The Complex Issue of Cyberbullying

Family Counseling Insights brought to you by Patricia McTague-Loft

We often use an idiomatic phrase casually, without really thinking about its true or deeper meaning. We often say, for example, my goodness, that was a mixed blessing. When it comes to the internet and the social media apps that it has enabled, mixed blessing truly applies.

When smartphones were introduced — most agree that the iPhone’s introduction in 2007 marks the beginning — they were acknowledged as a revolutionary breakthrough. And they were. They were tools that we used — when we wanted to use them. Need a map to find the best route to your destination? No problem. Need something totally unanticipated from a phone you carried in your pocket — like a flashlight — you got it.

Along about 2012, though, the apps that were developed for smartphones changed the state of things. Social media arose as a force. Not coincidentally, we are now realizing, mental health problems especially among teens began mounting. We’ll deal with the complex topic and danger of social media in blogs to come. For today, let’s talk about a specific problem that advanced technology has created: cyberbullying.

Writing for the American Psychological Association, Ashley Abramson says, “Cyberbullying can happen anywhere with an internet connection. While traditional, in-person bullying is still more common, data from the Cyberbullying Research Center suggest about 1 in every 4 teens has experienced cyberbullying, and about 1 in 6 has been a perpetrator. About 1 in 5 tweens, or kids ages 9 to 12, has been involved in cyberbullying.”

Those are shocking statistics. They’re easier to understand, though, when you realize how many ways kids interact with others using online devices. The bullying can come in comments made through social media accounts, while playing video or computer games, and especially while text messaging on mobile devices. With the advent of cameras built into smart phones, an additional problem is introduced. Kids can use photos to embarrass another person. And the available research refers to data before the introduction of artificial intelligence. The problems are going to grow exponentially.

In her article for the APA, Abramson focuses on six key questions.

How can cyberbullying impact the mental health of myself or my child?

Cyberbullying is similar to what we normally think of as bullying. In both cases, it causes a child to experience stress and anxiety. In a vicious cycle, a child expressing the effects of stress and anxiety invites cyberbullies to pounce. No surprise, that child then may have difficulty with their school work — which exacerbates the problem.

How can parents talk to their children about cyberbullying?

As if it weren’t tough enough to talk to your kids about difficult subjects, this new world poses entirely new problems. As with any difficult subject, though, simply talking about it is a great place to begin. “Communicating regularly about cyberbullying is an important component in preventing it from affecting your child’s well-being,” says Abramson. “Psychologists recommend talking to kids about how to be safe online before they have personal access to the internet. Familiarize your child with the concept of cyberbullying as soon as they can understand it. Develop a game plan to problem solve if it occurs. Cultivating open dialogue about cyberbullying can ensure kids can identify the experience and tell an adult, before it escalates into a more harmful situation.”

How can I report cyberbullying?

The first step is to take screen shots of any interactions you consider cyberbullying. Then it’s a matter of contacting the app, website or social media platform involved. A caveat here: getting social media companies to respond is hit or miss, so take responsibility for controlling use of the medium.

What are the legal ramifications of cyberbullying?

This is a wide open question. If someone has threatened your child, you may need to contact your local law enforcement. But states are only beginning to cope with legislation required to deal with blackmailing, stalking, posting sexual photos and other issues. Try to keep abreast of legislation in your area and even with your local school district’s policies.  

Are big tech companies responsible for promoting positive digital spaces?

This is a hot topic. The best advice is to stay informed about what tech companies are doing and how they are responding to allegations about the intent of their algorithms.

What does the research show about psychology’s role in reducing this issue?

Although the technology involved in cyberbullying is advanced and quite new, the issues are old. Communication with an adolescent is key. That is where psychologists are invaluable, providing guidance on how to speak with a kid about cyberbullying and how to support families caught in its repercussions.  

You may also find the following to be valuable:

The APA’s compilation of resources on cyberbullying.

Cyberbullying Research Center

Nemours Kids Health

We recommend Ashley Abramson’s full article here — it contains many links to valuable related topics.