Although the pandemic has disrupted the British education system, we cannot deny that, had a crisis of the same magnitude struck ten years ago, its impact would have been much more devastating. For better or worse, the era of digital transformation has enabled students to participate in online classes from home and receive education continuity. And yet, more time spent online comes with several risks for children and young adults – and we don’t mean just straining their eyes. Cyberbullying, which was already a sensitive topic pre-pandemic, has now become even more pronounced. According to a recent report, the rate of cyberbullying increased by a whopping 70% during peak lockdown (between March and April 2020). During the previous year, one in five children aged 10-15 in England and Wales had reported being bullied online. That adds up to over 764,000 children, and the situation is about to get much worse if parents don’t step in and educate their offspring on how to deal with cyberbullies and seek help.
Right off the bat, we should mention that online schooling, and the Internet in general, isn’t necessarily the problem and cyberbullying won’t magically disappear if children return to the classroom. Before the pandemic, only 20% of bullying cases occurred in the classroom. The Internet is yet another medium, and children won’t hesitate to use it if they do not receive enough love and attention at home.
Teach your children to recognise cyberbullying
As adults, we can recognise cyberbullying immediately, but for children, it may not be that easy. In fact, one study showed that 52% of kids who had been cyberbullied did not recognise that behaviour as harmful, and 26% didn’t talk to anyone about what they had experienced. Naturally, this can have devastating effects on their emotional wellbeing and self-esteem. Studies have shown that cyberbullied children are more likely to suffer from social anxiety, self-esteem issues, depression, feelings of inadequacy, and even experience suicidal thoughts. They can turn to drugs or alcohol as a way of coping or develop an eating disorder.
Why do some children bully others on the Internet? Well, for the same reason that they might bully someone in real life, except that, on the Web, bullying is even easier because you don’t see that person face to face. Quite often, children (and even adults) forget that they’re talking to a person and say things that they wouldn’t do in real life because they cannot empathise. Now that children no longer see each other in the classroom, child psychologists are worried that the phenomenon will get out of control unless parents and schools step in.
The first step is to have a talk with your child and explain what cyberbullying is because, as we said before, children might not know what constitutes bullying.
Cyberbullying can take place on any online platform, including social networks, YouTube, gaming sites or even the Xbox Live chat room, and it takes many forms:
- Calling names and denigrating someone’s image
- Using mean and offensive language
- Humiliating someone online
- Sharing someone else’s private information online
- Spreading rumours and gossip
- Pressuring someone into doing things they don’t want online
- Sending unsolicited and inappropriate images
- Posting abusive comments about another person online
- Impersonating someone online (creating a social media profile with their name and/or photo)
This might sound odd, but many children who are treated this way online don’t know that they are being bullied, so raising awareness is very important. Not just because they will learn to recognise them and get help, but also because they will learn not to become bullies themselves.
How can parents help?
By taking away the children’s phones? By forcing them to spend less time online?
Neither of these things will help a) because you can’t realistically stop a child from using the Internet and b) because you’re only covering up the issue, not addressing it.
According to UK Therapy Guide, a platform specialising in online therapy and counselling, the most important thing you can do to prevent your child from becoming a victim of cyberbullying is to be a loving and supporting parent. Through its very nature, cyberbullying is quite secretive, and if your child doesn’t trust you and doesn’t have a close relationship with you, they won’t want to talk about it, not even if you ask them. According to a study published in the Universal Journal of Educational Research, victims of cyberbullying do not seek help for fear that they will be judged, laughed at, criticised or ignored. So, be a good parent in general and reassure them that no matter what they may be going through, you’ll be there for them.
Sometimes, your child can be apprehensive about cyberbullying even if you try to make them comfortable and, in that case, it’s important to recognise the signs of bullying. They may not be as obvious as some of the more extreme signs of classic bullying, but they’re there:
- Feeling uneasy or nervous when going on the Internet
- Visible anxiety when you’re in view of the device or ask them to show you something
- Feeling angry and frustrated about online gaming
- Trouble sleeping
- Loss of appetite
- Losing interest in their favourite hobbies (including online games that they may have loved before)
- Growing distant from friends and family
- Sudden decline in school performance
- Loss of self-confidence
While some of these signs aren’t unique to cyberbullying and can be a part of a passing phase, it’s still important to watch out for them. And remember, as the parent, you are not powerless, and you can stop cyberbullying before it becomes a major problem by using parental controls. Now that you’re spending more time together, pay more attention to your child’s online behaviour: what apps they are using, for how long, who they interact with, and check if some of these interactions are toxic. With parental controls, you can automatically block offensive content, so that your child isn’t exposed to it in the first place.