| Cyberbullying

Healing strategies: Help your child overcome a cyberbullying incident

| 24 May 2024

Cyberbullying can significantly affect children’s confidence and cause them to lose hope in the kindness of others. Especially if they are left to deal with their emotions on their own. How should parents proceed when they think their child may be a victim of cyberbullying? And how can they help them get back on their feet? We discussed the topic in detail with Jarmila Tomkova, a child psychologist.

Let’s start at the very beginning. How can parents tell whether their child is dealing with cyberbullying?

There are signs to look for in the child’s behavior. Are they becoming more secretive when it comes to their devices, shutting their laptop or turning their phone screens down whenever anyone enters the room? This commonly happens with grooming, but it can also be a sign of cyberbullying. Overall, parents should look at whether their child is acting nervous, stressed, perhaps jumpy, but also cold or passive. This behavior – or any other significant change in the child’s character – can signal that there may be something wrong. Bullied children also often become solitary, they abandon their hobbies and avoid most social situations.

If parents believe their child is being bullied, what should they do?

They should have a chat with the kid and make them feel safe. But the thing is, if parents ask their child to sit down and then they keep asking: “What’s wrong? Tell me what happened. Are you having issues? Talk to me,” the child may feel pushed into a corner and overwhelmed. This situation almost makes them feel as if they did something wrong. So, what I would recommend is switching positions – put the bullied child in the role of someone giving advice.

Can you elaborate on that?

Basically, we can sit down with them and describe a situation in which a person, or a character, is being bullied. We can speak of people they know, or celebrities, influencers, and even imaginary characters. Then, we can ask the child: “What do you think the bullied person should do? What do you think they need?” This way, children are more likely to feel in control of the situation and share their own sentiments. Then, once the topic is on the table, we can talk to the child more openly and ask them about their own situation. We should always act calmly and not get overly emotional or stressed, because then, the child may feel like the cyberbullying is their fault. 

Which it never is. How can we make sure the child knows that?

Well, we definitely shouldn’t stress them out more by our reaction, telling them things like “I told you social media is bad,” or “That’s what you get for being online so much.” We can help them solve the situation without punishing them with restrictions. If our child tells us that they are getting ugly comments on their Instagram posts, we should not tell them to stop using the app, or even ban them from using their phone altogether. This will only stress them out more.

What can we do then?

We should help them re-establish the safe feeling of the online space. Look at the comments together with them, help them gather evidence in case we want to contact the school or the bullies’ parents, and then delete them. Together with children, we can help them change their privacy settings so only their friends may see the pictures they post and show them how to delete comments or even block the profiles that bully them. This is another way to make children feel like they have some control, which is essential. We, as adults, may take the position of wise and safe coordinator of the process when it comes to contacting the authorities, such as the school or even police. We should tell children that this is an option, but always assure them that you would never take this step without their permission. That is an important part of establishing emotional safety. 

Those are some practical steps. What about psychological help?

If your child is dealing with cyberbullying, it may feel desperate, like they´re trapped in an inescapable situation. Before helping them get out of it, we should show understanding and validate whatever negative feelings the child has. After that, we may help them gather some hope. Show them that it won’t be long until everything is better. To do so, we can speak of real-life examples – such as celebrities, or even our own experiences. Tell the child, for instance, that we too have been through a rough patch, that someone has laughed at us too. But now, we are out of that situation and we’re doing good. That does not mean that we should not pay attention to the child’s emotion and dismiss their sadness or anger as an overreaction, not at all. But we should let our children know that the Sun can be found behind each and every cloud.

Do you think that cyberbullying is in any way different from bullying that happens offline?

It may be even more damaging to the child. Imagine this: when you’re at school and someone laughs at you, you can see their face, and perhaps, you can also see the reactions of your friends. Maybe, someone steps in to defend you, or at least their expression shows disagreement with the situation. You know who has seen the incident and who didn’t, the entire confrontation is happening in a physical environment with clear boundaries. 

With cyberbullying, it’s different. 

Yes. You cannot see the expression or body language of the bully, just their meanness. You also cannot be sure who has seen the bullying – whether it was just a few people or your entire class, and whether the people even saved or spread the shaming content. You may not be surrounded by people who will support you, and the hate may even come from people you don’t really know. This is why it is important to teach kids to react to cyberbullying and encourage them to stand up for their friends, even online. This does not mean they should interact with the bully, but rather, they can contact the bullied person and show their support. 

There is one well-known trope – a victim of bullying that eventually turns into a bully. How can parents make sure their children won’t turn their bad experiences into hatred or meanness towards others?

Above all, by being there for the child if he or she becomes the victim of bullying. When someone is the target of bullies and they then get no help or support from their parents or friends, it is more likely for them to see the situation as a painful sign that this is how the world works: people hurt other people to be in power. And since they were in the role of the victim, they, of course, wanted to escape this inferior position. To do so, they may be mean to others. It’s natural – but, of course, not good. What parents can do is discuss this openly with the children who have experienced bullying. When the experience is fresh, the child can very easily relate to the victim, they know how painful it is to be bullied. If you discuss this openly and talk to your child about the fact that causing pain to others will not help them overcome their own negative emotions, they are less likely to continue the chain of bullying. You can also positively comment on situations in which your child is bonding with their friends, being nice to them and having fun. It helps to create an alternative narrative to the isolation and despair and narrate a story of forgiveness, hope and friendship. Cyberbullying can cause children to distrust others, but the experience should not turn them into haters or loners. So, when we see our kids having fun with their friends, we can say “It’s great to see you happy. Despite the disappointment you have experienced lately, I can see that you have not given up on friendship,” or something similar. 

Nowadays, cyberbullying can take on many elaborate forms. Children can, for example, create deepfakes of others and use them for bullying. We even discussed the issue in our new video . What is your view on that?

I wish I could say that deepfakes and sextortion are still mainly adult issues. Children are often impulsive. They may see someone drop their plate with food, and then, impulsively, laugh at that, or even use that situation to create mean nicknames for the person, gradually turning a small mean joke into a serious cyberbullying situation. But with deepfakes, they would have to go to a specific website, upload pictures, generate the deepfake… there are many steps to the process and much more time for them to stop and think about the fact that what they are doing might hurt someone. This does not mean that I believe deepfakes cannot be used by kids for bullying, they can, and it can be an issue, just that parents perhaps shouldn’t panic and view new technologies as purely bad. Rather, they should pay attention to educating their children about how to use them safely and without harming others. 

So you don’t think AI will make psychological issues in children more prominent?

The world is constantly evolving, and we have to remember that increased risk does not equal increased harm. Even though there are new risk factors, there are also things that can mitigate them – such as education. If children are educated about the use of AI and they know they should use it, not abuse it, then that also doesn’t necessarily mean AI will not have an impact, positive or negative. What it does mean is that both adults and children will gradually learn how to live with it, how to cope and perhaps even use it to make their lives easier. We shouldn’t be afraid of technologies. Rather, we can focus on strategies to make our children’s as well as our own experience with them enriching to our offline lives. 


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