By Ben Halpert, Founder Savvy Cyber Kids, an EarthLink partner

 

As a parent, watching your child struggle is extremely difficult. You want to intervene and make things better. Yet, parents are often cautioned to step back and let the child sort through the challenge, build resilience and solve the problem. While this is worthwhile strategy, when it comes to cyberbullying, it’s not always the best advice.

 

Why? Because the playing field for today’s kids is very different than for past generations.

 

When a child of yesterday had a challenge with a person or a group of friends, or even with school in general, when the school day ended or summer break started, that child would exit the situation, go home, hopefully to a supportive environment, or engage in an out-of-school activity —  and either strategy would bolster the child. The break would be an escape, a breather from whatever negativity was hurting him or her, and an opportunity to regroup and then try again. Surely, this, even back then, was not the panacea for solving all problems – but it did help many, many kids get through awkward growing up experiences.

 

Today’s children, thanks to being wired 24/7, literally have no such escape. Out of school, even at home or out of town, they can receive relentless continued attacks, on social media, by text, by email, in games, and even in Google Docs! They can also witness firsthand how they are being left out by watching social media posts. They can experience isolation and cruelty in a nonstop cycle – often without an adult being aware of the problem.

 

Your child’s digital world can be a dangerous playground. There they can experience genuine hurt that shapes how they see themselves and how they grow into an adult. When a parent witnesses a child that is broken down, with no self-confidence, who wants to fit in and can’t find a way to do so, who blames him or herself for not being normal, and who lashes out with misbehavior, it’s very painful and can have tragic outcomes.

 

It’s worth taking a moment to try and define what cyberbullying is and is not. Cyberbullying is not social drama, an argument, mean gossip, an impulsive expression of anger or a prank that fell short. No doubt, your child can be hurt by these actions. Rather, cyberbullying is a more serious form of aggression, typically targeted and repeated behaviors that are shared widely, sometimes virally, sometimes by anonymous posters. True cyberbullying reflects a real or perceived power imbalance that’s physical, psychological and/or social — with a connection to real life – typically your child’s school life.

 

Whether what your child is experiencing is actual cyberbullying — or not — is not the measure of when you, as a parent, need to step in. If your child is experiencing any negativity online, feels isolated and unworthy – you need to be aware of that – and step in to support your child, before anything escalates.

 

Parents and grandparents of a child who is active online, here’s what you can do to help:

 

  • Get involved and stay involved in your young person’s digital life. You need to be aware of who they are communicating with and the content of the communications – on every single device, platform and app used by your child. Whether this is via a parental control tool that helps you identify problematic behavior, by accessing your child’s phone and social media accounts to explore recent activity or by regular conversation does not matter. What matters is inserting yourself into your child’s digital life so that you can understand what they are experiencing online.

 

  • Listen to your child. While your child may be resistant to sharing, you need to be steadfast in letting your child know that you are there and that you have his or her back. This means being a resource to your child – not so much with advice or suggestions, and especially not with anger and frustration – but as a caring, sounding board to hear your child’s struggle. By persistently being there, even when they refuse to talk, by being curious and asking questions, they will come to know that they can talk it out with you – and understand that in no possible reality are they alone, unworthy or unloved.

 

  • Promote adventures off the screen. Seeking out activities that are not in a digital world can remind your child that life is lived off a screen. Challenge your child to experience different places and people to broaden his or her perspective and to cultivate empathy for others. Show your child how to take the time to put down the phone, to see the world through his or her eyes and heart without an Instagram filter.

 

  • Make new connections offline. While, as parents, we would like to be fixers and show the other kids how great our child is, past the toddler ages, this strategy rarely works. As adults, we can reveal to our children how wide the world is, how possibilities for experiences and connections can be limitless, if we are willing to put the work into trying new things. Making new connections can limit the sting of false friendships.

 

  • When appropriate, respond with action. Your child may need you to intervene by saving any evidence of bullying that exists. If the bullying is from a child at school, speak with school administration and bring copies of your evidence. If things do get out of hand and the school is not responding, it is time to call the police (and yes, it starts by you calling 911 and report the issue).

 

You are your child’s advocate and showing up for them – for uncomfortable conversations – will show your child that when they open up about struggles that you are listening and are there for him or her.

 

Have confidence in your child – and in your parenting. You being there for your child, to listen and to help them, whether they are wronged or when they are in the wrong, is what will get them through growing up in a digital world.

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Savvy Cyber Kids educates and empowers digital citizens, from parents and grandparents, to teachers and students. Sign up for their free resources to help you navigate today’s digital world with cyber ethics.