Cyberbullying in social media is the newest of all the 6 types of bullying. And as parents today, we face the critical dilemma of trying to understand and solve this tech-driven problem that we never had growing up. Yes, bullying has been around for ages – don’t get me wrong - but if you had an issue with some kids at school, you knew that once you got home, you would be safe. To get a better understanding of this, let’s paint a picture...
Anna was 15 years old and had just started going to a new high school. She was young, pretty, impressionable and eager to make friends. She’d quickly gotten to know all the kids in her class and found a particular group that she really wanted to be a part of. You could call this the ‘popular’ crowd for lack of a better label. Each girl in that group was confident, beautiful, and envied by all the other girls.
One day, Anna finally plucked up the courage to talk to them during lunch and she was greeted with cold smiles. The frontrunner of the group asked her to join them at the table, and then started to quiz her on her life.
The group soon became a lot more friendly as Anna spoke and it made her feel quite comfortable to keep on sharing. Before she knew it, she’d rattled on about herself for 30 minutes. She even told them all about the crush she had on one of the boys in their class. The bell rang and everybody went back to class. As Anna walked away, she had already received 5 new friend requests on Facebook - one from each girl and a message saying, “It was so awesome to meet you”.
You can only imagine the complete shock and mind-numbing disbelief that filled her later that day when a random person from her class sent her a private message with a link, with the words: “Hey, new girl – you might want to take a look at this...”
How cyberbullying in social media twisted her time in high school
When she clicked on the link, she was directed to a fake Facebook profile that had been made for her. The account already had 500 friends – including everyone from her new school. And it had been started up with her real email and telephone number. She was getting streams of messages from random people throwing vulgar slurs at her, and calling her a wh*re and a sl*t.
With each ‘ping’ that the phone made, Anna came closer and closer to being sick. It was pretty clear that it was this same group of girls who she’d wanted to befriend that had started this account, as she hadn’t given anyone else her personal information.
Cruel is a kind word for what these girls had done. Each picture on Anna’s fake account was of her being realistically photoshopped into an obscene sexual photograph. Now it was publicly posted for the world to see. What shattered her heart the fastest was the fact that the girls had tagged the guy Anna liked in some of these promiscuous photos. And they used the words, “Do you like what you see?” captioned at the bottom.
No matter how quickly she deleted the account, all that information was already out there. She began getting calls and being stalked by strange men. There were even viral threads about her sexually explicit behaviour. Never mind the fact that she hadn’t even heard about half of the sexual things that these girls claimed she did – Anna was still a virgin.
Sinking to the bottom, before climbing back up to the top
From there, things got really nasty. The girls started to send her instant messages, telling her that she was going to die and that they were going to kill her. Anna was now afraid to leave the house, to have friends, and even to pick up the phone. Cyberbullying in social media changed her life. She lived in fear for so many years because she had no idea how to deal with such a viral situation. After leading the rest of her high school years as a social recluse, Anna made the decision to choose a university that was far away from home so she could finally start afresh.
Cyberbullying in social media and teens
Everything in your life starts to change when you hit puberty. From your body and your emotions to your perception of life – no rock is left unturned. This is a stage in each one of our lives where we want to better understand who we are and how we fit into this world. As a parent, you want to foster independence and self-resilience in your child. While as the teen, you want to detach yourself from your parents a bit so that you can gauge what you’re capable of doing alone.
This is normal. It’s a time where you learn so much more about yourself and the world. But if you want this process to be a positive one, then it's important for both you and your teen to develop an understanding of when it’s okay to let go and when it’s still a good idea to hold on.
Unfortunately, at the age of 15, you haven’t yet had enough experience to know what action and consequence really means. For Anna to share a little too much personal information with some spiteful girls was definitely a mistake. But in no world, other than the one with technology that we live in today, could something as catastrophic as this happen. Sexual bullying has been happening for years, but never before has it been possible to pin the treacherous stories onto a platform for the world to see.
Cyberbullying in social media facts
According to the American Cyberbullying Research Centre, cyberbullying is defined as when someone “repeatedly makes fun of another person online or repeatedly picks on another person through email or text message or when someone posts something online about another person that they don’t like.”
Some of the most common forms of cyberbullying in social media include:
- Sending hurtful messages to someone via text or email.
- Spreading rumours through text or email.
- Hacking into someone’s social media accounts or web pages and posting spiteful information.
- Taking images of sensitive situations that an individual is in and posting it online or using it as emotional blackmail. This can range from sexually suggestive pictures to unflattering visuals of that individual which can leave them feeling embarrassed or humiliated.
- Posting nasty comments or information on social media about someone.
After conducting a number of surveys, here are some of the cyberbullying in social media facts that the the American Cyberbullying Research Centre has recently shared with the public:
- Over 80% of teenagers use a cell phone regularly.
- Teenage girls are far more likely to have experienced cyberbullying at some point in their lives.
- Boys are more likely to report a cyberbullying incident than girls.
- While girls receive more mean and upsetting messages online, boys are more likely to be sent threatening messages.
- About 10 – 20% of the youth experience some form of cyberbullying in social media on a regular basis.
- Cyberbullying has no societal boundaries – it can affect anyone, of any race or gender, at any time.
Cyberbullying in social media causes and effects
Technology has allowed us to connect us across the globe – making a virtual presence possible and communication easier. Overall, these little smart devices that we carry around on a daily basis give us instant access to more information than we could have ever gotten as children.
