Sad teen girl holding cell phone With children and teens spending more time online for school, fun and socialization, there's an increased risk of cyberbullying. To help your family recognize the signs of cyberbullying, know when to get involved and who to ask for help, CHOP Psychologist Christine Waanders, PhD, offers advice and helpful tips for parents.

Why talk about bullying now? October is National Bullying Prevention Month, and while physical bullying among children has decreased during the COVID-19 pandemic, online aggression has increased.

"Kids are bored, disengaged and frustrated at the changes in their normal activities," Dr. Waanders says. Some are acting out in inappropriate and hurtful ways.

What is cyberbullying?

Cyberbullying is defined as "willful and repeated harm inflicted through the use of computers, cell phones and other electronic devices." It's different than traditional bullying, but no less traumatizing to its victims. In fact, because virtual messages and images can be spread to a larger audience and have the potential to go "viral," cyberbullying can have a far-reaching and life-altering effect on those involved.

A few examples of cyberbullying:

  • Sending a hurtful text to an individual, or spreading rumors or sensitive information about that person via texts or social media posts
  • Sharing pictures, videos or profiles on social media channels to make fun of others
  • Distributing private or unauthorized photos or videos to embarrass or harass someone
  • Using anonymous apps or interactive capabilities on gaming systems to tear down or humiliate others

Cyberbullying is an equal opportunity crime. Recent research shows that boys and girls are equally likely to participate in or be a victim of bullying online. According to one recent study, 20-30% of teens report they have been bullied online; while 10-15% admit bullying others online.

School-based interventions

Many schools implement Social Emotional Learning lessons or Bullying Prevention programs with their students. Several of these programs – Second Step, Olweus Bullying Prevention Program and CHOP's own Friend to Friend Program – have had success in reducing student reports of aggression, bullying and/or antisocial behavior, as well as improving peer relations. They help students gain social coping skills, provide assertiveness training, and offer tools to help students remain as safe as possible.

"These skills are particularly important in middle school when relational aggression and bullying can escalate," Dr. Waanders says. While cyberbullying may appear at first to be playful teasing, it can quickly turn mean-spirited, leading to harassment and exclusion of children from their peer groups. Parents should talk with their children about how to apply the skills they have learned at school for coping with bullying or being a positive bystander.

Dr. Waanders also encourages parents to reach out to teachers and school administrators to learn how they are continuing social and emotional skill-building during this time of remote learning.

Home-based interventions

Cyberbullying doesn't stop when children leave school or cyber learning. In fact, because of restrictions due to COVID-19, kids are online more than ever before, creating tons of opportunities for positive – and negative -- interactions with peers, adults and strangers.

How can you tell if your child has been affected by cyberbullying?

Pay attention to changes in your child's overall mood, grades and interests. If you notice dramatic changes in a short period of time, it's worth investigating why. Ask your child open-ended questions about the changes, why they are happening and if they are happy with the change or would like helping getting back to their "normal." If your child continues to seem down or distressed, consider asking for outside help.

Start the conversation. Talk to your child about bullying and cyberbullying throughout their lives, but an age-appropriate manner. Starting in fourth or fifth grade, ask if they've ever witnessed their peers being mean to or talking negatively about a classmate online. What did your child do during and after the incident: Did they try to stop the abuse? Did they "like" the comment, thinking it was a joke? Or did they stay silent?

Shift the conversation to ask your child whether anyone has ever been mean to them online or by text. Did they consider it cyberbullying?

By using real-life examples, you can guide your child through their options and help them decide what they would feel comfortable doing in the future – and what they'd want their friends to do if they were the victim of cyberbullying.

Monitor your child's use of electronics. This includes cell phones, computers, online gaming and social media. You don't need to be intrusive, just observant. If your child seems upset every time they look at Snapchat or play Roblox, talk to them about what's going on. Is anything or anyone bothering them? Offer your support and a listening ear. Try not to jump to conclusions or overreact; encourage them to open up to you or another trusted adult.

Some children or teens may be hesitant to talk to parents about cyberbullying because they fear it will lead to a loss of phone/computer/gaming privileges. While limiting the use of electronics may be appropriate for younger children, it's a bit more difficult for teens – especially now. "Work with your teen to empower them to make healthy choices for themselves – such as unfriending or blocking certain people on social media or gaming forums," Dr. Waanders says.

Finding local resources

Your child's distress from any form of bullying is real. As a parent or guardian, you should seek supportive resources to help your child if a problem arises. Consider a school counselor, district administrator, private therapist, pediatrician, family friend or trusted religious leader. CHOP's Center for Violence Prevention (CVP) also offers several bully prevention resources.

It is NOT recommended to confront the youth bully or their parents yourself. It's better to work through a third party – such as those listed above – who may be able to shut down the cyberbullying and help your child return to learning. Teachers and counselors may also be able to refocus aggressive energy into more positive pursuits.

If the bullying is occurring on social media or a gaming platform, encourage your child to block or unfriend the bully so they can no longer "tag" your child in posts. If the aggressor is a known fellow student, alert school officials. They are often willing to intervene, since out-of-school aggression among students can negatively impact the safe social environment they are trying to create at school.

Raising children really does take a village. We're all looking out for the best of interests of our children. Why not extend that support to your child's friends? Partner with a select group of parents of your child's friends to look out for each other's kids and alert each other (parent to parent) if anything questionable comes up. Then, each parent can ensure their child gets the support and resources they need to thrive.

Christine Waanders, PhD, is a licensed psychologist and clinical consultant for CHOP's Center for Violence Prevention. Dr. Waanders is an experienced aggression and bullying prevention researcher. She provides support and consultation to clinicians dealing with these issues with their patients.

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