The Vast and Deep World of Cyberbullying

Sad teen with a phone in her bedroom

When parents were kids, we worried about being bullied in and around school. While adults in those days seemed to take a “kids will be kids” attitude, we did know that once we got home, we were safe and protected from bullies. Today, our digital world creates new ever-increasing environments for bullying. Now, it’s not just school. Being at home is no longer safe. Kids are exposed to bullying on social media platforms, messaging apps, gaming platforms and devices, text messages, emails and more. Whenever a new platform is developed, bullies quickly swoop in. Making the problem worse, these platforms are notoriously hard to control. Words said or things done online are saved and shared and repurposed, making the impact of bullying not just more expansive, but seemingly everlasting.

At Alzein Pediatrics, we’ve seen firsthand what bullying can do to the mental and physical health and wellbeing of children – and adults. We understand that bullying should never be ignored, accepted or tolerated by adults who can stop it.

In 2011, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services launched, a resource aimed at treating what has become an increasingly significant public health burden. The Pew Research Center reports nearly half of all teens ages 13-17 reported experiencing some form of cyberbullying while Health and Human Services uses a definition of cyberbullying that suggests the number is closer to 16%. The Pew study suggests teen girls are more likely to experience cyberbullying than teen boys, and the difference gets more pronounced for girls ages 15-17.

While digital devices and platforms have expanded the venues for bullying, research shows that cyberbullying is more common and frequent among children or teens that know each other in person, from school or other face-to-face contexts. Thankfully, many states and schools have created laws and policies to better monitor and intervene more quickly and effectively in instances of cyberbullying. outlines key components for state anti-bullying laws including creating a purpose statement and defining bullying and cyberbullying. Illinois adheres to all but one of these components; the state doesn’t require staff to be trained to respond to bullying. Illinois recently adjusted the time a school has to report bullying to parents of an affected student from 10 days to 24 hours, a significant shift that demonstrates the urgency of quick intervention.

States, and schools themselves, have stepped in to define bullying and cyberbullying in an effort to prevent cyberbullying and protect its victims. Crucially, Illinois has a policy that covers conduct out of school that poses a significant disruption to the school environment, bringing some level of accountability to the digital spaces where cyberbullying occurs. Federal law itself does not address bullying, though it can be used to protect victims when bullying infringes on specific civil rights or when the bullying escalates to a defined crime such as stalking or blackmail.

The proliferation and constant, rapid expansion of social media platforms and digital devices in our kid’s daily lives means accountability via laws and policies can be unreliable, so parents do need to be the first line of defense, prevention and protection.

It is important to discuss digital safety with your children early and often, as soon as they can access the internet, use social, communication or gaming apps or get a smartphone. Chances are unfortunately high that your child will witness or be a victim of cyberbullying and be exposed to many things that are not age-appropriate.

Help your child understand that in-person bullying includes intentional efforts to cause direct or indirect physical or mental harm, and verbal or non-verbal intimidation; there is no one way children are bullied, and there is no one reason bullies target particular children.

Explain that cyberbullying includes spreading hurtful and demeaning messages about someone else, either through creation of the message itself of by sharing it. These tactics can be implemented through any type of digital tool.

Monitor your child’s digital activities as closely as possible, starting with a review of your child’s privacy settings. Create clear expectations and rules about digital behavior and review them every few months.

Model healthy digital behavior yourself, and openly discuss with your child troubling situations you have seen amongst adults; children are not the only ones who bully. These conversations will help your child understand what bullying is and how it’s not part of your family values.

Download and install apps that track and monitor your child’s digital presence. If you get an “ick” feeling about this, worrying you are intruding on your child’s privacy, consider a “real world” parallel. You would not let your 13-year-old go on vacation unchaperoned; monitoring apps help you chaperone your child throughout the digital world.

Be alert for any changes in device use. Is your child using the device a lot more or less than usual? Is the device causing strong emotional responses, either positive or negative? Is your child creating and/or deleting social media accounts? These changes can indicate unhealthy digital engagement and cyberbullying situations. They may also increasingly avoid social situations and become withdrawn if they are being bullied. Be aware that your child could be a victim and a bully themselves, often at the same time.

Bullying of any kind should never be tolerated, ignored or accepted. If you suspect your child is being bullied, either in life or digitally, talk to them immediately. Bullying can cause life-long mental health and physical problems and must be addressed as soon as possible. Work with your child’s teachers and school to address and shut the harassment down quickly and completely. If needed, review Illinois’ anti-bullying laws and talk to a legal advocate.

If your child has been bullied, make an appointment in one of Alzein Pediatrics well offices. Talking through this experience and getting the tools to deal with both the bullies themselves and the intense emotions your child is feeling will help them get through this trauma.

About the Author
Newsletter Icon
Get Our E-Newsletter