What parents can do about online bullying

  • Friends with smartphones dining at restaurant. (Dreamstime/TNS) Dreamstime

Published: 10/12/2018 9:36:52 AM

Like so many tools that we have invented, social media can be bad and good for us. This was reflected in a recent poll of young people and their parents. While they use social media as digital natives, teens and young adults said cyberbullying is a serious problem for people their age.

But most don’t think they’ll be the ones targeted for digital abuse. And they appear to be right, as most of those surveyed didn’t report being bullied online.

Roughly three-quarters of 15- to 26-year-olds say that online bullying and abuse is a serious problem for their peers. But just 7 percent of young people say they have been a victim of cyberbullying, with young women (11 percent) more likely to say they were bullied than young men (3 percent). That so few actually report being bullied is the good news.

Some teens report they can more easily brush off bullies who are anonymous but can be hurt more by bullies they know, like classmates.

“If they don’t know who it is, it doesn’t seem to bother them as much,” according to Justin Patchin, a criminal justice professor at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire and co-director of the Cyberbullying Research Center. “What concerns them is when it’s some kid at school.”

Yet, while those who are badly bullied are small minority, the poll, commissioned by Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research and MTV, finds that about half of young people surveyed, and their parents, view social media as having a mostly negative effect on the younger generation.

The long-documented problem with online bullying is that it is relentless. It doesn’t let up when kids get home from school or even when they move away from their tormentors. So, for those bullied, the grief generated can be intense, as evidenced by several highly publicized teen suicides.

The poll shows majorities of both young people and their parents think families have a responsibility to help prevent online harassment. Some parents report being vigilant about monitoring their children’s accounts, blocking anyone who seem creepy or fake and teaching them to avoid sights that denigrate women or minorities.

Companies like Facebook and Twitter have been trying for years to clamp down on abuse and harassment, with varying degrees of success. Both parents (72 percent) and young people (67 percent) think the companies should play a major role in addressing these problems – although we probably can’t rely on algorithms to solve this, our human problem.

We wish there were a simple fix for our complex internet-infused world, but there probably isn’t. Adults monitoring their young children’s social media interactions can surely help, although it takes vigilance and knowing where to draw a line between protective parenting and prying.

Roughly two-thirds of parents also attribute responsibility to schools (68 percent), law enforcement (66 percent) and other users who witness the behavior (61 percent). Those all have a role to play.

Maybe the lessons of appropriate online behavior can’t reach everyone. Maybe most of the obnoxious behavior is perpetrated by a minority of social media users who will never learn what it means to be a good citizen and helpful neighbor.

But surely, as parents and as a society, we can try to get ahead of the Mr. Hyde behavior online by teaching our children that bullying and obnoxious hurtful speech, especially the cowardly anonymous variety, is wrong. And we can hope that eventually, bullying in person or online can be marginalized and its power diminished.


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