Family Matters No. 92

Parental involvement in preventing and responding to cyberbullying

Elly Robinson
The role that parents play in the cyber-safety education of their children cannot be understated. (Joint Select Committee on Cyber-Safety [JSCCS], 2011a, p. 277)

Internet use has become virtually universal among Australian adolescents. In the 12 months prior to April 2012, 96% of 9-11 year olds and 98% of 12-14 year olds used the Internet at home or school, and use increases with age (Australian Bureau of Statistics [ABS], 2012). Alongside this is a growing recognition that Australia's long-term social and economic prosperity will increasingly rely on professionals with high-quality skills in the use of technology, as outlined in the National Digital Economy Strategy (Department of Broadband, Communications & the Digital Economy, 2011).1 As such, technological competence will be crucial for the children and adolescents of today, who are destined to become the next generation of professionals.

Young people are exposed to an increasingly open and collaborative online social culture, which allows them to access information and maintain friendships and relationships with family. There are also substantial educational and social benefits associated with engagement in online activities, such as creative content production, dissemination and consumption (Collin, Rahilly, Richardson, & Third, 2011). At this age, however, young people are at a dynamic stage of development in which risk-taking behaviours and immature decision-making capacities can lead to negative outcomes (Viner, 2005). This is evident in the growing recognition and consequences of cyberbullying.

Parents' involvement in the safe use of technology starts from a child's first use, and they are a critical part of ensuring their teenage children's responsible and safe use of online services as part of a whole-of-community response to cyberbullying. This paper outlines definitions and statistics related to cyberbullying, differences between cyberbullying and "offline" bullying,2 and parents' roles and involvement in preventing and responding to cyberbullying incidents. The aim of the paper is to inform practitioners and other professionals of ways in which to help parents clarify their roles, and provide them with the tools to help their teenage children engage in responsible online behaviour.

Definitions and characteristics of cyberbullying

Definitions of cyberbullying vary widely, which has implications for research and policy. The Australian Parliament report of the Joint Select Committee on Cyber-Safety (2011a) highlighted the importance of the future development of an appropriate definition for cyberbullying that is nationally consistent and includes a clear idea of the consequences. For the purposes of this paper, cyberbullying, practised over time, is defined as including:

but is not limited to, mean, nasty or threatening text messages/instant messages/pictures/video clips/emails that are sent directly to a person through the Internet or mobile phone. (Pearce, Cross, Monks, Waters, & Falconer, 2011, p. 2)

One of the ways in which a definition of cyberbullying is determined is to look at its similarities and differences to offline bullying. Similar characteristics in both forms of bullying include:

  • power differential, repetition of behaviour and intent to harm (Spears, Slee, Owens, & Johnson, 2008) - if two people of a similar status fight online, it is more likely to be "cyberfighting" (McGrath, 2009; Spears et al., 2008); and
  • spreading rumours, making threats and derogatory comments (Mishna, Saini, & Solomon, 2009).

The reasons that underpin a decision to cyberbully are often similar to reasons why offline bullying occurs (Vandebosh & Van Cleemput, 2008).

Differences between the two types of bullying include:

  • cyberbullying is more likely experienced outside of school, whereas offline bullying is more likely to be experienced in school (Smith et al., 2008);
  • repetition of behaviour associated with bullying can be seen to have a different meaning in cyberbullying, as the sharing of materials can continue to occur long after the incident itself (Spears et al., 2008);
  • younger students experience offline bullying more frequently than older students (Pellegrini & Long, 2002), but cyberbullying tends to be more common in the later years of high school (Cross et al., 2009);
  • young people who experience cyberbullying may be less likely to tell someone than if they are bullied offline (McGrath, 2009);
  • cyberbullying is perceived as being anonymous, which may reduce empathy (O'Brien & Moules, 2010); in reality, however, young people are most likely to be cyberbullied by people they already know (Willard, 2011). The Joint Select Committee report suggested that the anonymity associated with cyberbullying is fast becoming a fallacy, as many young people who bully online also bully offline (JSCCS, 2011a); and
  • young people who experience cyberbullying are less able to easily defend themselves (Smith et al., 2008) or escape from cyberbullying (O'Brien & Moules, 2010), particularly as there is a large number of potential supporters of online bullying (Cross et al., 2009).

