Straight Talk About Online Harassment

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Cyberbullying may seem like something that happens to other people, but statistics say otherwise. A recent study from the Pew Research Center found that 40 percent of adults have experienced online harassment and 73 percent have witnessed it. For teens, the numbers are lower, though researchers note that many adolescents don’t report incidents of cyberbullying for the same reason they don’t talk about offline harassment: They feel intimidated and humiliated. They assume nothing can be done, and worry that talking to adults can make the problem worse.

Many children eventually encounter people who use the internet to intimidate, harass and threaten others. Use the following tips and discussion points to proactively talk to your children about cyberbullying, how to prevent it and what can be done when it happens.

Recognize it when you see it. Cyberbullying comes in many forms — mean comments, name-calling and shaming. Painful as this may be for the target, it’s not dangerous. Learning to shake off mean and ignorant comments is a life skill.

To give kids perspective, talk about the American tradition of free speech. Even nasty, misinformed bullies have a right to their opinion. That doesn’t mean your child should give them time or attention.

Watch for more serious forms of harassment. These include threats of personal harm, including spreading lies that damage a person’s reputation, posting personal information and taking control of a social media account. Help your child identify these more dangerous forms of harassment.

Be proactive. Raise your child with the assumption that people are kind to each other. Model that way of living in your home, and help your child find friends who respect and appreciate each other. Online, help your child build a community where people treat each other well.

Know when to report harassment. Experts give contradictory advice about how to respond to cyberbullies. Some recommend ignoring the behavior because most bullies are looking for a reaction and attention. Others recommend telling the bully to stop, which is also easier and somewhat safer online, where it’s possible to send a private message that may appeal to the other person’s sense of fair play.

Document threats of abuse or harm by saving messages or capturing screen shots. Notify local police or the FBI with the understanding that they may be ineffective because laws lag behind technology in many states. The Cyberbullying Research Center maintains a comprehensive library of materials about cyberbullying, including a complete list of regulations in every state (

Internet services are also inconsistent in how they define and respond to harassment. Twitter, for example, recently started a Trust and Safety Council “to ensure that people feel safe expressing themselves on Twitter” — and was immediately slammed for restricting free speech. This is a good topic for dinner table discussion before a problem arises.

Get creative. A growing number of people are taking creative steps to make the internet safer for everyone. Kids who know about these efforts are less likely to feel hopeless about bullying if it happens to them or if they witness it. They may still feel shock, shame and even fear, but they know that they have allies and role models who have figured out effective ways to respond. Here are some of those sites and apps:

• Social Media Safety Guides:

• A Thin Line:

• BeStrong Emojis:

• Stomp Out Bullying:

• WMC Speech Project:

• STOPit:

Carolyn Jabs raised three computer-savvy kids, including one with special needs. Her new book is “Cooperative Wisdom: Bringing People Together When Things Fall Apart.” Visit for more information.