Constant Harassment | The Long Term Effects of Cyberbullying

As parents, we will go to great lengths to protect our children from harm. Many of us enact restrictions on the things that they can witness, consume, or participate in, and set curfews to ensure that they are home at a suitable time. When your teenager traipses through the front door at 10 o’clock, begrudging you for ruining their lives, do you not sigh a silent sigh of relief in the knowing that they are home and safe from harm? And does it therefore terrify you to think that they could still be subject to constant abuse and harassment, even while they’re tucked up in bed?

With electronic devices becoming increasingly normalised in the household and classroom, now more than ever our kids are utilising modern technology and the Internet in their daily lives. The rapidly increasing numbers of teenagers and children using new media platforms has a direct cause and effect relationship with the rapidly increasing pervasiveness of cyberbullying within younger demographics. Where once children might have sought refuge from bullies within the confines of their home, the increased prevalence of online interactivity and social media in modern day life has fostered a generation of cyberbullying, and exposed young children and teens to anonymous, unrelenting, and round-the-clock harassment.

It’s an unsettling reality for all of us that young children and teenagers are being targeted by a force so evasive that it seems beyond our protective reach. It appears that entirely banning the use of electronic devices only encourages secrecy, and regular monitoring of text messages just erodes trust. It’s therefore crucial that we take the time to properly understand what steps we can take to help prevent children and teens from experiencing the long-term effects of cyberbullying…

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Cyberbullying Statistics & Effects

  • A staggering 90% of parents are unaware[7] that their child is being cyberbullied; with the majority of those parents actively believing that their child is strongly proficient and confident online

  • The effects of cyberbullying are long-lasting, and victims are considerably more likely to experience psychiatric disorders[1] such as adult depression, anxiety, and even agoraphobia

  • Adolescents who experience psychiatric disorders as a result of cyberbullying are less likely to socialise with friends or participate in healthy relationships[9]

  • There is a link between online victimisation and failure at school  [5] and substance abuse[4]

  • Young girls are twice as likely[5] to experience cyberbullying, though children of ethnic minorities or with special educational needs also tend to be targeted

  • Being exposed to bullying over a prolonged period can predispose children and young adults to physical health complications and infection by making affected individuals less immune responsive  [8]

What Are the Long-Term Effects of Cyberbullying?

Many of us have told our children that the best way to deal with a bully is to ignore them. For some, that philosophy may have worked. Yet, for many modern day youngsters, ignoring their tormentors is seemingly impossible to do. With 24/7 access to a limitless world of online communication, cyberbullies can actively target their victims at any time of the day or night, across multiple different mediums, and being ignored doesn’t necessarily dissuade them in any way at all.

A lot of face-to-face bullies feed off their ability to physically or verbally confront their victims. Oftentimes, it can be the threat of violence more than the act of violence that fuels this interaction. However, in the context of online interactions, the bully does not necessarily rely on the gratification that comes from immediately witnessing the effects of their actions, due to an increased dissociation between the perpetrator and their target. Even if children attempt to ignore the bombardment of messages, phone calls, emails, and pictures; their bully’s efforts could remain unrelenting. Traditional bullying and cyberbullying are closely related: those who are bullied at school are bullied online, and those who bully at school bully online [2,3,10 ]. As a result, more and more children are becoming the victim of constant harassment.

While being cyberbullied in any capacity at all can have a range of negative effects for victims, evidence suggests that being constantly and repeatedly harassed by an online perpetrator can have significantly worse mental health repercussions[4] than if the bullying happens in isolation. Teenage girls, in particular, are at serious risk of becoming vulnerable and self-conscious, and can end up experiencing major depressive episodes at some point in their lives. This can translate into a lifelong struggle with self-esteem and depression. In some devastating circumstances, teen depression can even exacerbate suicidal thoughts[1] , self-harm, or substance abuse.

The mental health implications of cyberbullying can also have debilitating effects on a young person’s ability to participate in healthy social interactions. They can become increasingly withdrawn both from friends and peers, and avoid entering into romantic relationships. Victims of cyberbullying that experience depression, as a result, will often become uninterested in leisure activities and school participation, which can eventuate in an inability to hold down employment in later life.

While these are all crucial considerations that should inform the way we educate our children about the Internet, it is also important to remember that – with all of these new digital mediums only recently weaving their way into our daily lives – a lot of the long-lasting effects of cyberbullying still aren’t fully known or understood.

What we do know with certainty is that cyberbullying has redefined the bully-victim dynamic in a number of ways; many of which seem harder to overcome. Traditional bullying tactics rely on a power imbalance between bully and victim and can become entirely dismantled if the victim assumes more dominance or popularity. Yet, in the online arena, this power imbalance is much harder to address, because the type of power that cyberbullies exercise over their victims is much more evasive; stemming from superior online proficiency (e.g. hacking, setting up fake accounts, or repetitive trolling) or being privy to private information (e.g. sharing photos or anecdotes) that is permanently damaging to a young person’s reputation.

How Do I Know If My Child Is Being Cyberbullied?

  • They’re showing sudden or drastic changes in their online interaction i.e. they might become increasingly attached to their electronic device and grow obsessed with constantly being online, or all of a sudden show no interest in even touching their electronic device. Some changes are more subtle, so it’s important to know what constitutes ‘normal’ for your child, and be aware of any changes.

