Cyberbullying: When Going Viral is Bad News

Dear Mr. Dad: My teenage daughter is often very upset and withdrawn after she uses her computer or checks her phone. And lately, she’s been refusing to go to school in the morning. She won’t talk to my husband or me about what’s going on. Could she be a victim of cyberbullying, and if so, is there anything we can do about it?

A: Humans have been bullying each other ever since we lived in caves, and students have been bullying each other ever since the first school was built. Bullying is so common that it’s almost impossible to find anyone who hasn’t witnessed it, been victimized, or done it.

Unfortunately, thanks to technology, bullies can now do their nasty work 24/7 and from anywhere in the world. Experts estimate that half of 6-12th graders have experienced cyberbullying at least once, and about a quarter of them experience it regularly. Worst of all, studies show that when bullying happens on line, people are more likely to join in—and less likely to do anything to stop it.

Cyberbullying takes many shapes. Deliberately harassing the victim is just the beginning. Bullies can set up fake social media profiles, start rumors, and post unflattering or embarrassing pictures; they can post that same information on social media sites, where it will be “Liked,” forwarded, and re-tweeted to the ends of the world. And cyberbullies are quick to take advantage of the latest tech advances. There are smartphone apps that allow bullies to post names of “enemies” on Facebook for all to see, scan photos of victims and rate them on a 0-100 ugly scale, text anonymously, and more. I’m not going to mention the names of those apps—no sense giving bullies any new ideas.

Girls are just as likely as boys to be victims (or bullies). And while boys make more physical threats, girls spread more rumors (which I’d argue often does more damage because the Internet makes it possible to spread those lies to a much wider audience).

The consequences can be disastrous. Being a victim of cyberbullying can led to anxiety and depression, refusal to go to school, poor academic performance, social isolation, and, in some tragic cases, has actually driven the victim to suicide.

So the short answer to your questions is, Yes, your daughter is probably being bullied online, and yes, there’s plenty your whole family can do:

  • Move the computer to a more public area in the house so you can keep a better eye on what’s happening.
  • Keep trying to get her to talk about it. Be understanding, sympathetic, and supportive. Listen without judging and offer to help. But don’t push too hard: She may worry that getting you involved will make an already bad situation worse.
  • Health and safety issues trump privacy. Tell your daughter that you’re worried and that you may need to review her on-line activities.
  • Encourage her to not respond. Sending back a “leave-me-alone” email or text will only add fuel to the fire, showing the bully that she’s definitely struck a nerve.
  • Cut ‘em off. Your daughter can unfriend people, stop following them on Twitter, and block incoming texts and calls from bullies’ phone numbers.
  • Report it. Facebook, Twitter, and others say they take cyberbullying complaints seriously. Let your daughter’s school know what’s happening and report it to the police.
  • Don’t delete. Take screen captures and save emails, pictures, and texts so investigators can do their job.
  • Visit stopbullying.gov and the Cyberbullying Research Center (cyberbullying.us) for more tips.