What to Do About Cyberbullies

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In the past year, many communities and schools have reported an increase in the number of incidents in which children are harassed because of gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation or political point of view. According to Stopbullying.gov, 49 percent of children in grades 4-12 have experienced bullying, and 30 percent admitted to bullying others.

Parents are also worried. In C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital’s “National Poll on Children’s Health,” 61 percent named bullying and cyberbullying as a “big problem” for children and teens. A second survey conducted by Reportlinker found that among young people ages 13-24, 71 percent were concerned about cyberbullying.

Like old-fashioned bullying, cyberbullying involves a willful, repeated effort to humiliate, harass or threaten another person. Unlike traditional bullying, cyber attacks use text messages, social media, apps or even chat options on video games.

Cyberbullying is different from traditional bullying because there’s no escape. Technology follows kids everywhere. And as everyone now knows, nothing disappears online. Taunts that would have been forgotten at the end of the day can resurface and go viral at any time.

Now more than ever, parents need to stand firmly on the side of decency and kindness. By setting clear rules — and following them yourself — you can help your child develop the self-control that keeps him or her from making someone’s life miserable. Here are other ways to combat cyberbullying:

Delay. Middle school students are especially vulnerable to bullying because they’re trying to figure out where they fit socially. They often form very strong ties to a particular peer group and can be insensitive, intolerant or even cruel to people outside that group. Keeping kids away from social media until they have better social skills makes sense, though it isn’t easy if “everyone” has a smartphone. “Wait Until 8th” (waituntil8th.org) is an effort started by a Texas mom to create support for parents who don’t think smartphones are necessary in middle school.

Avoid anonymous apps. Being anonymous can encourage cruelty. The most recent example is an app called Sarahah, a word that translates as honesty in Arabic. Originally intended as a way for employees to provide constructive anonymous feedback to employees, the app has degenerated into a place where people feel free to say all the horrible things they would never say face-to-face.

Enlist AI. The Reportlinker survey found cyberbullying was most likely to occur in text messages and social media. Supervising these environments isn’t easy unless parents turn to software that uses artificial intelligence to scan communications for slang and other clues associated with bullying, grooming or harassment. A good list of other parental controls is available at bewebsmart.com.

No roasting. Are insults funny or, well, insulting? That’s the question you have to ask about a new fad called roasting. Kids voluntarily post a photo or video with the hashtag #roastme. Sometimes they get good-natured joshing. Other times they get ripped to shreds. A child who asks to be roasted is hungry for attention. Kids who participate in roasting need to know the difference between constructive criticism and gratuitous cruelty.

Discuss real-world consequences. Sometimes kids — and adults — use the concept of free speech to justify messages that denigrate other people. People can’t change ethnic origin, skin color, family history, disability and many other characteristics, so it is simply wrong to mock or attack them for those things. Because of hateful posts, young people have lost jobs, scholarships, college acceptances, athletic opportunities and friendships with people who find such views offensive.

Perhaps the most important thing parents can do to counter bullying is to raise children strong enough to be compassionate, curious, constructive and courageous instead of critical, condescending, cowardly and cruel. To do that, all of us have to aspire to be models of what we hope our children will become.

Carolyn Jabs is the author of “Cooperative Wisdom: Bringing People Together When Things Fall Apart,” a book that describes a highly effective way to address conflict in families, schools and communities. Available at Amazon and cooperativewisdom.org.