A Parent’s Guide to Dealing With Cyberbullies Once and for All
Bullying doesn’t just happen on the playground. Put a stop to it online too.
We’ve made great strides over the past decade in reducing bullying on K-12 campuses. Every state now has laws on the books that require schools to address bullying. We have to make sure, though, that we protect our kids when they’re online as much as we protect them when they’re at school. Online bullying can often be more devastating — with longer-lasting effects — than bullying in real life.
The question is, what do you do about it? As a parent, how do you protect your kids and put a stop to cyberbullying once and for all? We have answers to these questions. Below, we define cyberbullying, explain how to recognize it, and offer tips for putting a stop to it. Read on to find out how you can make sure your children’s online experiences are safe and secure.
What Is Cyberbullying?
You can’t respond to cyberbullying effectively unless you know how to recognize it.
In simple terms, cyberbullying involves the attempt to intimidate another person via electronic communication. Cyberbullying can take place via personal messages such as email, text messages, or direct messages, but the most damaging version happens on social media. Private messages can be deleted or ignored, but social media posts can reach a wide audience and can be difficult to remove.
Why Is Cyberbullying a Problem?
All bullying can be emotionally damaging, particularly for children. Because of its nature, cyberbullying can be especially problematic.
- It’s difficult to spot: At school or on playgrounds, parents and teachers can often spot bullying and put a stop to it before it gets out of hand. Unless your child tells you they’re being bullied online, though, you may never know it’s happening.
- It’s anonymous: It’s pretty easy to post anonymously online. Some people view that anonymity as permission to say anything they want, so cyberbullying can be far crueler than typical bullying.
- It’s relentless: The internet never sleeps. Bullies can post 24 hours a day, which means there is sometimes no escape for their victims.
- It’s permanent: What gets posted on the internet can theoretically live forever. That makes the weight of the bullying that much heavier. People who are bullied often fear that they may never escape a hurtful or harassing comment once it gets posted.
Who Gets Cyberbullied?
Anyone can be victimized by cyberbullying. Government statistics say that close to 16 percent of high school students report having been bullied in the past six months.1 Some groups are more vulnerable than others, including:
- Special-needs children
- Children with learning disabilities
- LGBTQ children
- Children who are especially shy
- Any child who may be perceived as different by their peers
Some Useful Terms
Parents aren’t always in touch with what their kids are dealing with. You may find it useful to know a few terms when you’re talking to your children about cyberbullying.
- Bystanders: People who witness bullying online.
- Drama: A wide range of activities that can lead to cyberbullying, such as arguments, pranks, and gossip.
- Trolling: Harassing, criticizing, or antagonizing someone online.
- Swatting: Making a false report of a crime in order to get another person in trouble with the police.
- Catfishing: Online acts of deception.
- Frape: The act of impersonating someone else on a social media platform.
- Outing: Revealing someone’s sexual identity without their permission.
- Flaming: Posting angry, insulting comments online.
Dealing With Cyberbullying
Now that you know how damaging cyberbullying can be, how common it is, and how difficult it can be to spot, what are you supposed to do to help your kids put a stop to it?
The No. 1 rule for helping your child handle cyberbullying is to be supportive. Your kids need to know they can trust you enough to tell you what they’re dealing with and that you’ll handle the situation once you know about it. How do you establish that trust?
- Pay attention: You already know your kids don’t always tell you things. That means you have to be vigilant so you know what kinds of situations they’re dealing with day to day. Vigilance, however, isn’t the same as spying or interrogating. It means being curious about your kids’ lives, asking questions, and getting involved.
- Listen and believe: Don’t dismiss your kids if they tell you they’re being bullied online. Listen to what they say, and take it seriously. If they think they are being bullied — even if the bullying seems relatively tame to you or may involve an honest mistake — it will still have an effect on them.
- Reassure: You may not be able to respond directly to the cyberbullying, but you should let your kids know you’re on their side. Offer a direct counter to the bully’s narrative that reminds them of their worth and value, and let them know you’re ready to help put a stop to the bullying.
- Cyber-agreements: Try writing up a family cyber-agreement. It may remind everyone in the family that the rest of the family is there to protect them, that everyone should report anything that happens online that makes them uncomfortable, and that everyone in the family will follow safety protocols whenever they’re online.
Remind Them to Be Cautious
As the saying goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Teach your children good online habits, and they may be able to avoid cyberbullying in the first place. Basic online safety means three things:
- Be careful where you go: Kids need to know there are some areas of the internet that are safe and some that aren’t, and they need to know how to tell the difference. They should also know how to use privacy settings and other tools to create their own safe spaces on social media sites.
