Parents’ Guide to Cyberbullying

For most youth, the Internet is all about socializing and while most of these social interactions are positive, increasing numbers of kids are using the technology to intimidate and harass others – a phenomenon known as cyberbullying.

The term “cyberbullying” can be a bit misleading. Unlike the traditional definition of bullying, which involves a difference in power or strength between children who bully and the children they target, a lot of the activities that adults might see as cyberbullying happen between children of roughly the same status. It can also be difficult to tell who is bullying whom in a cyberbullying scenario. Finally, much of the abusive behaviour that takes place within offline relationships may also take place online or be enhanced by digital technology.

How Common is It?

Just over a third of Canadian students say that someone has said something mean or cruel to them online, and just under a third say that someone has threatened them online (posting things like “I’m going to get you” or “You’re going to get it”). Roughly a quarter of students say that they have been mean to someone online. 

Parents have an important role to play in helping their children and teens learn how to respond to cyberbullying. In fact, parents are the number one group of people that they turn to for help with online meanness.

How Do I Know if my Child is Being Cyberbullied?

Signs that your child is being bullied online can include fear of using the computer or going to school, anxiety and distress, and withdrawal from friends and usual activities.

What Should I do if my Child is Targeted?

  • Watch out for signs that your child is being bullied online – a reluctance to use the computer or go to school may be an indication.
  • Listen and provide advice if your child asks for it. Make sure to check in regularly to make sure things are going better.
  • Report online bullying to your Internet or cell phone service provider. Most companies have Acceptable Use Policies (AUPs) that clearly define privileges and guidelines for people who use their services and the actions that can be taken if those guidelines are violated. They should be able to respond to reports of cyberbullying over their networks or help you track down the appropriate service provider to respond to.

Report incidents of online harassment and physical threats to your local police. Some forms of online bullying are considered criminal acts. For example: under the Criminal Code of Canada, it is a crime to communicate repeatedly with someone if your communication causes them to fear for their own safety or the safety of others.

We also need to teach our kids how to respond to an online bully. Your child has received a handout titled What to Do if Someone is Mean to You Online. Go through it together and emphasize the key points:

  • Don’t fight back
  • Save the evidence
  • Talk to someone about it
  • Report it to the site where it’s happening or to police if it’s making you feel scared; making it hard for you to go to school or do things you enjoy; if you are being physically threatened; or if someone is threatening to publish something that would hurt or humiliate you.

How Can I Prevent Cyberbullying?

We can reduce the risks associated with Internet use by having open, ongoing conversations with our children about their online activities and by setting up rules that will grow along with them. MediaSmarts’ research shows that having family Internet rules on things like treating people with respect can have a positive impact on your children’s online behaviour. (This tip sheet can get you started: Research has also shown that bullying rates drop when kids know that it is against the rules and how to report it.

Tell your children to come to you right away if they feel uncomfortable or threatened online. Don’t take it for granted that your child will do this: only eight percent of teens who have been bullied online have told their parents.

Encourage your children to take action when they witness someone being bullied. This doesn’t necessarily mean confronting the bully: they need to consider what they can do that is most likely to help the person being bullied and least likely to make the situation worse. This may include:

  • recording the bullying by taking screenshots (see for tips on how to do this) and, if it seems that it will do more good than harm, reporting it;
  • helping the person who is being bullied feel better and offering help privately (including help in reporting the bullying to authorities: young people who are being bullied are often reluctant to tell adults);
  • trying to help both the person being bullied and person who is doing the bullying make up; or
  • confronting the person who is doing the bullying, either privately or in public. If this is a friend, the best way to show that you don’t approve of their behaviour is by not joining in or encouraging it.

In order to fight cyberbullying effectively we need to change the culture in which it happens, starting with helping kids understand that what may seem like “just a joke” can have a powerful effect on someone else. It’s also important to teach them that cyberbullying may be less common than they think it is: young people often overestimate how common bullying actually is, even though most report their own experiences as being positive. Knowing the facts is important because research shows that when young people believe that bullying behaviour is the norm, they are more likely to engage in and tolerate this sort of behaviour – and that when they understand how uncommon bullying actually is, bullying rates drop.

What Should I Avoid Doing if my Child is Being Cyberbullied?

It can be difficult for a young person to come forward when they are being bullied; even to mom or dad. To build trust, try not to overreact. Don’t forbid your child to use the Internet in the hope of eliminating the source of the problem: for your child, this is equal to social death and will leave her or him feeling even more victimized (not to mention the fact that an extreme reaction such as this will probably cause your child to avoid confiding in you again when feeling threatened). 

Other things to avoid:

  • Telling them to stop “tattling” or “snitching”
  • Telling them they should solve the problem themselves
  • Blaming them for being a target
  • Minimizing or ignoring the situation 

How Can I Learn More?

As much as possible, show an interest in your child’s online life: where does he or she go online? What does he or she do? What is it about these online experiences that are so absorbing? If you’re in the habit of sharing your own online experiences with your child, she or he will be more likely to talk to you when having a negative experience.

If you want to better understand your child’s online experience, check out MediaSmarts’ resources at: