It can start with a simple text message or Facebook post. But many kids don't realize one small tease can escalate to a miserable world of cyberbullying. The reason? Simply put, it's easier to bully others without face-to-face interaction.
There may be no pushing, shoving or stealing lunch money – and that's why so many don't think of this type of manipulation as bullying. However, whether the words are spoken or displayed on a screen, the emotional abuse is the same.
That's one of the reasons Stop Cyberbullying Day, which falls on the third Friday of June, was created in 2013. It was invented and launched by the Cybersmile Foundation – which touts being the first and only foundation committed entirely to tackling cyberbullying and online hate campaigns – to raise awareness for this issue.
A closer look at the problem
Today, June 20, 2014, marks the second annual Stop Cyberbullying Day. Its mission is to address the root problem of cyberbullying by changing online behavior and encouraging positivity. And there are strong signs it's needed.
According to stopbullying.gov, cyberbullying has become a huge problem for kids and teens because it's easier for the bully to anonymously get away with the behavior. That also makes it harder for the victim to get away from the behavior.
On average, 87 percent of youth have already witnessed cyberbullying this year alone; that's skyrocketed by almost four times compared to a low 27 percent in 2013, according to a recent McAfee study.
Parents' important role
Parent awareness is a big piece of the puzzle, says Kimber Bishop-Yanke. She's the founder of Kids Empowered. This Birmingham-based group offers programs and events focused on giving boys, girls, parents and schools tips and tools to handle and stop bullying behaviors.
"One of the biggest factors is that parents are not aware of all the different social media sites," Bishop-Yanke says. "So kids are able to access and use technology that their brains are not ready to handle in a responsible way."
Meaning: Moms and dads need to set guidelines and monitor kids' screen use. "The most important thing is teaching your child how you want them to use technology," Bishop-Yanke explains. "Giving them the dos and don'ts."
Tips and strategies
So, what are some of those "rules," and how can you apply them to your kids? Here's a list of ideas from Cybersmile Foundation and Bishop-Yanke.
- Be responsible and private. Talk to kids about the personal details they post on social media, Cybersmile notes. Before joining Facebook, visit its safety page first – ditto any other social media site. "Learn together," the foundation says. Discuss privacy settings and private information, what's off-limits to post and who potentially can see details. Consider how your words and photos can be viewed or used by others before posting.
- Press the pause button. "Never respond to a text message that makes you feel upset – or when feeling upset, mad or sad," Bishop-Yanke advises. "Our kids need to be able to recognize when they are upset and have healthy ways to handle it." She suggests kids wait a few hours, and then respond, "I am not going to have this conversation" or "Too busy for these games."
- Google your kid's name. This is a great exercise for parents, says Cybersmile. See what profile information pops up, "and bear in mind that if you can find it, anyone can." Chat about any concerns. "Be aware of the websites your child visits and what email and social networking sites they use." Review security settings, data protection and online safety procedures if needed.
- Think before 'sharing.' "Tell kids not to post pictures of their get-togethers" on social media, Bishop-Yanke says. On occasion it's OK, she says, but typically, "all it is doing is causing hurt feelings." Cybersmile adds, "If your child has something private to share with a close friend, it may be better to talk face-to-face or over the phone." Another good rule? "Gossiping is not allowed," Bishop-Yanke says.
- 'Learn the lingo.' You probably know some of the abbreviations by now – like POS (parent over shoulder) or LMIRL (let's meet in real life). But they're constantly evolving. Don't be left in the dust: That alphabet soup could also supply clues to bullying that may be happening in your kids' circle. Cybersmile suggests visiting noslang.com for a translator and comprehensive dictionary.
- Be tech-attuned. Keep up with technology, Cybersmile adds. Don't know how your kid's smartphone works or its security features? Ask him to show you. Yes: even "friend" your kid on Facebook. Another great tactic: "Arrange with your child for you or another trusted adult to become their 'friend' on the social media sites they use."
- Be present. Finally, let your child know you're there for him or her. "Encourage your child to come to you immediately should problems arise," Cybersmile notes. And if your child gets a threatening message, Bishop-Yanke adds, "Take it to the principal and/or police."
By building your awareness and being involved, it can protect not only your children's well-being, safety and health – but that of their peers, too.