Helping teens learn how to respond to online bullying
By BECKY GILLETTE
Negative online social interactions, such as cyberbullying, can be devastating to youth because there is a large audience. It can be persistent. It might not even be known who is bullying them or it could be multiple people. And the experience can be constant because youth can be online at any time, said Sarah E. Domoff, PhD, an associate psychology professor at Central Michigan University.
Bullying can be very devastating and correlates with suicidal ideation. And it can be something people don’t want to talk about.
Sarah E. Domoff, PhD
“In interviewing clinicians who work with teens who have experienced online victimization, we learned that there's a great fear in disclosing harmful online interactions because youth worry that their access to social media or smartphones could be limited or removed entirely,” Domoff said. “This can be so devastating because removing online access would mean a great loss of social connection and support for some youth.”
Youth seeking mental health treatment and older teen girls experience cyberbullying more often. Domoff said adolescents' lives and many social experiences occur online, so it is critical to help youth develop coping skills related to online interactions and help them shape their online experiences to yield beneficial or more positive connections.
For healthcare professionals and school counselors, Domoff said it is important to help teens learn how to engage with social media in healthy ways and have resources available for when online victimization occurs. She said there are some great resources online, such as https://www.stopbullying.gov/cyberbullying/what-is-it and https://www.missingkids.org/theissues/sextortion.
“There are also lessons available for teachers to implement across schools to help prevent cyberbullying and get youth support,” Domoff said. “Our team has recently developed an intervention to help teens after they have experienced harmful online interactions (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC9483492/), that includes a component for parents. It's important for parents to have regular, open and supportive conversations with their children about their online experiences. Helping teens learn how to cope with online stress and to not be a silent bystander when they see their peers experience online bullying is important too.”
A helpful resource from the American Psychological Association provides more detail: https://www.apa.org/topics/social-media-internet/social-media-parent-tips. She also recommends clinicians and parents check out Common Sense Media for additional tips (https://www.commonsensemedia.org/articles/how-do-i-protect-my-young-child-from-cyberbullying).
It is estimated that cyberbullying or cyber-victimization impacts 15-16 percent of U.S. youth. There are other negative online social interactions, as well. For example, youth report negative online social interactions, where they experience stress or negative affects connected to interacting with others online (which may not reach the threshold of bullying, but still can be stressful.) Domoff said when you extend the definition to include any type of online harassment, the prevalence jumps to about half of U.S. teens.
“It is possible for cyberbullying to happen anywhere online or through electronic means—it's not so much about the platform as about who one interacts with and privacy settings,” Domoff said. “For example, some harassment or negative interactions (not so much bullying) can occur through gaming chat rooms or with individuals who have access to our public, image-heavy social media profiles.”
Natashia Bottoms, MD
Cyberbullying is more prevalent than many people realize, said Natashia Bottoms, MD, assistant professor of the Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences. Cyberbullying is found most commonly on Instagram for adolescents, followed by Facebook and Snapchat.
“TikTok is an emerging problem area,” Bottoms said. “I think one of the things that makes cyberbullying particularly more difficult than with in-person bullying is at least with in-person bullying, there are safe places you can go like your home. Cyberbullying is on your phone and your phone is everywhere. There is no safe place from those kinds of attacks. We’ve seen a lot of issues with focus and attention in school, grades dropping, sleep issues, anxiety and depression.”
When people can say things anonymously online without others intervening, it is just the victim and the bully. In addition to negative comments, it is common for bullies to post pictures or memes that are hurtful or disclose personal information meant to embarrass others.
It can be a gut reaction from parents to think that taking the child’s phone away is the solution. But Bottoms said it isn’t just that easy because social media and online presence are an intrinsic part of the high school experience.
“That being said, you can do a lot as far as awareness,” Bottoms said. “You can offer comfort and support. Let them talk to you and intervene if you notice things getting to an unsafe place. It is really important to let your kids know it is not their fault. You are in it together and will work on it together. But also, be careful of how you respond to children bullies on social media. You can get wrapped up in the same situation. Keep screenshots of messages or texts you find or that the child brings to you. Encourage children not to respond to cyberbullying because it just makes it worse.”
Bottoms said social media can have as much of an impact on mental health as sleeping and nutrition. There is a point some parents have to monitor social media use and reduce time allowed on their phone. Or turn off certain apps if one in particular is causing problems.
“A lot of the time in those apps direct messages are from people anonymously sending nasty responses or posting call out videos,” Bottoms said. “In high school and middle school, all you need is the hint of something to get embarrassed. It is a really hard world for teens right now. It is tough. Most devices have a way to block certain people and messages. It is really, really important to block those people so they can’t still have access to the person being bullied.”
Another important issue is ‘addictive’ use of media, which is referred to as problematic media use. It includes excessive use of media that interferes with a child's functioning.
“It crosses the line into problematic when the child's use gets in the way of going to school or relationships with peers and family members,” Domoff said. “Parents play an important role in helping children have balance with technology. There are many strategies to consider, such as limiting use before bedtime and ensuring that access to entertainment media/gaming occurs only after other required daily activities (e.g., completing homework, doing chores/activities of daily living, exercising) are accomplished. If the child is already experiencing dysregulated use of media or has meltdowns related to limits being set, parents may benefit from working with a psychologist who can provide evidence-based behavior management training, such as Parent-Child Interaction Therapy.”