In terms of predictors for cyberbullying and offline bullying, one Australian study found that prior engagement in offline relational aggression (covert bullying, such as spreading rumours) predicted later cyberbullying behaviours (Hemphill et al., 2012). Additional predictors for traditional bullying included previous bullying victimisation, family conflict and academic failure. It is possible that cyberbullying and offline relational aggression both provide a similarly indirect (i.e., not face-to-face) avenue for engaging in bullying.

Boundaries between cyberbullying and offline bullying

There is a general sense within the literature that adults and young people think differently about the online and offline world. For children and young people, the online and offline world are "seamless" in providing a holistic arena of communication, socialisation, play, research and learning (JSCCS, 2011a; Willard, 2011). Consequently, children and young people don't necessarily see any difference between online and offline bullying (JSCCS, 2011a) - in one study, young people described cyberbullying simply as "bullying via the Internet" or "bullying using technology" (Vandebosch, & van Cleemput, 2008). This is further supported by the idea that many young people who perpetrate cyberbullying also engage in offline bullying, and many young people who have experienced cyberbullying have also experienced offline bullying (Smith et al., 2008; Pearce et al., 2011).

Location of cyberbullying

There is often a transference and continuation of cyberbullying behaviours from home to school or vice versa, with some suggestion that more students experienced cyberbullying outside of school than in school hours (Smith et al., 2008). Spears et al. (2008) described this as "cyclical" bullying, where location but also type of bullying (offline/online) may change over time. This "24/7" nature of cyberbullying highlights the importance of parental involvement, in partnership with schools, in preventing and addressing cyberbullying.

Prevalence of cyberbullying

The prevalence of cyberbullying is difficult to establish. Statistics vary considerably across studies due to the differences in the way in which cyberbullying is defined, the age of study participants, the reluctance of children to disclose either perpetrating or being the victim of cyberbullying, the use of different measures of cyberbullying and the study timeframes.

With this in mind, estimates of cyberbullying from Australian data range from 7% to 20%. Findings from Australian studies on cyberbullying include:

  • 7-10% of Year 4-9 students had been cyberbullied over the duration of a school term (Cross et al., 2009);
  • over a 12-month period, between 10% and 20% of children and young people had been cyberbullied, with 10-15% students experiencing cyberbullying more than once (JSCCS, 2011a);
  • victimisation via the Internet was the most commonly reported form of cyberbullying experienced by Year 6-12 male students (9-18 years) in Sydney and Brisbane, with 11.5% of students reporting at least one incident during the school year (Sakellariou & Carroll, 2012);
  • one in five Australian teenagers aged 12-17 years received hateful messages via their mobile phone or through an Internet-based medium during the current school year (Lodge & Frydenberg, 2007); and
  • in terms of perpetration, data from almost 700 Victorian school students indicated that at Year 9, 15% of students had engaged in cyberbullying, and 7% of students had engaged in both cyberbullying and traditional bullying (Hemphill et al., 2012).
  • European research indicates similar statistics, with 13% of young people aged 9-16 years in one study reporting having received a hurtful or nasty online message within a 12-month period (Green, Brady, Olafsson, Hartley, & Lumby, 2011). European comparisons suggest that bullying online is more common in countries in which offline bullying is also more common, as opposed to where the Internet is more established. This supports the notion that online bullying is a new form of an old problem rather than a product of the technology itself.

Is cyberbullying more or less harmful than offline bullying?

I did not dread coming home to an email from someone who hated me, I dreaded the prospect of going to school with someone who hated me and having those written words be spat at me before getting my jumper ripped off me and being put in some new and innovative choke hold. In an email there's always a delete button, in an instant message there's always a block button, in a five on one fight behind the school building there's no such thing. (Male participant, JSCCS, 2011a, p. 65)

There is limited evidence at this stage to establish whether cyberbullying is more or less harmful than offline bullying, but there is an indication in the literature that young people may either underplay, not attribute or deny the harm associated with cyberbullying (Spears et al., 2008). A three-year Australian study on the consequences of cyberbullying found that mental health problems, including anxiety and depression, were more prevalent among children who reported that they had been cyberbullied compared to those who had been bullied offline. Interestingly, the students in this study stated that they felt cyberbullying was not as bad as offline bullying, even though the actual results showed that it was (JSCCS, 2011b).

