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Sharing embarrassing photos is a form of cyberbullying

Cyberbullying” or “electronic aggression” means deliberately using technology such as smartphones, the Internet, social media, or gaming environments to harass, humiliate, badmouth, or threaten someone. Like any form of bullying, cyberbullying can poison someone’s joy in life, reputation, and well being.

Acts of cyberbullying and other electronic aggression have caused a great deal of suffering that can and must be prevented. Our jobs as parents, educators, and other caring adults are to teach the young people in our care how to be good digital citizens, to model being positive digital citizens ourselves, and to insist that everyone demonstrate an ongoing commitment to using technology wisely and safely.

Here are 10 actions we can take to protect young people from cyberbullying.

1: Set a good example

Remember that the actions of young people’s close adults have a powerful influence on what they will do. As one teacher told me, “At our small private school, parents were gossiping, online and offline, about the troubles of one family. It is not surprising that their children started posting insults about a boy in that family who was having a hard time.”

Let the children and teens in your life see you choosing to stay respectful even when you are upset. Let them see you reaching out to communicate in person directly and respectfully with someone with whom you have a problem rather than complaining behind this individual’s back. Or, if this doesn’t work, let them know that you will go in person to someone who is in a position to do something about the issue. Let them see you state disagreements objectively and politely, without name-calling or sarcasm. Let them see you choosing NOT to “like” or share a post or photo that is hurtful or disrespectful, even if it seems amusing. If you make a mistake, say so – and show how you are going to make amends.

State your disapproval when people in positions of power and prestige act in harmful or disrespectful ways, even if you appreciate their winning a game, enjoy their music or films, or agree with their politics. Model balance by turning your technology off and doing something together out in nature or with other people without being connected electronically.

2. Stay connected with your children’s worlds online and everywhere else

15-year-old Audrie Pott committed suicide after she was sexually assaulted and a video of the assault was shared online with cruel comments. Her parents didn’t know about the assault, the video, or the comments until it was too late.

Spend time with your children and teens so that you know what they are doing. Explain that their activities on text messages, social media such as Facebook, email, chat groups, and use of computers can easily become public to the world and insist that these activities be public to you as well.

If you don’t understand exactly what your child is doing with technology, then have this young person teach you by leading the way and letting you be a co-pilot. If you are busy with technology yourself, remember to stop what you are doing and pay attention to your kids! Otherwise, you can be sitting side by side, each looking at your own smart phones or computers, and not notice what your child is seeing or writing.

Protect and supervise kids until they are truly prepared to make safe and wise choices themselves. Kids are safest when their adults know who is with them, what they are doing, and where they are going. Remember that with technology, even if you are side by side with a child, you won’t necessarily know what online content they are consuming unless you are looking at the same screen.

Make sure kids know they can count on you for help by discussing the Kidpower Protection Promise with all the young people in your care:: “You are very important to me. If you have a safety problem, I want to know – even if I seem too busy, even if someone we care about will be upset, even if it is embarrassing, even if you promised not to tell, and even if you made a mistake. Please tell me, and I will do everything in my power to help you.” Point out that cyberbullying is a safety problem.

3. Make a commitment with young people to be good digital citizens

An antidote is a substance that can counteract a form of poisoning, and teaching digital citizenship can be a powerful antidote to cyberbullying. A citizen is an inhabitant of a place – and the online world is a place where most young people live a great deal of the time. According to Mike Ribble, author of Digital Citizenship in Schools and Raising a Digital Child, parents and educators are often like immigrants to the online world, while their children are like digital natives.

Many adults are intimidated because technology changes constantly and rapidly, and it can be hard to keep up with it unless you grew up with it. Fortunately, the values and behavior of a good citizen are the same regardless of whether you are online or in the “real” world.

A commitment to act with respect, safety, and kindness towards yourself and others knows no boundaries. The knowledge of how to protect yourself from harmful words, whether you hear them or see them, is the same. The importance of staying mindful is relevant no matter where you are. And bullying is unsafe, disrespectful behavior, whether it happens in person, on paper, or with electrons.

We recommend a written digital citizenship and technology use contract that kids sign with their parents and that can be updated each yea. You can download and adapt Kidpower’s Digital Citizenship and Safety Agreement for your own personal use.