And over the last 30+/- years, technology has undoubtedly improved many aspects of our lives - chatting to a friend in another country can cost you nothing; working from home has become a realistic request for many employees; and even finding free valuable information online is easy enough. (You wouldn’t be reading this article if that weren’t true!)
However, what we haven’t accounted for (and are only starting to learn now), is how all children born with access to these tools are a lot more vulnerable to the negative effects that can come with public exposure, than we ever were.
It’s not that technology wasn’t around in the 70s, 80s, and 90s. But it hadn’t quite reached the point where it granted individuals instant and global access to information yet. While we grew up dialling our friend’s home lines to chat to them after school. Kids today have the ability to share information and keep in touch with their friends without ever having to make a call. More astonishingly, they can do it instantly and inform all 700 Facebook friends at the same time.
If you consider just how quickly information can travel, and how engaged the children of today are with technology. It should be enough of an indicator to show you how seriously the causes and effects of cyberbullying in social media need to be taken.
Many kids who bully others have taken to cyberbullying over regular forms of bullying because:
- It’s much easier to conceal their identity with the use of pseudonyms or fake profiles. Meaning, they can continue to bully others for long periods of time without being caught.
- It’s much easier to get more attention from their actions as cyber-attacks can go viral.
- They have more choice around who they can bully as they never have to confront the person face to face.
- They are able to act more aggressively. This is because it’s often easier to be cruel over social media as they cannot see the immediate response of the victim.
Much like any other form of bullying, cyberbullying in social media can be very damaging to a child’s development. It could even trigger an adverse childhood experience (ACE). The most common concerns associated with bullying include: anxiety, depression, and even suicidal tendencies. To get the full list, you can read our article on How Bullying Affects Your Child's Ability to Learn At School.
The biggest differentiator with severe cyber-attacks is that they can haunt a victim for much longer than any other form of bullying. Because once something has already started circulating on the Internet, it’s very difficult to remove it afterwards.
How to prevent cyberbullying in social media
Preventing bullying as a whole, especially if a problem has already manifested, does need a little bit more care and attention. So, if cyberbullying in social media is an issue that you’re facing right now, then you may want to take a look at our free bully awareness course. This course has been designed to help you resolve any bullying issue that your child might be going through. It gives you the necessary tools as a parent to approach the topic more tactfully. It facilitates constructive dialogue between you and your child. And it uses interactive exercises to find realistic solutions for your child’s particular case.
If you just want to get a head start in better understanding how to prevent cyberbullying, then there are a few things that you can do right away that will help:
#1 – Get control of the situation
The most important rule to remember with social media and in having an online presence is learning how to be in control of the information that you share and who you share it with. From there, it's important to understand that any action you take can have a consequence. Your child should always:
- Keep their social media passwords to themselves. Never write them down, and especially not in a place where it’s easy for friends to find.
- Make a rule to never share anything over text with a friend that they wouldn’t want to be made public if it were to be shared. Anything posted electronically can be used against them in the future, so they need to understand action and consequence.
- Ensure that their most intimate personal information is not online. A good example of this would be putting their cellphone number up on Facebook.
- Stick to making friends and meeting new people in person and not online. It’s easy for someone to conceal their true identity online or mislead another person regarding their true intentions. This is particularly true for young teenage girls who are most vulnerable to sexual exploitation.
- Stay calm when they are concerned that someone may want to bully them on social media. At this point, they should block that user, make their account invisible and keep a low social profile for a while.
#2 – Encourage open communication
Keeping open communication with your child is very important. Even if they know that there are consequences to sharing private information online, the “relax – it won’t happen to me” mentality is often their first approach. And if something bad does happen, they’re often too scared or embarrassed to approach you afterwards anyway.
- If you can share practical and real cyberbullying examples, it can help you get the point across that you’re trying to make.
- Remind them that you are there if they have any issues. If they are a victim of a cyberbullying attack then they will not be punished. Being manipulated and bullied is not their fault.
- Try and make sure that you always have a time during the day where you put your devices down and talk to each other openly. This is always a great thing to do during dinner or if you’re taking the dogs for a walk. The bottom line is that you can make time on a regular basis to chat with one another.
#3 – Be smart about it
It’s impossible to keep your children away from social media. The use of technology in general is rapidly growing and becoming a more integral part of our daily lives all of the time. What is possible, however, is putting healthy tech habits into action starting from when your kids are young so that you can prevent the chances of it being misused when they are older.
- Try to wait until your child is around 12 - 13 years old before giving them a cellphone. Until high school, there’s very little use for a cellphone anyway. And the more mature they are when they get one, the safer they will be when using it.
- Make sure that you, as the parent, always have access to their accounts so that you can step in if a situation is getting out of hand.
- Until your child is in high school, try and keep computers set up in more communal areas so that you can keep an eye on them while they’re using the internet. It’s also a good idea to block any sites that you do not want them to have access to at that stage.
- If your child is being cyberbullied, make sure that they keep all of the evidence so that you have enough information to build a case if the situation gets out of hand and you need to step in.
As you can see from what we have shared from the Cyberbullying Research Centre, current research shows that cyberbullying in social media is neither a massive epidemic, nor something of a rarity. It is a very real and serious concern which has developed over the years, and is continuing to grow at a steady rate. If we want to stay on top of this issue and get better control of it, it is vital that we stay well-informed about how it is manifesting and that we teach our children about cyber-safety from the get-go - in ways that are practical and understandable to them.