Five Ways to Protect Your Children from Cyberbullying

Cyberbullying is on the rise. According to a January 2012 Ipsos poll, a whopping 60 percent of children say they’ve experienced some form of cyberbullying. And 1 in 3 teens have encountered cyber-threats. If those stats seem surprising, consider that kids are exposed to technology at earlier and earlier ages, and spend more and more time connected to the Internet thanks to smartphones, tablets, and laptops.

The most alarming statistic of all: 90 percent of the victims of cyberbullying don’t inform a parent (or other trusted adult) of the abuse. And as evidenced by some heartbreaking recent headlines, cyberbullying can lead to depression or even suicide. It’s serious stuff.

So what’s a concerned parent to do? Communicate. Get involved. Set limits. You know — everyday parenting stuff, but with a focus on your kids’ online lives. Here are five ways you can help protect your children from the very real threats associated with cyberbullying.

1. Have a discussion

As in any healthy relationship, it’s crucial to have open, honest communication with your kids. So set aside a few minutes to talk about cyberbullying. Let them know you’re aware of it, you want to know if they’re experiencing it, and, if they are, you definitely want to help put a stop to it. Most importantly, tell them you won’t judge, even if there are photos, bad language, or other potentially embarrassing elements involved.

At the same time, make sure your kids know that it’s not okay to harass others — and that means explaining exactly what constitutes cyberbullying. The legal definition: “threats or other offensive behavior sent online to a victim or sent or posted online about the victim for others to see.” The kid-speak definition: “sending mean or hurtful text messages, instant messages, email, tweets, photos, and so on.”

In other words, just as you want to protect your kids from cyberbullying, you want to keep them from becoming cyberbullies, too.

2. Get involved

You pay attention to where your kids go after school, whom they hang out with, and all that, right? Extend that involvement and supervision, to their online activities. Find out which social networks they use (Facebook and Twitter are the most likely), create your own accounts on those networks, and friend/follow your kids. They’ll probably object, but tell them that’s the condition if they want to be online themselves.

Keep in mind that tech-savvy kids might know how to adjust their networks’ privacy settings to keep you from seeing their posts—even if you’re a friend or “follower.” For a more effective monitoring solution, install parental-control software on the computers your kids use.

And for younger kids, insist on knowing their passwords for any sites they use. That way you can conduct the occasional spot-check to make sure their communications stay tame.

If your child has a smartphone or tablet, consider installing an app that can remotely lock, wipe, and retreive data if the device is lost or stolen. Members of the peer-focused cyberbullying awareness group Teen Angels say a lost device is one of the most common ways that kids get cyberbullied.

3. Set limits

The vast majority of cyberbullying happens to kids in middle school (ages 9 to 14). The more unrestricted, unsupervised access these kids have to Internet-accessible devices (smartphones, tablets, etc.), the greater the chance of bullying. To lessen the chance your child will be a victim or perpetrator, set some limits. You might, for example, restrict laptop use to after-dinner hours, and make sure it happens out in the open, not sequestered away behind closed doors.

Likewise, consider setting up texting/instant-messaging filters so that kids can communicate only with family members and close friends. And use a shared account for email so you can keep an eye on what comes in and what goes out.

4. Work with the schools

Many schools teach kids about real-world bullies, but fewer focus on cyberbullying. Tell teachers and administrators that you’re concerned about it, and ask them to include the topic in their discussions and school policies. The more parents who speak up about cyberbullying, the more schools will make students aware that it’s just as unacceptable as “regular” bullying.

5. Learn the proper responses

How should a child deal with a cyberbully? According to Common Sense Media, the first rule of thumb is to avoid responding: “Engaging with a bully only fuels the fire. Plus, any response could be circulated immediately.”

Kids should also block the bully from future communication, change their contact information (especially if someone is pretending to be them), and save any bullying emails (to share with you, your Internet service provider, and, if necessary, the authorities).

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