Parental involvement in preventing and responding to cyberbullying

CFCA Paper No. 4 – May 2012

How parents can help prevent and respond to cyberbullying

Cybersafety isn't like teaching your child to ride a bike. It's not a skill that you had when you were younger and that you can pass on to your child. It's an area where things are changing so much, so quickly, that as a parent you need constant reiteration and updating and strategies to protect our children. (JSCCS, 2011, p. 276)

The above section indicates the importance of parental involvement both in monitoring their children's online interactions and relationships and in communications activities when it comes to preventing and addressing cyberbullying. The strategies that parents currently undertake, or are encouraged to undertake, to prevent cyberbullying are explored in this section.

Monitoring

Monitoring the Internet usage of their teenage children is a strategy that is often suggested for parents, and the literature indicates that the majority of parents do engage in monitoring behaviours at least some of the time. Monitoring behaviours include checking that sites are appropriate for their child's use, and keeping an eye on the screen, with checks more likely to occur at younger ages (81% of 8-15 year olds compared to 51% of 17 year olds) (Australian Communications and Media Authority [ACMA], 2007).

In one study, most children and adolescents agreed that the amount of parental interest in their online activities is appropriate and should remain the same (71%). Interestingly, 9-10 year olds were more likely to express a desire for parents to show more interest in their Internet use than older children (Green et al., 2011), possibly indicating that parents should become involved in monitoring behaviours at an age younger than they expect. In this respect, it seems important to note that if parents are willing to provide access to mobile phones and computers for their children, with this access comes a responsibility to understand, role model and communicate the fundamentals of good digital citizenship.

Certain factors are seen as making it difficult for parents to monitor and manage children's Internet use (ACMA, 2007), including:

  • not being able to keep an eye on the screen or what the child is doing all of the time. This is especially pertinent in the age of wireless connections and Internet-enabled mobile phones, and access that is occurring within school time;
  • the amounts of time children and young people spend on, and the all-consuming nature of, Internet-related activities;
  • children's resistance to time limits;
  • difficulty of preventing exposure to inappropriate content (i.e., adult content of a violent or sexual nature);
  • children's own control of details (e.g., through use of passwords, phone locks and hiding web browser history); and
  • difficulty parents have in keeping up with the pace of change on the Internet, particularly social networking and virtual reality sites.

Suggestions for ways that parents can address some of these issues are offered in a later section.

The significance of "13 years old"

As part of their privacy policies, social networking sites such as Facebook,4 Twitter 5 and YouTube6 specify that users must be at least 13 years old, a requirement of which parents may often be unaware. However, close to half of teenagers who use social networking sites admitted to lying about their age at one time or another so they could access a website or sign up for an account. It is worth noting that there is no onus on website operators to verify the age of users (Lenhart et al., 2011).

The minimum age stipulations are based on the requirements of the US Congress as set out in the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act.7 The Act specifies that website operators must gain verifiable parental consent from parents prior to collecting any personal information from a child younger than 13 years old (O'Keeffe, Clarke-Pearson, & Council on Communications and Media, 2011). As such, social networking sites such as Facebook avoid this requirement by setting a minimum age of use at 13 years old. O'Keeffe et al. (2011) have called for efforts for this age limit to be better respected, and it is suggested that educating parents about this age limit may be one worthwhile step towards this.

Communication

Two important factors in addressing cyberbullying once it has occurred, are the willingness for a child or young person to tell a parent about cyberbullying incidents, and the parent's capacity to respond appropriately. In the JSCCS survey (JSCCS, 2011) of children aged 9-15 years old, between 25-65% of respondents who had been cyberbullied (depending on age) had told an adult or family member about the cyberbullying. The most likely group to tell an adult or family member was 9-12-year-old females, and the least likely were 13-15-year-old males. Similarly, Green et al. (2011) found that for children who identified as having been cyberbullied, one in three parents were unaware.

There is a strong indication that young people are less likely to tell an adult about cyberbullying if they think that, as a result, their access to technology will be limited (Cross et al., 2009; JSCCS, 2011a). Parents need alternative strategies in responding to cyberbullying other than restricting their teenagers' use of technology, and need to communicate that restrictions will not be enforced if cyberbullying does occur.

Identifying and responding to incidents of cyberbullying

It may be difficult for parents to know if a child has experienced cyberbullying. Some of the indicators may be similar to offline bullying, such as changes in mood or behaviour, an increase in physical health problems, changes in friendships, difficulty sleeping and wishing to avoid school or extracurricular activities (Cybersmart, 2010). If these indicators are present, parents can be encouraged to communicate their concerns to the child and offer their support, and ask the child what they would like to do about it.

Where a cyberbullying incident has occurred, the parent should report the incident/s to the school as soon as possible, and ask for and accept help from the school - whether the child is engaging in the bullying behaviour, is being bullied or has been a witness to bullying. In recognition of the "flow" of cyberbullying between school and home, communication and relationships between parents and school personnel are critically important.

Young people can also be encouraged to take action against incidences of cyberbullying, and there are a number of models that suggest a set of steps to respond, including the following "stop, block, tell" approach (STOP cyberbullying, n.d.):

  • Stop the correspondence immediately - take a deep breath and avoid responding, which can make the situation worse.8
  • Block the user from sending additional emails or messages.
  • Tell a parent or trusted adult about the situation.

Further information and strategies can be accessed via the resources suggested at the end of this paper.

Footnotes

4 Further information: Facebook Statement of Rights and Responsibilities <www.facebook.com/legal/terms> under Registration and Account Security.

5 Further information: Twitter Privacy Policy <twitter.com/privacy> under Our Policy Towards Children

6 Further information: YouTube Parent Resources <support.google.com/youtube/bin/answer.py?hl=en&answer=126289>

7 Further information: How to Comply with Children's Online Privacy Protection Act <www.coppa.org/comply.htm>

8 Other models suggest that the young person asks the bully to stop, but does not engage in further communication.