If you discover your child has been, or is being, a cyberbully, you are not alone. Research suggests that between 10 – 20% of students will be a cyberbully at some point, and some research suggests these percentages may be even higher. This means that a lot of parents will discover their child is a cyberbully and need to help change their child’s behavior.
By acknowledging the problem exists you have already taken the first positive step in creating change. Too many parents shut their eyes and deny that their child could do such a thing in spite of the evidence. Unfortunately, when parents choose the path of denial, what they really choose is to deny their child the opportunity to change their behavior and learn from the damage they’ve done.
Here is a list of steps to consider when helping your child change their behavior:
1. Tend to your feelings separately. The realization that your child has, or is being, a cyberbully, is likely to bring up a lot of feelings. You may feel devastated, angry, embarrassed, betrayed, guilty, or experience other emotions that you need to work through. Maybe you were the victim of bullying, or were a bully yourself. Try to keep your reactions and feelings separate so when you talk and work with your child you can focus on their actions, motivation, and needs, not your own.
2. Identify the specific outcomes you want to achieve. Presumably, the generic outcome is that you want the bullying to stop, your child to understand the harm they have caused, change their behavior at a meaningful level (not just fake contriteness to get out of the immediate trouble), and for the victim to feel better. Take this generic version and customize it for your situation; what specifically do you want to see as the outcomes of this intervention for your child or teen, for the social environment they are in, for the victim, and perhaps for your family, and others? The more clearly you can identify the specific outcomes you are seeking, the better you will be able to map out a course of action that will lead to those outcomes and the better you will be able to identify when success has been achieved.
3. Carefully consider how to best handle the situation. There is no cookie cutter solution. Your approach needs to factor in the outcomes you wish to achieve, age of your child, their maturity, the length of time the cyberbullying has been a problem, the severity of the cyberbullying, whether your child was the instigator or is a “tag-along” bully, the age of the victim(s), and so on.
4. Who needs to be involved in the process of change? And who doesn’t? Identify the “team” that needs to work together to coordinate any rehabilitation. This may just be you and your child, or both parents and child, but it may need to extend beyond this scope. Did the cyberbullying impact the school environment, or a team? If so does someone from the school or team need to be part of the turn-around? If your child sees a counselor they should be involved; if they don’t currently see a counselor, should they see one to work through the cyberbullying and any underlying problems? If you are active with a religious group, should that leader be involved? Or not?
Are the police involved? Though laws vary by state, cyberbullying behavior can rapidly tip over into criminal offenses and the victim and their family may have contacted law enforcement or the school may have been required to contact law enforcement.
Many tweens and teens have been shocked to discover their actions constitute a crime and that they will also have to bear the full consequences of their actions within the legal system. If law enforcement is involved, get your child a lawyer – one should be assigned to them free of charge, or you can hire one yourself.
The goal is to identify everyone that will be working with your child or teen on any aspect of this cyberbullying problem – from those who mete out punishment to those who help with supporting the changes that your child needs to make – and to collaborate effectively so your child gets the most unified, consistent message possible.
5. Sit your child or teen down. The conversation with your child needs to be calm and focused on the child/teen and their actions. Depending on the circumstances, determine who should be involved in the initial conversation. Note: this may be outside your hands; you may be the last to know. The school and possibly law enforcement may be the first responders. All you can do in these cases is to step in and try coordinating from whatever point you do become involved.
Sometimes kids open up better to one person; sometimes they are more open when they can see there is a full team involved. It may be a conversation between the child and one parent or caregiver, with both parents and caregivers, with parents and someone from the school/team, with parents and their counselor.
Let your child know you are aware of the cyberbullying, and ask them to tell you the full extent of what they’ve done. It is often better to have them tell you what they’ve done rather than you tell them, as they typically provide more information when they don’t know what you already know. Then, if they haven’t come clean about something you do know, you can probe by saying, “I think there is more you need to explain”.
Try to listen to your child without judgment, blame, or attempting to jump in and “solve” it. Ask questions to discover how long the cyberbullying has been going on, the names of their victim(s), the names of anyone else involved, and the forms of cyberbullying used. If there is evidence of the cyberbullying – text messages, posts, websites, etc. – have your child show these to you and save this documentation should it be needed.
6. Identify motivation. There is no excuse for cyberbullying; but it is important to understand why your child or teen chose to act in this manner, and if there are underlying issues that also need to be addressed. Are they cyberbullying someone in retaliation? Are they cyberbullying because they’re being bullied by someone else – even by someone at home? Are they under a stressor like a divorce, a move, or something else that needs addressing? Did they imagine it was just “funny”? Did they cyberbully to be part of a group that was cyberbullying? Are they short on empathy?
7. Identify consequences. You probably have several ideas about consequences lined up to punish and to begin changing behavior. There may also be consequences imposed by your child or teen’s school, their team, or even by the courts. You do not have to have predetermined all the consequences; these can be modified as the full scope becomes clearer, and adjusted based on whether your child or teen is contrite, defiant, and so on.
Restricted internet privileges. Your child has demonstrated that they are not yet capable of being socially responsible online. Your goal is to help your child master the skills and social conscience needed to be able to return to full internet use when they have demonstrated they are able to do so. Depending on the age of your child, temporarily blocking or restricting access may make sense.
