Cyberbullying — the use of social media to abuse others —has become a global phenomenon. It often results in mental health risks, including depression, anxiety and even suicide, for some vulnerable children, adolescents and young adults.
Cyberbullying occurs when people hide behind fake identities to bully their prey online. Additionally, any material posted to the internet can reach an audience of millions within seconds, putting your child at risk. To learn more about cyberbullying, the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine partnered with Four Winds Hospital in Westchester County, New York.
Fifty adolescents between 13 and 16 years old completed the study, filling out questionnaires assessing trauma and cyberbullying. More than 80 percent of children had access to a cellphone, and 20 percent of the children admitted to being a victim of cyberbullying, while only 6 percent admitted to being a perpetrator.
Those children who were victims of cyberbullying had higher levels of depression and anger than those who were not victims of cyberbullying. Additionally, those who were victims of cyberbullying were significantly more likely to report a history of emotional abuse than those who were not victims.
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What does this mean? Parents, pediatricians, teachers, school counselors and all mental health professionals need to ask children about cyberbullying. It is rare that children and adolescents will initiate the topic of bullying or cyberbullying on their own. Therefore, it is our responsibility to begin the conversation.
Your first step as a parent should be to ask your child what social media platforms they are using. Kik, WhatsApp, Instagram, Snapchat, Tumblr, Twitter, Google+ and Facebook are some favorites for teenagers. Keep in mind that just because your child is not using one, like Facebook, does not mean he or she is not using another.
A particular social media application is often more common in a certain school. Your child's school counselors may be aware which social media platforms are most popular in your child's school. Parents should reach out to school counselors to find out more.
You need to be vigilant in screening online activity, and this requires developing a strong relationship with your child to get an honest answer as to whether they are victims or perpetrators of cyberbullying. Children will often deny cyberbullying out of fear, embarrassment and shame, but continue asking your child if they or their friends are experiencing cyberbullying.
Asking children about their friends may help them open up and discuss issues they may be going through. They may admit to being a bystander to cyberbullying. Asking what your child has witnessed can also provide insight into what is occurring in their social circle. Once your child tells their experience, share this information with their school.
As you continue to monitor your child’s online presence, here are tips to guide you:
▪ Frequently check in with your child about which online applications they are using and check their online profiles.
▪ Become familiar with whether these applications are age appropriate.
▪ Do not be afraid to ask your child specifically who they are communicating with.
▪ Look for changes in behavior, as this may be a sign of bullying. Aggression, isolation, excessive crying, changes in sleep or appetite, grade changes and loss of interest in previously enjoyable activities may be signs that they are victims or perpetrators.
▪ Communicate with your child’s school and other professionals in your child’s life to see if they have information about victims or perpetrators of cyberbullying.
Whether your child is the cyberbully or the victim of cyberbullying, they need help. Children who are perpetrators of cyberbullying may also suffer from depression, anxiety and trauma. While we want to make sure their behaviors stop, we also want to find and treat the root cause of their cyberbullying.
Cyberbullying is a real problem facing children and adolescents, and it may exacerbate mental health issues. Ultimately, we must prevent cyberbullying by teaching children how to effectively and safely engage in social media. We must protect our youth by ensuring that they are not communicating with strangers. And we must collaborate with other parents, pediatricians, schools and mental health professionals to ensure that children get help who are suffering from the mental health consequences of cyberbullying.
If you suspect your child has been bullied or is a cyberbully and needs medical assistance, call 305-355-9105.
Samantha Saltz, M.D., is chief child and adolescent psychiatry fellow and Philip Harvey, Ph.D., is director of psychology at the University of Miami Health System. David Pogge, Ph.D., is director of psychology and outcome research at Four Winds Hospital, New York. To learn more, visit umiamihospital.com/specialties/psychiatry.