When cyberbullying hits home

Teenage girl reading material on her laptop

At a glance

  • Bullying that occurs online or via technology is called cyberbullying.
  • Online relationships can be different to face-to-face relationships.
  • Hurtful comments and embarrassing photos posted online are potentially there forever.
  • Solutions to cyberbullying need a whole community approach, not just schools or parents working in isolation.
  • Filters only block certain content and aren't a solution to cyberbullying.
  • Parents need to be aware of the technology their kids are using, and learn to use it as well.

In a world where friends are made with the click of a mouse, it's probably not surprising that relationships are just as easily terminated.

In fact, the New Oxford American Dictionary's word of the year for 2009 was ‘unfriend'. Defined by Oxford University Press as: "to remove someone as a ‘friend' on a social networking site such as Facebook", the word's popularity gives an insight into the volatile nature of many online friendships.

So is unfriending just unfriendly, or is it cyberbullying? What if a group of school mates gang up and publicly unfriend your child all at once – does that constitute bullying? And does the definition of cyberbullying really matter when your child feels hurt?

Bullying knows no bounds

Tilly was about 14 years old when she was cyberbullied by a school friend. Her mum Hannah says the abuse, which lasted about 12 months, started online but affected the family offline as well.

"[Months later] I was up at the bus stop near my youngest child's school, with the Jif and a cloth, rubbing out rude graffiti about Tilly."

Because most cyberbullying happens in the home, parents need to be aware of the technology that young people areusing. Professor Donna Cross Edith Cowan University

In the online world, it can be even harder to clean up the mess. Many kids still don't realise that comments and photos they post online could be there forever, or that once it's out there, you can't control who sends it on and who sees it.

This potentially permanent record of humiliation also makes it easy for kids who are being bullied to reread the abuse, and relive the trauma.

A parent's perspective

Hannah says, with hindsight, she didn't know enough about her daughter's online social life, mainly because the technology was still quite new.

"Tilly leapt into that world very quickly using MySpace, MSN and texting," Hannah says.

"I probably didn't keep up with her and what she was doing online as much as I should have. Whereas now I have a Facebook page and [the girls] have added me as a friend. I can look at what they're doing, what comments and what photos they have, and things like that. Before, it was all new and Tilly was quite secretive about it."

Researchers say many kids won't tell their parents about cyberbullying, fearing the parent will overreact, and either make matters worse or completely ban them from the internet or mobile phone.

Hannah says she felt very frustrated about not knowing the best way to deal with it.

"I tried to not inflame the situation, but I probably did."

Taking control of the problem

One of the important things Hannah did do was control the ‘24/7' nature of the contact, rather than ban her daughter's online access.

"When the phone bill was getting ridiculous at one point, I made a rule that everyone's mobile phone had to be on the kitchen bench by 9.00pm, so that the kids could go to bed without that interruption," she says.

Hannah also spoke with the school and the school counsellor.

"I tried to leave it at some point for them to resolve, but it's not wholly a school issue," she says.

"It goes beyond the bounds of what a school can deal with. It's not all happening within school time."

Who's responsible when cyberbullying hits home?

Child behaviour experts agree that cyberbullying is predominantly a relationship issue, not a technology issue. So who is responsible for teaching kids how to behave online, and what do parents do when their child is faced with cyberbullying?

The authors of the 2008 research paper Behind the Scenes: Insights into the Human Dimension of Covert Bullying describe the dilemma well:

"What has changed are the boundaries between home and school … and between what is acceptable behaviour and what is not."

While schools are making it a priority to address cyberbullying (and good digital-citizenship) in their policies and curricula, the problem needs a whole community approach. Solutions also need to involve social media outlets, cyber-bystanders, parents and the government.

Parents have to be participants

One of the world's leading experts on cyberbullying, Professor Donna Cross, says the most important thing we parents can do is be involved and familiar with our kids' online lives.

"Because most cyberbullying happens in the home, parents need to be aware of the technology that young people are using, so that they can be in that space with them and look at the ways in which they are engaging with their friends," Donna says.

"It's easy for parents to see friendships developing when they're face-to-face, but parents don't understand how those friendships develop online, so parents need to be talking to their children from a very young age about where they're going and what they're doing online – and go and have a practise there themselves."

What if you're just not interested in/ too busy to explore online social networking? Sadly, that doesn't let you off the hook. No amount of filters will replace your active involvement in your child's online life.

That's partly because filters only block certain content. Your child will still have their mobile phone, email accounts, chat rooms and possibly even their gaming equipment through which they can interact with the outside world.

But it's also because when your child faces relationship challenges in their social life (online or offline), you need to have enough shared experiences and understanding of their world for them to feel it's worth telling you.


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