In 2013, Rebecca Sedwick, 12, jumped to her death from an abandoned cement factory in Lakeland after she allegedly suffered through months of cyberabuse.
That same year, Gov. Rick Scott signed legislation that expanded the state anti-bullying law to include cyberbullying, which is defined as deliberately using digital media to communicate false, embarrassing, or hostile information about another person, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. More than 30 states have adopted cyberbullying laws within the past few years, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Cyberbullying has become more prevalent in the past 10 years, said Angel Rivera, a Baptist Health primary care licensed care social worker. “It is becoming a serious pandemic,” he said.
Forty-two percent of children and youth say they have been bullied while online, according to the American Humane Association. According to the Cyberbullying Research Center, 20 percent of 4,400 students surveyed between the ages of 11 and 18 have experienced cyber bullying.
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Dr. Ushimbra Buford, training director for child and adolescent psychiatry at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, has also noticed the rise in cyberbullying. At least 36 percent of his adolescent patients have been bullied on social media. Some of his patients have attempted to or wanted to kill themselves due to cyber bullying.
“Children used to be able to come home and have a safe place,” Buford said. “Now, bullying follows them home and some kids have a compulsion to see what is being said online. It only grows as technology advances.”
Cyberbullying also has an anonymous nature and is not restricted to school, said Dr. Sara Rivero-Conil, pediatric psychologist at Nicklaus Children’s Hospital. People in a child’s neighborhood now know they are being bullied.
“There is almost no safe zone,” Rivero-Conil said.
Cyberbullying can become a repetitive cycle. Once a child feels helpless and powerless, they may repeat the bullying behavior and become aggressive with others, Rivera said.
Parents can protect their children from cyberbullying in several ways, most importantly by having open communication with them. They should talk daily with their children and foster an environment where children feel comfortable telling their parents about their problems, said Buford.
Another key strategy is to monitor a child’s behavior, Rivera said. Signs a child may be experiencing cyberbullying include irritability, withdrawal from friends and family, not wanting to attend school, no longer using electronic devices, inappropriate anger and no longer wanting to hang out with friends.
“Kids are good at hiding problems,” Buford said. “Parents often say they had no idea.”
Parents should know when to ask questions and encourage children not to be involved or join in cyberbullying, Rivero-Conil said. Also, they should educate children about the difference between tattling and bullying.
“Often, children are told not to tattle on one another,” Rivero-Conil said. “When a child is getting hurt, it is not tattling.”
Buford also encourages parents to become tech savvy. Check what websites your child is visiting, check their cell phone and Facebook page. Explain to the child that you are trying to protect them.
Parents should set rules on how long a child can stay on the Internet, Rivera said.
Place the computer in a common area so parents can gauge a child’s reactions while online and also read messages. Parents should also set online parental controls, Rivero-Conil said.
If necessary, parents should also know a child’s passwords. “If the child is skipping school, fighting and using drugs, then a parent should have the passwords,” Buford said.
Rivero-Conil also encourages children to form strong friendships. “If a child is not isolated, they are not as likely to become victims,” she said.
Parents should also explain to their children the consequences of being a cyberbully or a victim. If the child is the bully and not being nice to other children, parents should withdraw social media privileges, take away computer time and their cellphone, Rivero-Conil said.
The most important thing is for the child to feel safe, Rivera said. A child should tell a parent, teacher or an authority figure if he receives a post that is condescending, threatening, or mocking. If a child keeps it to himself, his self-esteem will deteriorate.
Rivero-Conil also recommended that a child experiencing cyberbullying attempt to ignore it or “confidently” tell the bully to stop.
How to protect your children from cyberbullying:
▪ Talk daily with them and foster an environment where they feel comfortable telling you about their problems.
▪ Monitor a child’s behavior for changes in mood or sleep patterns and signs of isolation or depression.
▪ Become tech savvy. Monitor a child’s cell phone, Facebook page and websites visited.