Before you hand over the smartphone, think carefully about whether or not your child is ready to use technology responsibly. There’s no hard and fast rule about the right age for a child to have a phone, but their maturity level should be a big factor in your decision.
Wait until you feel your child is mature enough to communicate respectfully online with their peers, trustworthy enough to come to you with any problems they have, and wise enough to keep personal information private.
2. Understand how social media and messaging apps work.
You may not consider yourself particularly tech-savvy, but it’s essential to be familiar with the social media, messaging, and gaming apps and sites your child is using. Your child will be less likely to talk to you about a problem if they feel like they have to explain the technology.
A little research to learn how these platforms work can help you anticipate potential problems before they arise and help you better manage issues if they happen. A quick Google search like “How does Snapchat work?” will give you plenty of useful articles and videos that can help you become better informed.
3. Learn how cyberbullies work.
Cyberbullies get more and more creative with each passing year, so while there’s no way to foresee every tactic they might use, it’s important to note a few beyond basic online harassment.
Cyberbullies may post unflattering, embarrassing, or even photoshopped images or videos to their page to make fun of another person. Kids can then share them on social media and spread the effects of bullying. Cyberbullies will also set up fake accounts to “troll” others anonymously, or may even set up a fake account pretending to be their victim and post embarrassing photos or messages. Cyberbullies may also take a photo or information that was intended to be private and post it in a public forum without permission.
4. Start an ongoing conversation with your child.
Once you’ve taken steps to understanding how social media and cyberbullying works, talk to your child about cyberbullying. Make sure they can identify cyberbullying and know what to do if they see it.
Watch for examples of cyberbullying on your own social media feed and in news stories—use it as an opportunity for you and your child to learn more about cyberbullying together. Make a point of saying, “That is cyberbullying,” to empower your child to call it by name when they see it. Set a good example with your own social media use by giving yourself healthy limits and modeling positive, respectful behavior online.
Help your kids protect themselves against cyberbullying by frequently reminding them to keep their personal information private and by making sure their privacy settings are as tight as possible on their various accounts. Work together to set clear rules about online behavior and to establish screen time limits. Keep an open dialogue about what sites they’re using, what kinds of things they’re posting, and who they’re interacting with online.
In a perfect world, our children would come to us at the first sign of any cyberbullying, but unfortunately, that’s not usually the case. As parents, our job is to be vigilant—and in this case, that means nosy.Know the usernames and passwords for all of your children’s accounts and check them frequently for red flags. If you’re not up to reading every post and text, an app like Bark can help by alerting you to potentially inappropriate conversations happening on your child’s phone or other device. (Check out our Bark Review for more info.)
6. Set limits.
We all know that the more tired we get, the less inhibited we are, and it’s the same for kids. Setting firm limits on screen time, especially when it comes to messaging and social media apps, can help stop problems before they start. Devices like Disney Circle make it easy to set specific bedtimes for mobile devices, control the amount of time your kids spend on certain apps, and filter out websites you don’t want them to use.
7. Watch for warning signs.
Cyberbullying might be happening on a screen, but its real-life effects aren’t hard to spot if you know what to look for. A child affected by cyberbullying may become withdrawn, spending more time than usual attached to their phone. They may have strong emotional reactions when asked to put away their devices, and they may be moodier than usual. You may also notice them shutting down their current social media account or creating new ones and hiding their device from view when you’re nearby. If you see any of these signs, it’s time to start a conversation.
6 Steps to Take If Your Child Is Being Cyberbullied
Prevention is key, but so is preparedness. Have a game plan in place so you know what to do if your child is cyberbullied.
1. Stay calm and find out more.
As difficult as it may be, fight your mama (or papa) bear instinct if you learn your child is being cyberbullied. Instead, channel that energy into learning the details: Who is involved? When did it start? Where (on what site or app) did it happen? Why did it escalate? How did it spread? The more you know, the better prepared you’ll be to help.
2. Document Everything.
Make sure both you and your child know how to take a screenshot on their device—it’s quick and easy and can help you keep documentation. Screenshot text conversations, social media posts, and any other evidence of the cyberbullying. Save them on a secure device.
3. Block the bully.
Block the cyberbully and make your child’s account completely private for the time being. Encourage your child to “lay low” on social media sites for a while until the storm passes. Use that time to reconnect with them and reinforce the value of face-to-face relationships. Have your child spend some screen-free time with positive friends or family members to help them rebuild their sense of self-worth.
4. Report cyberbullying to app administrators and school officials.
This is the part that will probably make your child cringe, but if the situation is disruptive enough, it’s an important step to take. As they say, “See something, say something.” Remind your child that making a bully face the consequences of their actions can prevent them from targeting others. If your child is worried about repercussions, talk to your school about a reporting tool like STOPit that lets students report cyberbullying anonymously.
5. Fight back with positivity.
If your child sees cyberbullying happening to a friend or classmate, encourage them to rally some friends and publicly post some kind, supportive words for them. Many cyberbullies will retreat in the face of positive peer pressure, and knowing you’re not alone can be very encouraging and reassuring for someone who’s being bullied.
6. Get professional help if needed.
Like any kind of stressful situation, cyberbullying can leave deep scars. Don’t be afraid to look for professional help with confronting a bully, and with healing emotional wounds that could lead to depression. A therapist or counselor can also help teach kids how to create healthier relationships and how to avoid damaging ones.
What if bullying is happening at school?
If your child is being bullied at school, respond just like you would to cyberbullying. Stay calm, find out what’s happening, how it started, and who is involved—and start writing it down. You won’t be able to block the bully like you can with cyberbullying, but you can bring it to the attention of teachers and administrators.
If your child witnesses bullying, encourage them to stand with the kid being bullied if they feel safe enough to do so. Often, just standing in solidarity and acting as a witness can deter the bully from continuing.
My child is experiencing depression because of cyberbullying, and I think they may be having suicidal thoughts. What should I do?
As uncomfortable as it may be, the first thing you should do is ask them, “Have you been thinking about hurting yourself, or considering suicide?” It’s a painful question to ask, but many people with suicidal thoughts actually feel relieved when given an opportunity to talk about it. If the answer is “yes”—or if you even just suspect that they may be having these dark thoughts—seek professional help immediately.
What is sexting?
Sexting is a term for any online or SMS messaging with sexual content. It can include talking about sexual things (like the texting equivalent of “phone sex”) or messaging suggestive photos. Uninvited sexting is cyberbullying.
How do I protect my child from internet predators?
Privacy is key. Encourage your kids to interact online only with people they’ve already met face-to-face. Teach them to never share personal information like their phone number, address, school, last name, or other details. Set limits about where mobile devices can be used in the house, and make sure they’re always kept in communal areas so that you can see who your kids are talking to. Check their devices frequently to monitor their conversations and make sure they’re appropriate. Keep an open dialogue about who they’re communicating with online and what they talk about.
It can feel scary to raise kids in a world where bullying can follow them home, but with the right tools, you can be their biggest ally. Remember that one of their best defenses against bullying is the knowledge that their worth doesn’t stem from how many “likes” they get, that they’re more than a profile pic, and that they are unconditionally loved by you.
Kasey is a trained Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) member and a freelance writer with expertise in emergency preparedness and security. As the mother of four kids, including two teens, Kasey knows the safety concerns parents face as they raise tech-savvy kids in a connected world, and she loves to research the latest security options for her own family and for SafeWise readers. Learn more