We look at reasons why children might not tell you about cyberbullying, and how to spot emotional and physical signs that your child might be a victim.
With awareness levels of 88% in South Africa, adults in our country are some of the most conscious of the dangers that cyberbullying poses. Unfortunately, most young victims of cyberbullying don’t tell adults about what’s going on.
This isn’t an indictment on you as a parent or the strength of your relationship with your children. But understanding their perspective will help you respond better when they do reveal what’s going on or you notice some of the signs of cyberbullying and sit down to talk.
Can we please not talk about it? Why kids won’t tell you about cyberbullying
Cyberbullying victims are often emotionally conflicted about how to respond to their tormenters and want to take the time to resolve things themselves. After all, bullying is about power dynamics. Kids believe that handling the situation themselves will allow them to regain control of their lives. And they can’t do that if you ride in to the rescue.
Here’s a list of other more specific reasons they might not want to open up to you:
1. It feels too embarrassing
Kids are often bullied about things they are sensitive about, whether it’s a physical attribute, disability or an embarrassing moment caught on camera. Considering that teens are already extremely self-conscious, having their peers fixate on a perceived flaw can be devastating. Bottom line? It can just feel too humiliating to talk about it with anyone.
2. They may not realise they’re victims
As painful as getting harassed online can be, many teens don’t realise they’re the victims of cyberbullying. They think this treatment is something they have to tolerate if they want to belong or be accepted by a certain crowd – especially if the bully has a higher social status. Since, they’re often not the only ones being picked on, they think it’s normal behaviour.
3. They’re worried about how you’ll react
For many victims, the thought of being called a crybaby, tattletale or snitch and potentially ending up even lower down the social order, makes cyberbullying seem like the lesser of two evils. By immediately contacting the school, outing the aggressor’s parents on social media and creating a scene, you’re just confirming your child’s worst fears.
That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take it seriously. You absolutely should. But unless you feel the law is being broken, as in the case of sexting or threats, it may be better to work with your child and empower them by developing a plan to address the bullying.
4. Fear that their digital devices will be confiscated
Many young people fear – with good reason – that parents and teachers will confiscate their devices if they admit to being bullied. Since digital media and platforms are one of the main ways kids connect with each other, they’re afraid they’ll only end up even more isolated.
To make things worse, the fact that screen time limits and locking away phones, computers or game consoles are common forms of punishment, they can end up feeling that the bullying is their fault. For this reason, it’s better to deal with the problem by blocking the culprit and tightening privacy and security than taking away devices.
5. They feel nothing can be done about it
Because cyberbullies often hide behind anonymity, kids often feel that nothing can be done to stop the culprit. But even when they know who is responsible, they might fear you won’t believe such a “nice” kid or star student would resort to bullying.
Don’t underestimate how anonymity and being at a digital remove from the victim can disinhibit kids who believe they’ll get away with behaviour.
All of this means that you may need to keep a close eye out for the signs of cyberbullying.
How to spot the signs of cyberbullying
If you notice your child displaying one or more of these behaviours, it doesn’t automatically mean that they are being tormented online. That said, it’s definitely reason enough to sit down and talk calmly about what’s going on in their lives. Take the time to listen and read between the lines.
Academic signs of cyberbullying
Kids who are taunted online often face similar treatment at school. Even if that doesn’t happen, they have to face classmates who witnessed their humiliation. That’s why one in five cyberbullying victims skip class.
Aside from the school notifying you about absenteeism, you might also notice that your child is uneasy or afraid of going to school.
Frequent complaints about feeling unwell – whether the illness is feigned or real – and calls to be collected early can be another telltale sign that a teen is trying to escape an environment where they feel antagonised.
Poor attendance isn’t the only reason that bullied kids suddenly find themselves struggling at school. According to a report to the U.S. Federal Commission on School Safety over 60% of the students targeted by online bullies said that it severely compromised both their ability to learn and sense of safety at school.
The anxiety, depression and emotional distress that cyberbullying victims suffer make concentrating harder and even good students’ marks can drop, as their work ethic and interest in schoolwork slides.
Social signs of cyberbullying
While loners are more likely to be picked on by bullies, even outgoing souls can become lonely due to cyberbullying. Since classmates and friends are frequently the perpetrators, victims may suddenly change their circle of friends in an attempt to escape from toxic relationships.
More often, victims tend to withdraw from social and extracurricular activities, including family outings and events. They may also suddenly lose interest and disengage from social media.
Tragically, many kids don’t feel less isolated even when the bullying stops. What’s worse, 41% of cyberbullying victims develop social anxiety, which can be profoundly damaging. The fear of opening up to new people can make it difficult for them to forge friendships later in life.
Emotional signs of cyberbullying
Although cyberbullying’s emotional impact can be harder to detect, signs of this nature indicate that the harassment is taking a severe toll on a victim.
Keep an eye out for mood swings, especially when kids are using phones, tablets or laptops. Do they seem anxious and secretive going online or display sudden outbursts, such as hurling a phone across a room or slamming a laptop closed? This could be your child’s way of trying to distance themselves from painful digital experiences.
In fact, anger is one of the most common reactions to being taunted online, followed by feeling upset and worried. To overcome the sense of powerlessness, young people may resort to revenge and even usually mild-mannered kids can become aggressive towards others.
But retaliating is a bad idea, which may not only get your child into trouble but also lock them into a vicious circle of bullying and being bullied.
Cyberbullying is also considered a risk factor for depression. Research in the Canadian Journal of Psychiatry found that after controlling for prior symptoms and traditional bullying, higher rates of victimisation online predicted an increase in depression over time.
In the youth, this can take the form of constant sadness, restlessness, a lack of enthusiasm, chronic fatigue and more. Parents should take these symptoms very seriously, not least because when depression combines with feelings of loneliness, low self-esteem and hopelessness – all triggered by online abuse – suicide can seem like the only way out.
Never ignore or fob off suicide threats. Even if the teen doesn’t intend to follow through, this is a real cry for help. Don’t leave your child alone, and do seek professional counselling.
Physical signs of cyberbullying
Just because cyberbullying happens online, doesn’t mean that your child won’t suffer physically. Instead of torn clothes and bruises, the stress of being constantly under an aggressor’s digital thumb can manifest in headaches, gastrointestinal issues and disrupted eating patterns.
Aside from frequent complaints about these issues, changes in eating habits as well as unexplained weight loss or gain are also worth investigating further. It’s important to get to the bottom of persistent ailments of this kind, otherwise children’s health can decline rapidly.
Just as digital harassment can damage other aspects of a child’s health, it can also disrupt sleep. Victims suffer from restlessness and find sleep elusive, as they replay bullying incidents and worry over what is being said about them. This can leave them exhausted at the start of another school day.
Kids dealing with online abuse are twice as likely to self-harm. This behaviour shouldn’t be confused with suicidal thoughts. Hurting yourself by cutting, burning, bruising, pulling out hair, scratching or in other ways is a coping mechanism for emotional distress. To hide the evidence, kids often cover up with long tops and bottoms even when the weather is very hot.
Set up a digital safety net with Digimune
Protecting your child from the ugly side of digital life can feel a daunting task, which is why we’ve also put together information on how to prevent cyberbullying. But you’re not alone. At Digimune, we want to partner with you to raise a generation of happy, healthy and digitally savvy kids.
Our comprehensive packages help you limit screen time, filter content, monitor app use and content, pause devices as well as track a child’s location. Let’s talk about it. After all, explaining how and why you’re setting up parental controls on devices is also a good way to start a conversation with your child about safety online.