- Be careful who you talk to: Stranger danger is just as real — if not more so — online than in real life. It isn’t just creeps and criminals your kids need to watch out for though. They need to know that communicating with anyone and everyone leaves them open to cyberbullying. To post everything publicly makes them a public target. Instead they should limit their contacts to people they know and trust.
- Be careful what you say: No matter who you’re talking to online, what you say can come back to haunt you. You can’t know when a secret you confide to a friend will wind up in a public social media post. Kids need to know that what they say online can last forever. They need to exercise caution in what they reveal.
Online security starts with strong passwords. Check out our complete guide to creating passwords and our password strength checker.[/citation]
Ask the Bully to Stop
Before you take radical action against your child’s bully, consider simply asking the bully to stop. It’s possible the bully may not realize what they’ve posted or done is hurtful or that it would be as hurtful as it is. If the bully is another child, your intervention as an adult may frighten them into stopping. Never underestimate the power of connecting to people directly and explaining your feelings and your child’s feelings. Often, it can yield dramatic results.
If it doesn’t fix the problem, you may also consider other simple solutions. In some cases, ignoring the bully can be effective. Many bullies will give up if they’re not getting a response from their target. Another useful option is to go elsewhere. If the bullying is happening on Instagram, find another social media platform.
Use Technology to Your Advantage
Technology has made it easier to bully others. It also offers some useful tools for dealing with bullying.
- Privacy settings: Almost any app or program you use features powerful privacy settings, including most social media platforms. Use these settings to help limit who your kids talk to online and what information about them shows up.
- Parental controls: Many apps and programs also offer parental controls, which is another way of limiting where your kids go and who they talk to. In addition, you may be able to monitor what they’re up to, which means you can find out if they’re being bullied even if they don’t tell you.
- AI speech monitors: Instagram and other social media platforms have begun using artificial intelligence to identify and delete cyberbullying. Encourage your child to use these platforms and to take advantage of AI programs when they’re given a choice. You can also install apps on your child’s devices. Try ReThink, which flags messages that may contain abusive content, or Bully Block, which lets kids block hateful content.
- Recording software: If your child is experiencing cyberbullying, you may want to make a record of what’s happening. There are many apps that allow you to record your device’s screen so you can gather evidence in case you need it.
Take Advantage of External Supports
You don’t have to solve the problem of cyberbullying alone. There are resources, both in your community and nationwide, set up to deal with this growing problem. Take advantage of them when you can.
- Schools: By law, your child’s school must take measures to prevent bullying, including cyberbullying. If your child has become a victim, contact the school to find out what resources they can offer.
- The site or app you’re using: Alerting site monitors is often the easiest way to handle cyberbullying. Most apps and sites have the means to track down and deal with cyberbullying.
- ISPs: Your internet service provider, or ISP, may be willing to get involved. Most ISPs police their service to prevent unlawful or dangerous activities. They may be able to track the source of the bullying or report the incident to law enforcement.
- Law enforcement: In cases where the bullying has become extreme, you may want to consider contacting law enforcement and reporting the bully for harassment or threatening speech.
- Government agencies: The Department of Education, the Department of Health and Human Services, and the Department of Justice have all collaborated in an effort to prevent all forms of bullying, including cyberbullying. They offer resources, including ways to report instances of cyberbullying.
What If Your Child Is the Bully?
It happens: You wake up one day to find that your own kid is the one doing the bullying. What can you do to help bring a stop to cyberbullying?
It’s best practice to keep an eye on what your kids are up to, and that includes their online activities. You don’t have to spy on your teenagers, but you can make sure you stay informed about what they’re doing. When you’re informed, you’ll know if they’re being bullied or doing the bullying themselves.
Demonizing your child’s behavior may exacerbate the situation. Don’t overreact. Instead, try to find out what’s driving your child to bully others. They may be acting out because they have been bullied themselves, or they may not even realize something they posted was hurtful. Figure out why and try to deal with the root of the problem rather than simply condemning the behavior.
Put a Stop to It
Your primary goal should be to put a stop to the bullying through whatever means you can. Even if your child insists they didn’t start the online feud, it needs to stop.
Cyberbullying isn’t always easy to stop. It’s often difficult to know that it’s happening at all, but that doesn’t mean we can ignore it. Cyberbullying presents a real danger, especially to children. It can have a severe emotional impact on victims. In some extreme cases, it has led children to commit suicide.2
What can you do to protect your kids? Start by educating yourself about the problem. Know what cyberbullying is so you can talk to your kids about it, and then be supportive. Teach your kids how to be safe online, and use all the tools at your disposal to put a stop to it. It’s your job to keep your kids safe, whether they’re at school, at the mall, or on TikTok.
National Center for Education Statistics. (2021, May). Bullying at School and Electronic Bullying.
National Institutes of Health. (2022, July 12). Cyberbullying linked with suicidal thoughts and attempts in young adolescents.