  • They never want to go to school, and it’s hard to convince them to leave the house

  • They always seem nervous or reluctant to let you see their phone/computer/tablet, or become incredibly defensive when asked about what they’re doing or who they’re talking to online

  • They’re constantly sleep deprived, irritable, or quick to anger

  • They no longer seem to have contact with their usual friends, and they constantly make excuses for not wanting to participate in activities that they used to enjoy

6 Ways Parents Can Help Tackle The Effects of Cyberbullying

1. Maintain open lines of communication: Parents should regularly talk to their children about their online friendships. Ask them questions, just like you would do in reference to their offline friends. Just be sure not to come across as if you are interrogating them, as this might make them feel defensive and reluctant to share.

2. Keep an eye out for changes in behaviour: Certain changes in behaviour could indicate that your child is being vicimitised by an online bully, or that they themself have partaken in the online bullying of another child.

3. Encourage them to think about what they’re sharing: Cyberbullies often attempt to sabotage their victim’s reputation online. They can do this by creating fake accounts, sharing hurtful content, or posting compromising photos. A good preventative measure that every parent and child should take is to exercise caution when sharing material online, such as private information or images.

4. Nurture trust between you and your child: Don’t demand that your teen give you access to their device because this might encourage them to be more secretive in the future. While the compulsion to monitor their online exchanges is understandable, you risk severing the trust between you and your child, which could end up making matters worse. Instead, you should encourage your young one to tell you if they have any concerns about the way they are being treated online.

5. Teach them that the Internet is forever: Young people can say some pretty nasty things to one another at times. Sometimes, this is because they don’t fully grasp the gravity of what they are saying, and other times it’s because they haven’t truly considered the consequences. It’s pivotal that parents teach them that there is no such thing as a throwaway comment on the Internet and that their words could go on to cause resounding damage to their reputation.

6. Emphasise the importance of talking: Parents should ensure that their children know who they can talk to if they become aware of someone being cyberbullied (i.e. they witness or participate in the sharing of harmful content online).

Tackling cyber safety can feel like an insurmountable task for some parents. Oftentimes, our efforts to keep our loved ones safe are met with resentment and can be quickly undermined. Nevertheless, as cyberbullying becomes increasingly pervasive, vigilant risk management and appropriate parental intervention are becoming more and more essential.

Other Key Takeaways For Parents:

  • You can’t help if you’re not aware, so try to watch out for tell-tale signs that your child is being cyberbullied, or perhaps even bullying others online

  • If you suspect that your child is being cyberbullied, try to find a good time to ask them about it. If you just demand that they hand over their phone, or forbid them from using certain apps or devices, you risk eroding the trust that your child has with you.

  • In some instances it might be necessary to keep evidence of the cyberbullying your child is experiencing (i.e. screenshots of unsolicited messages or images) in case it needs to be escalated to the school or local authorities.

  • It’s important to openly communicate with your child about the importance of online safety. If kids are taught about the importance of proper online etiquette, it could prevent them from inadvertently partaking in the act of cyberbullying.

At Family Insights we understand that tackling cyber safety can be challenging, which is why we have created innovative new Parental Support software with customisable control settings. However, we also understand that actively monitoring your teenager’s online interactions can result in an erosion of trust, so our software isn’t designed to monitor content; but rather it analyses network interactions, establishes and detects potential risks, and alerts you to any concerning behavioural pattern changes. This way, you can preserve your child’s online safety, while also preserving your child’s trust.

If you’re a concerned parent, or if you’re seeking advice on how to support someone who has been the victim of cyberbullying, you can utilise local resources and support units such as iParentBlack Dog Institute, or Bullystoppers. If you are being cyberbullied, or suspect that someone that you know is being cyberbullied, you can contact Kids Helpline at any time for support and advice on what to do.

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[1] Copeland, W. E., Wolke, D., Angold, A., & Costello, E. J. (2013). Adult Psychiatric Outcomes of Bullying and Being Bullied by Peers in Childhood and Adolescence. JAMA Psychiatry,70(4), 419. doi:10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2013.504

[2] Hinduja, S. & Patchin, J. W. (2009). Bullying beyond the Schoolyard: Preventing and Responding to Cyberbullying. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

[3] Kowalski, R. M. & Limber, S. P. (2013). Psychological, Physical, and Academic Correlates of Cyberbullying and Traditional Bullying. Journal of Adolescent Health, 53(1), S13-S20.

[4] Mitchell, K. J., Ybarra, M., & Finkelhor, D. (2007). The Relative Importance of Online Victimization in Understanding Depression, Delinquency, and Substance Use. Child Maltreatment,12(4), 314-324. doi:10.1177/1077559507305996

[5] Munro, E. R. (2011). The protection of children online: a brief scoping review to identify vulnerable groups (United Kingdom, Department for Education, The Child Wellbeing Research Centre).

[6] Ortega, R., Elipe, P., Mora-Merchán, J. A., Calmaestra, J., & Vega, E. (2009). The Emotional Impact on Victims of Traditional Bullying and Cyberbullying. Zeitschrift für Psychologie / Journal of Psychology,217(4), 197-204. doi:10.1027/0044-3409.217.4.197

[7] Osgood, M. (2013, October 16). Research shows, most parents are unaware of kids’ cyberbullying.

[8] Rigby, K. (2003). Consequences of Bullying in Schools. The Canadian Journal of Psychiatry,48(9), 583-590. doi:10.1177/070674370304800904

[9] Spears, B., Slee, P., Owens, L., & Johnson, B. (2009). Behind the Scenes and Screens. Zeitschrift für Psychologie / Journal of Psychology,217(4), 189-196. doi:10.1027/0044-3409.217.4.189

[10] Ybarra, M., Diener-West, M., & Leaf, P. J. (2007). Examining the Overlap in Internet Harassment and School Bullying: Implications for School Intervention. Journal of Adolescent Health, 41: S42–S50.

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