The messages might start showing up on a social media account. Vulgar slurs and insults posted on Instagram, or embarrassing pictures sent through Snapchat, where photos and videos automatically delete after a few seconds.
For years, bullies have gone online to harass peers they want to target. Now that the vast majority of tweens and teens are constantly connected through their devices, a child being cyberbullied can feel relentlessly under attack.
This creates one of the most difficult situations for a parent to address. Parents say it seems like a no-win situation. A child being targeted will plead with them not to get involved for fear that it will make only make matters worse for them. School administrators may not get involved if the harassment is happening outside of the school day, or they may be unable to track down the perpetrators.
It’s a more common experience than many adults realize.
About 28 percent of the students surveyed by the Cyberbullying Research Center reported that they have been cyberbullied at some point in their lifetimes. About 16 percent admitted that they had cyberbullied others. Professors Sameer Hinduja and Justin Patchin, who direct the center, offer useful tips for parents about how to handle a cyberbullying situation. They say to take these incidents seriously, but not to freak out. Don’t minimize what your child is feeling, or assume that simply ignoring the abuse will end it.
Collecting evidence is key, they say.
“Print out or make screenshots of conversations, messages, pictures and any other items which can serve as clear proof that your child is being cyberbullied. Keep a record of any and all incidents to assist in the investigative process. Also, keep notes on relevant details like location, frequency, severity of harm, third-party involvement or witnesses, and the backstory,” their guidelines say.
They suggest refraining from contacting the bullies’ parents, who may become confrontational or defensive. Instead, they advise contacting the school and finding out the district’s policies about bullying and cyberbullying, which often go hand-in-hand. The school has an obligation to ensure a safe learning environment for all students. But even in situations when the school is slow or reluctant to deal with the situation, they offer other avenues to pursue:
-- Contact the service provider. Cyberbullying violates the Terms of Service of all legitimate service providers (websites, apps, Internet or cell companies). Regardless of whether your child can identify who is harassing them, you can file a report with the company about online abuse.
-- Contact the police when physical threats are involved. If your local department is not helpful, reach out to county or state law enforcement officials, as they may have more resources and expertise in technology-related offenses.
-- If the bullying is based on race, sex or disability, contact the Office for Civil Rights.
-- Seek counseling for your child, if necessary.
-- Set up privacy controls for every social media account to block the bully from contacting them.
There have been several high-profile, tragic cases involving students who had been bullied, including a 2006 case that led to a Missouri teen’s suicide. In the wake of Megan Meier’s death, an anti-bullying nonprofit was started in her name. Alex King, a program manager for the Megan Meier Foundation, has worked with parents for the past three years when they call seeking help for children being bullied.
“They are terrified,” she said. “They are frustrated.”
Often, they don’t know where else to turn and are worried something will happen to their children, King said. The foundation can help to intervene with the school district, share resources for parents and even provide free counseling for children being bullied.
King said they want the child to know it’s OK to ask for help and also involve them in solving the problem. They stress to the children they work with that the bullying is never their fault.
“This should not be happening to you,” she tells them.
Children can be cruel to one another. But adults shouldn’t tolerate it.