4. Discuss what cyberbullying is and the harm it does with older children and teens

Ask kids who are actively using technology for communication what they already know about cyberbullying. They usually have a lot of information and strong ideas. Ask if this has ever happened to them or anyone they know.

Make sure that the young people in your life know that:

  • Cyber-bullying means using computers, mobile phones, or other technology to hurt, scare, or embarrass other people. Cyber-bullying gets people in serious trouble at school and also with the law. In a growing number of places, certain forms of cyberbullying are illegal.
  • Being mean is being mean, no matter how you do it. Don’t ask if it’s funny. Ask if it will make someone unhappy.
  • Even if you think someone was mean to you, being mean back is not a safe way to handle the problem. Instead, get help from an adult you trust.
  • Have the courage to speak up if you notice anyone cyber-bullying. Say that this is wrong and that you are not going to keep it a secret.
  • Use privacy settings, but never post anything in social medial or send anything out electronically that you don’t want the world to see.
  • If you get an upsetting message or see something that is attacking you: Do not reply. Do not delete. Save the message, get a screen shot, print it if you can and get help from an adult you trust. If one adult does not help you, keep asking until you get the help you need.
5. Be clear about what happens if young people misuse their technology privileges

At Kidpower, we recommend that responsible adults say clearly to the children and teens in their care: “You have the right to be treated with safety and respect everywhere and with everyone – and you have the responsibility to act safely and respectfully towards yourself and others. This includes being a good digital citizen in all activities using technology such as computers and smart phones to interact through social media, gaming, texting, etc.”

For children and teens, the responsibility that goes with the right to use technology independently is to stay in charge of what they say and do, to make safe and wise decisions, to tell you about problems, and to get your agreement in advance about any changes. Treat the use of computers for anything except schoolwork as a privilege, not a right. Treat the use of mobile phones for anything except for emergencies and communication with responsible adults as a privilege rather than a right

As one mother explained, “I was horrified when I learned that my daughter had texted embarrassing photos and attacking remarks about a couple of kids on her swim team. I heavily restricted her use of her devices until she wrote an essay about the harm done by cyberbullying and gave it in person along with an apology to her teammates and coach that she rehearsed with me ahead of time to make sure that it was respectful and clear. Although she was furious with me, I felt that my child needed to understand the seriousness of this kind of behavior and to make amends.”

If young people in your life do something hurtful to another person either online or in person, have them apologize and make amends. Figure out what actions they took to create the problem, and coach them through a practice of making safer choices instead. Often, loss of the privilege to use the technology involved for a specific period of time is the most appropriate consequence. In addition, have kids do something active such as mail a handwritten letter of apology, do some research about the harm done by cyberbullying and write a paper, or do some volunteer work to make our world a better place

6. Teach kids not to do anything online that they wouldn’t want the world to see

One transgender teen was shocked when they found out that a boy they had trusted had encouraged them to text their feelings about their gender identity – and then forwarded these very personal messages to a bunch of other kids, along with sneering comments. The boy who did this was shocked to discover that he got into big trouble for cyberbullying that he had thought no adult would ever know about, especially since he had deleted the forwarded messages.

Young people need to understand that even though a communication seems very private and anonymous, and even if the developers claim their platform is private, whenever a person uses technology what they do leaves an electronic footprint that can become public, including to potential employers or college admissions offices. In addition, even if it’s deleted later, an electronic communication can spread very far and very fast, with much greater consequences than the user ever intended. Sending or receiving sexually explicit photos of anyone under 18 years old, even if intended to be privately shared, and even if the photos are “selfies,” can be considered child pornography and trigger serious legal consequences.

With younger kids, you can use privacy settings but don’t count on them. Remember that anything shared electronically with anyone can be shared publicly by anyone you send it to. Unless this is within a secure system of people who know each other, such as a school, avoid allowing children to post personal information or photos in an on-line friend’s community, chat group, or anywhere else.

7. Teach young people how to take charge of their safety and well being, online and everywhere else

Being safe online includes knowing how to act if you have a problem that harms the well being of you or someone else. If you get or see a threatening or harmful message, don’t answer back and don’t delete. Take a screenshot, and go tell an adult you trust. One boy, “Max,” asked his parents for help after a couple of former friends had put up a Facebook page saying “I hate Max” that was “liked” by hundreds of kids in his high school.

