Cyberbullying: What can you do to prevent it?
Cyberbullying is very much in the news these days. The rise of smartphones and social media has brought with it a new type of online community, and every few weeks there is a new story about how a teen has been tragically affected. Melania Trump has taken a strong activist stance on the issue, although her guidance documents have seemingly been lifted from material originally published by the Obama administration. Either way, cyberbullying is being seen as a problem at the highest levels worldwide. But how bad is it, and what can you do to protect your own kids?
For starters, it’s quite hard to get clear facts about the extent of cyberbullying. There are no official government statistics about bullying in general, let alone the cyber variety, although the NSPCC published a comprehensive report about UK child abuse in 2017 that contained some worrying findings. In this report, it was revealed that Childline provided 12,000 counselling sessions for young people about online issues. A study published in 2014 found that one in four children have experienced something upsetting on a social networking site, and according to Ofcom, one in eight young people have been bullied on social media. It’s also important to acknowledge that any numbers will inevitably underestimate the problem, since bullying of any sort often goes unreported.
Despite the fact that most social networks are limited to ages 13 and over, primarily due to the American COPPA regulation, Ofcom reports that a quarter of children aged eight to 11 have a social media profile, rising to three quarters of those between 12 and 15. Anyone who has kids can confirm that keeping them away from some form of online interaction is nearly impossible. In fact, there have been studies showing that trying to keep your kids entirely away from online interaction can be as harmful as allowing them to spend too much time, because all their friends will be online and they will feel isolated if they aren’t there, too.
But even with moderate social media usage, a child can face numerous dangers from cyberbullying that are potentially even more damaging than bullying in the flesh. Whereas a hurtful comment in person could well be witnessed by other people, who can give it some perspective, the same comment sent via SMS, Snapchat or Instagram will be entirely private. Similarly, the multimedia capabilities of smartphones allow them to capture photos or videos of an embarrassing moment, ready to be shared far and wide. Naïve teens might even have sent suggestive content to someone they were in a relationship with (or thought they were), only to find it being passed around their friends.
In an attempt to combat this, many secondary schools ban the use of smartphones during class time, or even ban their presence entirely on school premises below a certain age. But this merely pushes the problem outside of the school gates. Children will always find a way around limitations. Whilst the minimum age for using WhatsApp went up to 16 in Europe ready for the arrival of GDPR, kids have been using Google Docs to get around other social media age restrictions. One mum who tweeted this about her 10-year-old found that she was not alone.
My 10 year old created a shared Google doc to chat with his friends and it’s the most adorably nerdy solution to “my mom won’t let me have a social media account” that I’ve seen in a while
— Ijeoma Oluo (@IjeomaOluo) March 13, 2018
Online games have their own specific problems. Whereas smartphone cyberbullying is likely to be from people the child knows in the physical world, the global nature of networking gaming could mean your kids are bullied during gameplay by people thousands of miles away that they’ve never met in the real world. The end results may not be as severe in this case as being cyberbullied by real world acquaintances on social media. But significant emotional damage can still be done if a child is ganged up on or verbally abused during an online game, particularly by older children or adults. You can’t combat these threats entirely by technical means. One of the underlying problems that amplifies the danger of cyberbullying is the digital divide between parents and their kids. Teenagers have always had their own worlds away from their parents, which used to revolve around pop music subcultures. But it’s now increasingly difficult for adults who didn’t grow up with online culture or gaming to understand the dynamic of Snapchat, Instagram, and Fortnite.
Some secondary school teachers claim all social media is dangerous because they don’t understand it. But that’s not a great foundation for safety when kids feel compelled to be online because their friends are. A far more effective approach is to listen to your kids and take as much interest as you can in their worlds. Children won’t want a parent to be stalking them on their favourite social network – many use Snapchat instead of Facebook precisely because their parents don’t use it and can’t understand how the interface works.
But you can at least take your kids’ online relationships seriously and try to understand some of the special language used, particularly in gaming culture, rather than act like it’s all puerile nonsense and they should just ignore the bullies and grow up. This is just good parenting in general, as the more you interact with your kids and keep a close relationship, the easier it will be to spot a change in their behaviour that could be caused by cyberbullying, so you can act before things get out of hand.
If you better understand how your kids are using their social media, then you can also make use of technical tools to guide this. For example, Kaspersky Total Security and the Safe Kids feature, which we already discussed for more general family safety in a previous feature, offers tools to help you keep tabs on your children’s use of social media.
Kaspersky Total Security helps you manage:
- Their online activities
- Which apps they are using on their PCs, Macs and smartphones
- Limit their mobile device time (or just give them warnings with iOS devices)
- Monitor their public Facebook activity
- Keep tabs on calls and SMS messages on their Android phones
- Real-time alerts when suspicious activities are detected
Creating a surveillance plan for your kids could easily backfire, so tools as powerful as these need to be applied carefully and with the full knowledge and agreement of your children. But in tandem with a more understanding attitude towards how your kids engage with online culture, and particularly if your child is already showing signs of being at risk, a software suite like Kaspersky Total Security, can help you keep your children away from the cyberbullies.