Parental Concerns About Cyberbullying? What you should know and what you can do

By Ana Radovic, MD, MSc, Associate Fellowship Director, and Rebecca Dick, MS, Clinical Research Coordinator, both with Division of Adolescent and Young Adult Medicine

106678483-150In October 2013, Elizabeth Miller, MD, PhD, chief of the Division of Adolescent and Young Adult Medicine here at Children’s Hospital, wrote a great blog entry about preventing bullying for National Bullying Prevention Month. She offered some helpful tips for children who experience bullying as well as advice about teaching all children and youth to speak up and say something about bullying behaviors when they observe them.

Many parents are concerned about what is called cyberbullying, which is communicating false, embarrassing, or hostile information online. Some differences between bullying and cyberbullying are that cyberbullying:

  • can occur at any time
  • has a larger audience and can lead to more embarrassment
  • is harder to delete

Unfortunately, cyberbullying is very common. Up to 70 percent of students report seeing frequent bullying online. Bullying is especially common for teens who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, or questioning. About nine out of 10 have experienced harassment at school or on social media.

About half of young people report they have said something mean or hurtful to another
person online. And the harmful use of Internet-based and mobile technology is not limited to peer-to-peer interactions. A growing body of research is showing how adolescents in dating relationships are using mobile technology, such as texting, and online communication, such as Facebook, to monitor or control the activities or whereabouts of their partner or to be emotionally or verbally abusive to that person. Just as with cyberbullying, this cyber dating abuse can have detrimental consequences to the health of adolescents. It is important to note that behaviors that may not be harmful when they occur in person may be harmful when the communication is difficult to delete or when it can be repeatedly viewed by the recipient at any time or spread to non-recipients easily.

As adults, it is important to role model positive online behavior for young people. Teens often see examples of adults posting embarrassing or hostile information when they scroll through their Facebook newsfeed, still the most commonly used social media site. One simple step adults can take to counteract cyberbullying in teens is to begin speaking up when they themselves witness cyberbullying.

Adolescents are able to understand what the best decision is when they have time to think about it. When it comes down to impressing friends, though, they tend to make impulsive decisions. This impulsivity is harder to control online where sharing occurs quickly with many peers with the swipe of a thumb. The effects of this impulsivity can be devastating for the bullied child.

This video from the New York City Community Healthcare Network Teen PACT public service announcement series tells the common story of “The Accidental Bully.”

Without social media, the girl in the video may have shared her joke about a boy with only a few close friends. Instead, social media gave the joke a wider audience, a life of its own, and resulted in the boy and his family’s drastic decision to transfer to a new school.

Social media is not all bad and it is not going away. It allows adolescents to achieve some of their developmental milestones. These include:

  • accepting body image through positive comments about pictures
  • developing social capital
  • having a sense of belonging by being included in peer activities
  • being creative by sharing photos or artwork
  • developing new skills like independence and initiative for example by signing up for volunteer work on dosomething.org

The best way to address the ills of cyberbullying and social media is to continue having open conversations with your youth. Some suggestions of discussion topics include:

  • what sites they are visiting
  • who they communicate with
  • consequences of posting questionable content, photos
  • privacy settings

Talk to your youth about how they portray themselves on the Internet. Teach them that harassing statements are not appropriate at any time — whether they are made to them or by them. Also, you can teach and exemplify positive bystander behavior. This includes things like if your child witnesses cyberbullying, to post positive comments on their friends’ wall instead of the negative comments the bully is posting.

Open communication is very important to a child’s relationship with his or her parent. When a bullying situation occurs, your child will know he or she can come to you for your advice and guidance.

For more information, please visit:

  • DoSomething.org, an organization for social change for young people and sign up for their free texts about stopping bullying
  • StopBullying.gov, the federal government’s headquarters on bullying information where you can find useful tips on preventing and responding to bullying
  • LoveisRespect.org, a resource for fostering healthy dating attitudes and relationships from the National Domestic Violence Hotline and Break the Cycle.

For more information about the Division of Adolescent and Young Adult Medicine, call 412-692-6677 or visit www.chp.edu/adolescent.