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Today’s bullies have moved from schoolyard to cyberspace. What to know about cyberbullying

Bullying has been an unfortunate part of growing up for every generation of schoolchildren. However, as today’s technology has created new ways for us to connect to loved ones and interests, it has also made the familiar practice of bullying more difficult to avoid. Parents should be aware of cyberbullying signs and teach their children what to do if they are bullied — and how to avoid being a bully themselves.

Cyberbullying involves using technology to share negative messages or photos about someone. This can be via Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat or other social media platforms or applications, or simply by texting from a smartphone. A bully might share embarrassing information, post a made-up story or tell others to leave someone out of activities.

Online or cyberbullying can be particularly damaging for several reasons:

  • Unlike face-to-face bullying, cyberbullying can take place 24 hours a day. Home is no longer a refuge for victims.

  • Cyberbullies can attack anonymously, with less fear of punishment because it’s more difficult for anyone to identify the source.

  • Technology allows a bullying message to go viral, rapidly reaching a wide audience.

Cyberbullying does not inflict physical injury like traditional bullies. However, the stress of being bullied can lead to physical symptoms such as digestive upset, headache, increased risk of infection and insomnia. Being bullied also increases the risk of depression, anxiety and suicide. Interestingly, bullies often experience these emotional and physical effects as well.

How to spot cyberbullying

Any child of elementary, middle or high school age with access to a smartphone, tablet, computer or gaming device can be victimized. Some signs of bullying, such as mood swings, can also be part of normal adolescent behavior. Parents should watch for the following clues that a child may be the victim of cyberbullying:

  • A drastic change in use of devices or services (i.e. Facebook) that previously were popular

  • A drop in academic performance

  • Reluctance to go to school

  • Avoiding in-person interactions with peers outside of school

  • Greater secretiveness about online activity

  • Unexplained weight loss or gain

  • Loss of interest in favorite activities or hobbies

  • Suddenly spending more time in the bedroom with the door closed

In many cases, bullying will fade away eventually if it doesn’t elicit the response the bully is looking for. If bullying seems to place someone in real-world danger or violate laws or school rules, it should be reported to appropriate authorities. Adults and children alike should understand how to take screenshots of problem online interactions to show to school administrators or even police.

Be smart digital consumers

By making conversations about online behavior part of everyday life, anyone can help prevent cyberbullying from occurring or from growing to a dangerous level. Responsible digital citizens should:

  • Not post or re-post anything disrespectful of others or that they do not fully understand. People should ask the question, “Would I say this to someone if I were standing in front of them?” If not, don’t post it electronically either.

  • Insist on recharging devices at night outside the bedroom. Regardless of whether bullying is suspected, this creates a better opportunity for a good night’s sleep, uninterrupted by messages and notifications.

  • Know that setting a platform to “private” does not mean a message or photo can’t be shared. They should not post anything online that they would not want others to see.

  • Make sure kids are aware of where they can turn if they are being bullied. In addition to parents, helpful adults can include teachers, medical professionals, clergy and coaches.

  • Learn about the devices and social media platforms kids are using.

  • Set a good example by limiting adult device use, especially during meals.

With today’s ever-changing technology, it’s important that everyone learn to be a good digital citizen and that parents stay in the know about their child’s media habits. The result will be less risk of a child suffering long-term damage from cyberbullying.

Christopher Heron, MD, is a family medicine physician with Penn State Health Medical Group.