The world seems to have come to a standstill with the coronavirus lockdown keeping a majority of the population indoors. In many countries, schools have been shut in an effort to contain the spread of the virus, as a result, millions of students are accessing their lessons online. Whether it is for classes or for virtual playdates, children are now spending long hours in front of screens. With all interactions now screen-based, is there a risk of an increase in cyberbullying? We asked California-based child psychologist Dr. Laura Kauffman to weigh in on the measures that parents can take to address the dangers of cyberbullying.
With classes and other activities being shifted online due to the coronavirus and an increase in children’s screen time, is there a risk of a rise in cyberbullying?
Dr. Kauffman: There is always a risk of cyberbullying during increased periods of time in which a young person is online. That said, I have not heard of an increase in cyberbullying incidents among my clients. Rather, I have heard that young people are, generally, being very supportive of one another, at this time. The pandemic has allowed them to step back and see “what matters.” While I am certain cyberbullying is still happening, I think many young people are also operating with a more open and compassionate mindset.
It is important to explain to children that there will be consequences if you learn that they are the perpetrator of cyberbullying.
What are some of the measures parents can take to help reduce the chances of their child being cyberbullied?
I advise parents to strive for a healthy foundation of communication and openness with their children. We [must] communicate through our words and actions that we love and accept our children without question.
With this solid foundation, we can invite children into a conversation about cyberbullying. It is important for parents to educate their kids about it and explain the different ways in which young people can cyberbully one another such as via direct messages on Instagram, sharing private photos without permission or spreading rumours via text.
Parents should explain what their values are around cyberbullying and what kind of expectations they have for their children. It is important to explain to them that if they share that they are the victim of cyberbullying, you won’t limit their access to phones or devices, but there will be consequences if you learn that they are the perpetrator of cyberbullying.
How does being cyberbullied affect children? How does it differ as they grow older?
Depending upon a child’s unique psychological profile and adjustment, they will respond differently to becoming a victim of cyberbullying. Children who have a solid self-concept and strong social support will likely heal from cyberbullying without too much trauma. However, more vulnerable children are prone to experiencing helplessness, hopelessness, humiliation, isolation, physical symptoms including headaches and stomach aches, depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideation.
Cyberbullying is particularly painful for teenagers as they transition from their family to the peer group as their main source of social support. Disruptions in their experience of connection and belongingness are devastating. There are many examples of adults who developed long-term and enduring beliefs about themselves because of one or more cyberbullying incidents.
Children who have a solid self-concept and strong social support will likely heal from cyberbullying without too much trauma.
If a child complains of being cyberbullied, what are some of the measures that a parent can take to help counter this?
Firstly, it is important to explain to your child that cyberbullying is not OK and it is never acceptable. Parents should communicate that children who cyberbully are typically young people who are feeling weak or vulnerable, in some way. People often try to fix these feelings by asserting their power over another person. Thus, when someone is cyberbullying another person, it signals more about the cyberbully’s vulnerabilities than the worth and value of the victim.
Secondly, if the cyberbully is someone who attends the same school, parents should investigate whether their school has a cyberbullying policy. Assuming the school does, parents should gather evidence of cyberbullying such screenshots, images, dates and times of the incidents and share them with the school.
Thirdly, if the perpetrator does not attend the same school or is not known to the children, parents can gather and submit evidence of the cyberbullying to social media companies. This can be found on each company’s safety page.