In one UK study, while young people who had experienced cyberbullying indicated that it had affected their confidence, self-esteem and mental wellbeing, the most common answer for how it had affected them was "not at all" (O'Brien & Moules, 2010). However, three-quarters thought cyberbullying was just as harmful as other forms of bullying - those who felt it wasn't harmful stated so because it was not physical, and it was easier to escape. These thoughts were also reflected in the JSCCS (2011a) survey.

Some young people see cyberbullying as being harder to avoid, whereas others see offline bullying as being more so (Spears et al., 2008). Respondents in the JSCCS (2011a) survey indicated differing reactions to cyberbullying - some were deeply affected, some were able to shrug it off, and others did not interpret certain acts as cyberbullying. Smith et al. (2008) suggested that the type of cyberbullying may influence the way in which young people perceive the impact, with misuse of photographs and bullying using a mobile phone being perceived as having the greatest effect, and chat room and email incidents having the least effect.

Young people may not be aware of the harm they cause through cyberbullying (O'Brien & Moules, 2010), and young people who are cyberbullied may take a message or email extremely seriously, while the sender may consider it a joke or idle remark (Cross et al., 2009).

Online risk vs online harm

It is important to point out that, from a developmental perspective, exposure to online risk does not automatically translate to exposure to online harm. Risk-taking, rebellion and experimentation are all characteristics of adolescent development, and risky experiences can help to develop coping strategies and resilience (Green et al., 2011). It has been argued that young people with limited access to the Internet and less experience of usage may in fact be more vulnerable in terms of online safety (Cross et al., 2009).

Excessive monitoring by parents of Internet use, for example, may limit children's development of understanding about using technologies responsibly in other contexts. An analogy is a child who holds a parent's hand every time he/she crosses the road, and without the opportunity to cross it alone he/she may not learn to do so independently (Office for Standards in Education, Children's Services and Skills [Ofsted], 2010).

Efforts to encourage cybersafety need to find a balance between monitoring behaviour and allowing young people to independently and age-appropriately negotiate their own boundaries. Most young people have a wealth of experience in using technology and are more adept at handling situations online than is often assumed by adults (Third, Richardson, Collin, Rahilly, & Bolzan, 2011).

Vulnerable children and young people

There are anecdotal suggestions within the literature that children and young people who are at risk online are likely to be those at risk offline. If young people are disengaged from offline groups they may move online to engage with others, but they may lack the skills to disengage if confronted by an inappropriate situation (JSCCS, 2011a). The vulnerability of these young people is an under-researched area, even though their skill and knowledge level regarding technology is often low and, as such, their need for information around cybersafety is greater than other young people (JSCCS, 2011a).

The "digital divide"?

Although statistics show that use of the Internet by adults is high and continues to rise,3 McGrath (2009) suggested that young people use technology in a different way to adults - adult use tends to be for more practical or business purposes, whereas for young people, technology is a vital part of their social life and identity development.

Children and young people's perception of their parents' knowledge about new technology influences the level of acceptance and value that they place on the advice offered by parents regarding online safety. In one US study of almost 800 teenage children (12-17 year olds), those whose parents were Internet users considered their parents as a greater influence on their online behaviours than those with parents who did not go online (Lenhart et al., 2011). There was, however, a prevailing attitude among the children and young people in the JSCCS (2011a) survey that their parents didn't have a comprehensive awareness of "what happens" on the Internet. As such, the children and young people thought that their parents overstated the dangers and risks of Internet use.

The literature also discusses the extent to which children and young people think they know more about the Internet than their parents: over 70% of 9-16 year olds in one study felt that this was "very true" or "a bit true" (Green et al., 2011). Being better informed than their parents led to examples in another study where, at times, students needed to remind their own parents of basic cybersafety rules (Ofsted, 2010).

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, 2011a, 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 Internet usage

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 usage time limits;
  • the difficulty of preventing exposure to inappropriate content;
  • children's own control of the technology (e.g., through use of passwords, phone locks and hiding web browser history); and
  • the difficulty parents have in keeping up with the pace of change on the Internet, particularly social networking and virtual reality sites.

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 that parents may often be unaware of. 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 (see US Federal Trade Commission, 2000, on how to comply with the Act). 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, 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 and Clarke-Pearson (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.

Disclosure of cyberbullying

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 (2011a) survey of children aged 9-15 years old, between 25% and 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 had been unaware of this.

