The question "Do you know what's happening to your child online?" surrounded by code

Preventing Cyberbullying

by Hillary Meister

Do you know what’s happening to your child online?

Before you leap out of your chair to check your child’s Facebook page (you do have access, right?), perhaps it’s time to have that discussion with him or her about the use of cell phone apps, gaming, social media and other online activities that could bring potential exposure to being cyberbullied (or becoming a cyberbully).

It’s hard to keep up with new innovations in the devices and social media tools young people have at their fingertips. Do you know what Snapchat is? Have you heard of Kik or Reddit? While Facebook may be a household word, no sooner than you log in, your child has already found a new service offering greater anonymity.

"Ninety-five percent of what's going on for kids online is cool, energizing and creative and opens them up to new ideas, worlds and all kinds of things. We get so focused on that five percent and then we’re reactive, defensive and scared."As the digital world encompasses so much in the lives of young people, how do we reach out to them to help deter them from being cyberbullied or becoming a cyberbully?

We asked Kris Varjas and Joel Meyers, co-directors of the Center for School Safety, School Climate and Classroom Management, to discuss this important topic and offer resources to all who face the task of teaching children proper digital citizenship. Varjas and Meyers also teach for the Department of Counseling and Psychological Services and counsel many young people through the center about their experiences with cyberbullying.

Are there particular areas in cyberspace where cyberbullying happens more?

Varjas: Gaming, social media, anime (Japanese animation featuring superhero-type themes and colorful graphics), depending on the anime choices that they make, the characters they’re presenting – especially for our lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered (LGBT) youth – they can be targeted because of how they’re displaying themselves online and what they’re choosing to do through social media, chat rooms, etc. They take it personally if someone attacks the way their character looks, for instance.

Why do some kids cyberbully?

Varjas: Some kids will say, “I was bored,” or “I didn’t know,” or “I just said it.” We ask them a lot of questions such as, “Would you do that in person?” They would answer, “Of course not,” or “I didn’t think about it.”

Meyers: Kids will also say it’s the anonymity. They’re afraid to do it in person.

Varjas: If you think about the adolescent brain, they’re not developed well in problem solving, decision making and consequences for behaviors. They just aren’t in the same place (as adults) and then you throw in a kid with special education classifications, attention deficit, etc., and you give them ways to send information really quickly without thinking about it. I think one important part of addressing cyberbullying is getting them to understand what the person on the other side would experience.

Are there specific signs that a child is being cyberbullied?

Varjas: You might see a change in their technology use. Are they not on the computer as much? Are they not interacting with the kids they typically interact with? Has there been a change in their friendship network? Kids who are really wired may all of a sudden leave their cell phone alone. They may have mood changes, things that would be representative of person-to-person bullying.

Meyers: Parents need to be engaged with their kids and know what’s happening. And that’s hard to do with kids, especially if they’re adolescents. But they do want you there.

Varjas: When we get involved, it’s because there’s a problem, which is oftentimes too late. Take the preventative approach.

What are some ways parents and educators can intervene?

Varjas: One of the things kids report is they’re not happy with the intervention that comes from adults. They’re afraid the adults are going to focus on the technology, rather than on the bullying part of it. If the parent takes away the technology, it’s going to be punishing, not constructive, not helpful. I would try to be engaged with my child and talk to them about what might be happening in the gaming environment, or how to respond to the things that have happened.

Varjas: We have to, as adults, get online with them. When I talk to parents, they don’t realize that when their kids are gaming they can be interacting live with other kids. They could be talking live with other kids, IM’ing other kids. What parents typically do is control the technology and every kid we’ve spoken to says, “That’s the worst thing you can do to me.”

How can parents and educators address (or possibly prevent) cyberbullying?

Meyers: Parents should talk to their schools – teachers, educators – to know what the schools are doing to help. Create constructive information for kids who are cyberbullied. There are portions of the online world that provide positive support for kids. There are some LGBT kids who can’t come out to their parents, who can’t come out to their peer network, but they come out online. Some of them get positive support by doing that. It’s a small minority who get into trouble, for one because they end up getting support online from the wrong person and they’re not being careful.

Varjas: Ninety-five percent of what’s going on for kids online is cool, energizing and creative and opens them up to new ideas, worlds and all kinds of things. We get so focused on that five percent and then we’re reactive, defensive and scared. The data around perpetrators online are really tiny and for cyberbullying the data show four to eight percent of kids are actually cyberbullied online, so it’s a very small percentage and much less than traditional bullying.

Varjas: Our data show kids have more strategies to deal with things online than they do in person, so they feel there’s a range of options for them to have the skills to do things online. But the problem with prevention work is you don’t know what you’re actually preventing. It used to be you had one computer in the home, it was locked at certain times, but that’s no longer the ballgame. So, how do we keep adjusting to this changing world?

Meyers: Everything about this topic just keeps changing. Keeps it interesting.

Varjas: GPS is one example. Cell phones now constantly check you in to places and I think that’s a problem. Parents want to know where their kids are at all times and GPS can track them, but it also allows other people to track them. Do you want that on? Do you want that off? These are conversations adults need to have with each other when they’re purchasing technology. If I’m really interested in tracking someone – which kids are constantly doing – I can catch up with them or learn patterns pretty quickly. We don’t want to scare parents; we want them to be aware of what their kids are doing with their technology.

What is the biggest challenge in conducting this type of research?

Meyers: It changes so fast that you’re asking them questions about the wrong part of media by the time you figure out what you’re surveying. It’s probably happening more in the most current thing available that kids get involved in.

This story was originally published in the Spring/Summer 2014 issue of IN the College of Education & Human Development, the college’s alumni magazine.