show children that cyberbullying is taken seriously. Because cyberbullying happens online, responding to it requires different approaches. If you think that a child is involved in cyberbullying, there are several things you can do:
• Notice – Recognize if there has been a change in mood or behavior and explore what the cause might be. Try to determine if these changes happen around a child’s use of their digital devices.
• Talk – Ask questions to learn what is happening, how it started, and who is involved.
• Document – Keep a record of what is happening and where. Take screenshots of harmful posts or content if possible. Most laws and policies note that bullying is a repeated behavior, so records help to document it.
• Report – Most social media platforms and schools have clear policies and reporting processes. If a classmate is cyberbullying, report it the school. You can also contact app or social media platforms to report offensive content and have it removed. If a child has received physical threats, or if a potential crime or illegal behavior is occurring, report it to the police.
• Support – Peers, mentors, and trusted adults can sometimes intervene publicly to positively influence a situation where negative or hurtful content posts about a child. Public Intervention can include posting positive comments about the person targeted with bullying to try to shift the conversation in a positive direction. It can also help to reach out to the child who is bullying and the target of the bullying to express your concern. If possible, try to determine if more professional support is needed for those involved, such as speaking with a guidance counselor or mental health professional.
Back in Pine Bluff, Julie said that she will likely not allow her son to return to social media “unless he is under strict supervision.”
“I think that where most cyberbullying takes place, it’s out of the eyes of adults, and kids just run wild with it,” Julie said. “It can have long-term, harmful effects. I hope that more parents will start monitoring their kids online.”