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 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, 2013). If these indicators are present, parents should 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, no matter 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, good communication and relationships between parents and school personnel are critically important.

Parents and schools working together

As mentioned previously, the relationship between parents and schools is a critical aspect of addressing cyberbullying. Parents should be encouraged to inquire about the strategies that schools undertake to educate children and young people about cybersafety and cyberbullying, and the ways in which they involve parents in cyberbullying initiatives and in developing cyberbullying policies. In one review of school approaches to cybersafety in the UK, the best schools were seen as having excellent, continually developing relationships with families (Ofsted, 2009). Parents also actively worked together with senior school leaders, governors and staff to develop strategies for cybersafety.

One of the main strategies used by schools in Australia is the responsible/acceptable use policies that both parents and students are required to sign. Responsible use policies should be unambiguous, and clear consequences for inappropriate behaviours should be spelt out in the policy (Ofsted, 2009).

Schools are increasingly recognising that cyberbullying is more likely to happen outside of rather than in school (Cross et al., 2009; Smith et al., 2008). As a result, there is an increased trend for schools to be prepared to take responsibility for what happens outside school hours to ensure continuity of care (McGrath, 2009). The South Australian Department for Education and Child Development (2009), for example, has explicitly recognised this responsibility by stating clearly in their policy document, Cyber-Safety: Keeping Children Safe in a Connected World, that any cyberbullying incident should be treated as a behaviour management issue and dealt with via relevant school policy, even if the incident occurs outside of school hours.

The literature also indicates that while there is evidence that cyberbullying and cybersafety programs increase young people's awareness, there is limited evidence to show that they lead to behaviour changes (Mishna, Cook, Saini, Wu, & McFadden, 2009). While parents may be aware that schools run such programs, they also need to be mindful of, and engage in discussion with children about, the ways in which they can practise cybersafety skills online.

Parents' role in preventing and addressing cyberbullying

The following points that have been raised in this paper can guide practitioners in supporting parents to play a role in preventing and addressing cyberbullying. Parents can:

  • increase their knowledge and become more adept at the use of technologies being used by their children (Mishna, Cook et al., 2009; O'Keeffe & Clarke-Pearson, 2011; Spears et al., 2008). Learning alongside children and young people can be an effective way to achieve this, with parents being encouraged to let their children be the "experts" and help them understand the tools that they are using online;
  • build a contextualised understanding of the importance of technology in children and young peoples' lives (Mishna, Cook et al., 2009), including contemporary online friendships and peer groups (Spears et al., 2008);
  • take an active role in discussing with their children the benefits of online engagement, and how to respond to cyberbullying and other negative online behaviours, framed in a discussion about good cyber-citizenship (O'Keeffe & Clarke-Pearson, 2011);
  • develop an online use plan, in partnership with other family members, which includes details of appropriate online topics, privacy setting checks and any inappropriate posts that have occurred on online profiles (O'Keeffe & Clarke-Pearson, 2011). Children and young people need the same moral and ethical guidance and clear, appropriate boundaries for online behaviour as they do for offline behaviour (Spears et al., 2008);
  • be aware of the strategies undertaken by their children's school to prevent and address cyberbullying, and support these strategies at home;
  • inform themselves of the details in their children's school's responsible use policies and the rights and responsibilities of the school to take action if behaviour occurs outside of school hours. Children and parents should be actively involved in cyberbullying policy development (JSCCS, 2011a);
  • encourage young people aged under 13 years old to abstain from using social networking sites such as Facebook or YouTube, including an explanation as to why this is important (see above);
  • engage in open discussion and communication about online monitoring, as opposed to relying solely on filtering tools (O'Keeffe & Clarke-Pearson, 2011); and
  • proactively and regularly access cybersafety resources designed for parents (see Resources section below), to become familiar with emerging technologies and online trends.

Cyberbullying parent education initiatives are currently being trialled in Australia. An example is the Cyber Friendly Parents' Project - conducted by the Child Health Promotion Research Centre at Edith Cowan University in Western Australia - which responds to an expressed need for parents to better understand and help their children use social networking services safely (Child Health Promotion Research Centre, n. d.). A pilot test of the resources showed positive results, with most parents responding that the resources used in the program improved their skills, understanding and self-efficacy to respond to cyberbullying. Programs such as these, if successfully replicated, will be important additions to parent support in the area of cybersafety and cyberbullying.