As you can imagine, this experience was devastating. Max says, “What helped me was having the support of my parents who got Facebook to take the page down and who kept telling me that what happened was not my fault; going to a counselor; going to a Teenpower class to practice what to do when you have problems with people; and finding some new friends.”

Practice Kidpower People Safety Skills such as how to: protect your feelings from hurtful words; set boundaries with yourself and others; communicate and connect with people in positive ways; stay in charge of what you say or do no matter how you feel inside; move away from trouble; and be persistent in getting help from busy adults. Practice ways to speak up, say “No” and “Stop,” and use other peer diversion tactics, and practice persisting in the face of negative reactions. Practice putting your hands down and stepping away from the technology when you feel tempted to post, agree with, or share something hurtful or disrespectful.

8. Provide support if a child is cyberbullied

The anonymous nature and widespread distribution of cyber-bullying can be devastating. If your child is facing cyber-bullying, provide emotional support by saying, “I am so sorry this is happening to you and so proud of you for having the courage to tell me. This is not your fault and we are going to do what we can to make it stop.” Insist on action to correct the problem from school authorities, your Internet provider or mobile phone company, the social media company such as Facebook, and, if necessary, the police.

If your child seems traumatized by what happened, provide support through reassuring the child that this is not their fault and that things will get better; arranging professional counseling for the child and the family; providing protection from retaliation for telling and from further aggression; finding opportunities for the child to develop new relationships and to have fun with peers; and providing the child with “People Safety” training of the kind offered by Kidpower. For more resources about how to do this, see 5 Recommendations to Help a Child Recover From Severe Bullying.

9. Practice how to speak up to stop cyberbullying

After kids understand what cyberbullying might look like, practice how to speak up. Identify possible negative reactions from the other person. Then, practice respectful, powerful responses to persist in setting the boundary. Let youth make up their own story about the situation to use for the practice. Switch roles with them.

For example, a friend might say, “I can’t stand Roger. Look, I got a photo of him going to the bathroom on the field trip. Let’s see how many people we can send this to.”

One way to speak up could be: “That’s cyberbullying. It’s wrong.”

A common negative reaction to this boundary is, “But you have to admit that it would be funny.”

An effective response might be, “Even though Roger is not my favorite person, I don’t think it is funny to embarrass people. Besides, it is illegal.”

10. Teach kids to get adult help anytime they see unsafe behavior online, while texting, or in person.

Young people can have a huge impact and be safer themselves if they know that any unsafe behavior on the Internet is an important time to get adult help. One of our Kidpower Teens, “Laura”, asked her mother for help because an online “friend” in a chat group was writing despairing comments about life not being worth living. With her mother’s guidance, Laura told this girl that feeling this was not safe and encouraged her to call the Suicide Prevention Hotline. The next day the girl wrote to Laura that she had talked to a counselor there for a very long time. Although she didn’t have clear answers yet, this girl was on the path to getting the kind of help she needed. See Suicide Prevention Success Story: The Opposite of Cyber-Bullying.

Additional resources

More Bullying Resources from Kidpower!

Bullying: What Adults Need to Know and Do to Keep Kids Safe is used by many families, schools, and youth organizations

To learn more about how to take action and teach these skills, please visit our Kidpower Bullying Solutions Resources page. For services to schools, please visit our Kidpower Resources and Services for Schools page.

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Published: May 17, 2012   |   Last Updated: March 9, 2018

Kidpower Founder and Executive Irene van der Zande is a master at teaching safety through stories and practices and at inspiring others to do the same. Her child protection and personal safety expertise has been featured by USA Today, CNN, Today Moms, the LA Times, and The Wall Street Journal. Publications include: cartoon-illustrated Kidpower Safety Comics and Kidpower Teaching Books curriculum; Bullying: What Adults Need to Know and Do to Keep Kids Safe; the Relationship Safety Skills Handbook for Teens and Adults; Earliest Teachable Moment: Personal Safety for Babies, Toddlers, and Preschoolers; and The Kidpower Book for Caring Adults: Personal Safety, Self-Protection, Confidence, and Advocacy for Young People.

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