- For younger kids: Blocking access for a time is more feasible with younger children as they are less likely to need the internet to complete school work. They can then go through a period where they are online only when you or another adult are supervising. When they have made full restitution, and demonstrated that they are ready to be socially responsible internet users, you can let them try again with family safety (often called parental controls) tools in place that can monitor conversations and flag you if cyberbullying is occurring. Let them take one small step at a time and demonstrate their responsibility before adding a new privilege. You may also want to call your child’s cell phone carrier and have them turn off any data and texting capabilities in their plan to restrict access until your child has shown you they are ready to master the responsibility that goes with these privileges.
- For older kids and teens: Blocking access is more problematic with older kids as they are likely to need the internet to do their homework, and teens have multiple ways to get online without your supervision. A couple of alternatives are to place family safety monitoring software on their devices that specifically tracks for content that looks like cyberbullying and other risks. Also restrict the amount of time your child or teen is away from home, the amount of time they are online at home, and the conditions under which they are allowed online (like in your presence). Let them take on one small step at a time and demonstrate their responsibility before adding a new privilege. You may also want to call your child’s cell phone carrier and have them turn off any data and texting capabilities in their plan to restrict access until your child has shown you they are ready to master the responsibility that goes with these privileges.
Restrictions in free time. When cyberbullying is accompanied by offline forms of bullying, you may choose to restrict the amount of free time away from home that your child or teen has. If they were part of a group that was cyberbullying, it may make sense for them to stay away from that group for a time.
Many schools suspend students for a number of days for a first cyberbullying offence. For working parents, it can be very problematic to supervise their child during this time, but it is important to ensure this isn’t in essence a vacation for them. They need to be doing their schoolwork, and personal work to change their behavior before returning to school.
Law enforcement may also have set restrictions. Your child may be placed in juvenile detention or have other restrictions placed on their actions pending a trial or as the outcome of a trial.
Required learning. Part of building compassion and empathy is gaining a deeper understanding of how damaging cyberbullying can be to both the victim and the bully. Based on your child’s age, help them gain a deeper insight by learning more about these types of harm. For older children this can include required reading and discussions, or even a full assignment requiring research, and a lengthy report complete with bibliography that outlines the social responsibilities the accompany online use, how victims feel, and the long term consequences of being a bully. Though a report or discussion may begin with your child demonstrating a false sincerity, you are looking to see if that deeper understanding and compassion comes through by the end of the discussion or report.
8. Reparations and restitution. Stopping the cyberbullying is a critical step, but the process is not over until there has been a change of heart and honest attempts at reparations have been made.
This includes requiring your child remove as best they can any damaging messages, images, video, or other content they have generated, and asking their friends or others involved to do the same. Your child may not be able to erase all the cyberbullying content, but they should go to significant lengths to remove as much of it as they can.
In addition to removing malicious content, it may be appropriate to have them post content that says the malicious content was not true, and they apologize for the damage they may have caused.
It is important your child apologize to their victim(s), but how this apology is delivered needs to be based on the situation. The victim may not be ready to hear an apology, in which case writing an apology may be better than delivering one in person.
Whether the court assigns community service work to your child as part of their rehabilitation or not, you may want to consider requiring your child to participate in community service, as this helps build a greater appreciation for the needs of others. You may even consider selecting a few service options, and then asking the victim if they would like to choose from your selection the community service they would find most meaningful for your child to do; this can help the victim feel they’ve been heard and respected.
Watch closely for any signs of retaliation. Most kids don’t like getting into trouble and it can be easier to blame the victim for the troubles they’re in than to admit that they are responsible for their actions. Remain watchful to see if signs of retaliation are present. Any retaliation means your child continues to blame someone else for their misdeeds rather than looking at their own actions.
Understand the potential damage to your child if their bullying or cyberbullying continues. There is little research available today about the long term effects of cyberbullying as the phenomena is so new, but there are significant studies showing the long-term effects of being a bully. These behaviors place your child at higher risk for lifelong negative outcomes if their behavior doesn’t change. Consider the following data points:
Because bullying gets bullies what they want at the moment, they frequently don’t learn the life skills their peers master, such as the ability to compromise, negotiate, and work together to create a mutually supportive environment.
Bullies often end up with a criminal record. A study conducted in Finland found that:
- Nearly 60% percent of boys who researchers classified as bullies in grades six to nine were convicted of at least one crime by the age of 24.
- 40 percent of them had three or more convictions by age 24.
- Among boys who said they had bullied others at least once a week in school, 39 % were involved in frequent fighting and 46 % reported having been injured in a fight.
Research showing that bullies may enjoy a level of popularity and peer status also indicates that they:
- Have trouble making and keeping friends, particularly girl/boyfriends.
- Usually do poorly in school.
- Are in general not liked by their teachers.
- Are at increased risk for abusing alcohol and drugs.
As bullies grow up, they are more likely to continue bullying. This affects their work where they do poorly – no one wants to work with or for a bully, and their relationships – bullies are more likely to abuse their wives, husbands, and children.
We all learn from our mistakes. We either learn that we don’t want to make those mistakes again, or we learn to be smarter and not get caught for our actions. By tackling any cyberbullying incident and working with your child until you can see they’ve internalized a new respect for others, you can help ensure they internalize the right lesson.