Resources

Some of the more popular social media sites provide information specifically tailored to help parents understand their child's use of the site. For example:

The JSCCS (2011a) report indicated that while a great deal of information on cyberbullying is available, many parents/carers have trouble discerning what information is valuable and useful. With this in mind, the following resources are suggested as being helpful to parents. Further links and information, if needed, can be found in Online Safety (Lohoar, 2012, see <www.aifs.gov.au/cfca/pubs/factsheets/a143367/index.html>).

Cyberbullying and cybersafety information

Bullying No Way!
<www.bullyingnoway.gov.au>

The Bullying No way! website is a "one-stop" portal that provides evidence-informed information and advice on bullying, harassment and violence for teachers, parents and students. The parent information page can be found at: <www.bullyingnoway.gov.au/parents/index.html>.

CyberSmart
<www.cybersmart.gov.au>

The ACMA Cybersmart service provides activities, resources and practical advice to help young kids, kids, teens and parents safely enjoy the online world. The links contain audiovisual materials, tips and links to a wide range of resources. The Cybersmart parents' page can be found at <www.cybersmart.gov.au/About%20Cybersmart/Cyber%20resource%20centre.aspx>. Translated brochures are also available in Arabic, Chinese, Greek, Italian and Vietnamese.

Cybersafety Help Button
<www.dbcde.gov.au/helpbutton>

The Australian Government's Cybersafety Help Button provides Internet users, particularly young people, with a "one-stop shop" for cybersafety information and assistance. The help button is a free application which, once downloaded, sits on the desktop or in the tool bar. When double-clicked, the button allows users to talk, report or learn about cybersafety issues such as cyberbullying, scams and fraud, and unwanted contact. There are links to KidsHelpLine, Scam Watch, Australian Federal Police and ACMA, where you can report prohibited or inappropriate online material. Educational resources include links to the Cybersmart and Stay Smart Online websites.

ThinkUKnow Australia
<www.thinkuknow.org.au/site>

ThinkUKnow is an Internet safety program delivering interactive training to parents, carers and teachers. Originally created by the UK Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre, ThinkUKnow Australia has been developed by the Australian Federal Police and Microsoft Australia. Users will need to subscribe to the site to gain access to its tools and resources.

Reporting inappropriate online content

Inappropriate, harmful or criminal activities can be reported to ThinkUKnow Australia, and offensive content can be reported to ACMA at <www.acma.gov.au/Citizen/Take-action/Complaints/Internet-content-complaints>.

Children and young people can contact the Cybersmart online helpline (Kids Helpline) to discuss cyberbullying issues. Details at: Online Help and Reporting <www.cybersmart.gov.au/Report.aspx>.

Endnotes

1 For more information see the National Digital Economy Strategy <www.nbn.gov.au/nbn-benefits/national-digital-economy-strategy>.

2 The term "offline bullying" is used in this paper to indicate more traditional forms of bullying that occur without the use of electronic communications devices. Types of offline bullying may include physical, verbal, relational (e.g., exclusion) and indirect (e.g., rumour spreading) bullying (Smith et al., 2008).

3 In 2010-11, 79% of persons aged 15 years or above had accessed the Internet in the past 12 months, compared with 74% in 2008-09 (ABS, 2011).

4 For further information, see Facebook's Statement of Rights and Responsibilities <www.facebook.com/legal/terms> under "4. Registration and Account Security".

5 For further information, see the Twitter Privacy Policy <twitter.com/privacy> under "Our Policy Towards Children".

6 For further information, see YouTube's Parent Resources <support.google.com/youtube/bin/answer.py?hl=en&answer=126289>.

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Elly Robinson is a Research Fellow and the Manager of Child Family Community Australia information exchange at the Austrlaian Institute of Family Studies. The author would like to thank Cara Webber (ACMA), Jodie Lodge (AIFS) and Sharnee Moore (AIFS) for their helpful feedback and comments on earlier drafts of the paper.

This article is an updated version of a CFCA Paper, Parental Involvement in Preventing and Responding to Cyberbullying, available at <www.aifs.gov.au/cfca/pubs/papers/a141868/index.html>.

Suggested citation:

Robinson., E. (2013). Parental involvement in preventing and responding to cyberbullyingFamily Matters, 92, 68-76.