Photograph by First Glimpse Photography / Shutterstock
Photograph by First Glimpse Photography / Shutterstock

Screen time use is up—and so is cyberbullying

How to recognize the signs and help your kids

Clinical psychologist Jamie Howard recalls talking to a mother recently who noticed her daughter was staying in her bedroom and crying often. The teen finally revealed that all her friends formed a separate group chat without her and had become anxious about why they excluded her and what they were saying behind her back.

“We had her strengthen other friendships and make new friends to rebuild her self-esteem and remind her that she’s very likable,” says Howard, who specializes in anxiety and mood disorders at the Child Mind Institute. “We got her doing more dance, walking her dog—more activity that naturally brings about self-confidence.”

Howard’s case isn’t unusual. According to the Centers for Disease Control, around 33 percent of middle school and 30 percent of high school students have experienced cyberbullying. And with ongoing pandemic-related closures, kids are spending more time online.

A recent study by L1GHT analyzed millions of websites and social platforms early in the COVID-19 pandemic. They found a 70 percent increase in bullying and abusive language among kids and teens on social media and chat forums, a 40 percent increase in toxicity on gaming platforms, and a 200 percent spike in traffic to hate sites.

Teachers are also struggling to manage online security concerns amid school closures, including the appearance of anonymous Instagram accounts being used to bully students and classroom “Zoom-bombing,” when an uninvited user disrupts a video call with obscene gestures or racial slurs.

“We’ve always had problems with bullying,” Howard says. “But it looks different now.”

Victims of cyberbullying are at risk of depression, anxiety, substance abuse, low self-esteem, poor school performance, and an increased risk of suicidal behavior. In addition, information posted online is difficult to erase and can affect future school and job prospects. This October, National Bullying Prevention Awareness Month is happening when kids are spending an unprecedented amount of time on screens—here’s how to recognize, respond to, and prevent cyberbullying.

Recognize cyberbulliying warning signs

Cyberbullying can be hard to spot since it’s not always on public display. Common tactics include posting mean comments; spreading rumors on social media; threatening to harm someone; telling someone to hurt themselves; posting embarrassing photos or videos; doxing (sharing private data like addresses and phone numbers); or posting hate speech related to a person’s race, religion, or sexual orientation.

Teachers and peers are often among the first to recognize signs of bullying, but having fewer eyes and ears on them during virtual learning can make it more difficult to see. “One of the coping mechanisms for cyber victims is to tell a friend. But now, with more social isolation, it’s harder to get access to peers, school counselors, and teachers,” says family medicine physician Farah Khan, founder and director of the MC Free Clinic in Iowa. “During the pandemic, the burden of being extra-vigilant is on parents who already have their plates full.”

Khan says that while it’s normal for kids to be more irritable during the pandemic, parents should look for changes in their child’s typical behavior, including worsening grades, changes in sleep or appetite, depression, suicidal thoughts, and self-harm.

The effects of cyberbullying can look very similar to depression, says Megan Moreno, the principal investigator of the Social Media and Adolescent Health Research Team at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. A child might disengage from friends and family, not come out of their room, obsessively look at their phone or computer, or become secretive about what they’re doing online. Moreno says it’s crucial to check in regularly and ask open-ended questions about what they’re doing online and how it makes them feel. (“How was your Zoom class? Did you see anything on social media that upset you?”)

What to do if you think your child is being cyberbullied

If parents are concerned their child is being bullied, Moreno says the best strategy is to be upfront about what you see. (“It seems like you’re staying up later, and I’ve noticed that you’re tired during the day. Do you want to talk about what’s going on?”) If kids aren’t opening up to the parent, try enlisting other adult role models they feel comfortable with, like their pediatrician, therapist, guidance counselor, or other family member.

If a child discloses a bullying incident, don’t panic. Parents should get the facts, reassure the child, and work with them on problem-solving strategies. For example, if you have a college-age family friend—someone closer to their age—they can talk to the child about how they handled bullying while they were in school. “A lot of people have been through something like this,” Howard says. “It can be comforting to know you’re not the only one and to get some advice from someone who you think is a little more current.”

Howard also encourages kids to spend as much time as possible with people who are nice to them and doing activities they enjoy. “It’s very hard right now because the typical recommendations are more challenging to implement [during the pandemic], so you have to be more creative.” Think about social activities that the child can do safely, like having people over for a backyard cookout, doing outdoor activities, or having a physically distanced lunch at the park.

Howard says taking their device away is not the solution. “Right now, there’s much less for them to do. They’re already at risk of depression because there’s a lack of reinforcing activities, so taking away their phone is not recommended.”

If the child can avoid the person who is bullying—for example, by blocking them on social media—Howard says the parent doesn’t necessarily need to intervene. But if they can’t escape the situation and it’s interfering with their ability to learn, it’s time for parents to get involved.

“Children have a right to attend school without undue distress,” she says. “So if they need to be on a Zoom call, but everyone’s making faces at them or doing things the teacher doesn’t notice, the parent needs to let the school know.” Howard recommends asking the child if you can talk to the teacher in a way that respects their privacy, or asking if they want to talk to the teacher together.

She notes that kids who are bullying others also need help. They tend to be more irritable and may come across as arrogant, less cooperative with household rules, or treat their own parents poorly. “If you’re having a hard time with behavioral problems with your child, you can say, Do you treat others like this? What are your friendships like? Because this isn’t OK to do to other people.”

Whether a child is being bullied or bullying others, Howard recommends talking to a pediatrician or therapist if they’re experiencing high levels of impairment, emotional distress, or acting out.

How parents can help prevent cyberbullying

Khan says one of the best ways to help kids navigate bullying is to teach safe online behavior and promote resilience through a healthy lifestyle.

In addition to encouraging a healthy diet, physical exercise, and sleep hygiene to keep kids feeling good, Khan says parents should establish rules about responsible online activity. That includes telling them not to share personal information, click unknown links, take explicit photos, talk to strangers, or post mean comments. The pandemic can also be an opportunity to spend more time with kids, learn about them, and promote prosocial values, like tolerance and respect for others’ differences.

“Ask meaningful questions about their online experiences, let them know that it’s safe for them to be open with you, and remind them that they won’t lose online privileges,” she says. (“I noticed you're spending a lot of time on TikTok. How is that going? Are kids being nice to each other?”)

Howard says parents should also monitor what kids are reading and sharing online, especially if they’ve decided to allow kids under 13 to be on social media. Be honest and tell them when you’re using parental controls or software monitoring to look at their online activity. "They know that you’re periodically looking, so they learn early on that ‘I have to post as if someone I care about is going to see it.’”

Finally, parents should empower their kids to be good upstanders and discuss intervention strategies. Studies have found that bystanders can play an important role in bullying outcomes. One study found that in 57 percent of cases where a bystander intervened, the bullying stopped within 10 seconds. Kids who are defended by their peers are also less depressed and anxious.

If a child sees bullying in real-time, they can intervene by questioning the behavior, changing the subject, diffusing the situation through humor, making positive statements about the target of bullying, and reaching out to them privately to let them know they’re not alone. Kids can also help prevent bullying from happening by being inclusive and kind to others, and talking to a trusted adult when they’re concerned about someone.

“Empower kids to be upstanders and praise them for positive behavior,” Howard says. “There can be a lot of pride in doing the right thing and standing up for what you believe in.”