Addressing and Preventing Cyberbullying and Online Harm
By Pamela Anderson, PhD | February 9, 2017
Senior Research Associate, ETR
I’m having a sentimental parent moment. Our three-year-old is looking at the iPad. She is trying to defy gravity by watching her show upside down. The iPad falls on her face. She falls off the couch and hits the floor.
Our almost-seven-year-old immediately sprints over to help and console her sister. She wipes the tears from her face and walks her over to the freezer to get an ice pack to soothe her injuries. I’m so proud of our older daughter, stepping up to be an empathetic and compassionate role model for her sister.
I want my children to benefit from this kind of support in everything they do. Their dad and I do our best to offer it. So do their grandparents and their teachers.
But there is another powerful influence in their lives that doesn’t have their welfare uppermost on the agenda. It is online media—in essence, a neutral player. But, like matches, swimming pools or over-the-counter cold medicine, it is an element that has both virtues and the potential to do my children harm.
Cyberbullying is one of those possible harms. Like real-world bullying, this bullying that uses texts, emails, social media or other tech avenues is mean, embarrassing and degrading.
Face-to-face bullying requires the aggressor and the recipient of the bullying to be in close proximity. But cyberbullying extends beyond physical location and can happen at any point, day or night. It can amplify with lightning speed—a harmful post might be seen by hundreds of people in a matter of minutes.
And yes, like face-to-face bullying, cyberbullying is truly damaging. Children and youth who are cyberbullied are more likely to have lower self-esteem, use alcohol and drugs, avoid school and have a range of health problems.
Early Online Media Use: What Is It Teaching Young Children?
So what does all of this mean when it comes to our own children? I’m a busy working mom and, like many of my peers, I allow my children a limited amount of screen time. It holds their attention, they learn things, and their dad and I actively monitor what they’re watching. Here are some consequences I’ve noticed.
- Behavioral norming. My older daughter (the one who’s almost seven) loves watching Kids YouTube. When her time is up and she puts away the screen, I can see her behavior change. She models her language, posture and actions based on what she’s just been watching.
- Parents are often baffled or behind-the-times. There are guidelines concerning children and screen use, but many of the parents I know aren’t clear about what they are. We need more research about online media effects, especially as children grow older. We need clearer guidance for parents who may be less technologically savvy than their children, especially their tweens and teens.
- Younger children are learning from older children in new ways. Before the digital media era, younger and older children tended to socialize in age-matched groups. Even if a 12-year-old was taking care of 6-year-olds, the older child (hopefully) chose language and behaviors appropriate in the company of younger kids.
Today, my daughter sees video blogs by 12-year-olds. Some of those 12-year-olds are doing their best to look like 16-year-olds. My daughter has access to an entirely different kind of behavior modeling—one that I believe has the potential to rush her through childhood and create a false maturity. She has already asked me for a Kids YouTube channel and an Instagram account—both of which I will not allow right now.
Electronic Dating Violence and Online Sex Trafficking
My own research has examined a couple of additional areas related to online media exposure that are often overlooked.
The first is electronic dating violence (EDV). Like cyberbullying, this includes things such as sending harassing or threatening texts or posting photos or negative comments, but the harassment and aggression come from a partner. It can also involve stalking behaviors—installing an app on someone else’s phone to monitor their location, for example, or mining personal information that is later used to threaten or demean an individual.
Because these encounters are going on through technology, the abuse may be more hidden than conventional verbal or physical abuse. Parents and even peers may be unaware that it is happening. Youth who are affected by EDV tend not to report the problems. They often don’t see this type of abuse as “serious.” They may worry that their time with the abusive partner will be restricted. And they do not want parents or other adults taking away their digital devices.
The second often overlooked area is online sex trafficking. Here, youth are groomed and recruited by online contacts to participate in some form of commercial sex. These contacts may be older “friends” they meet at a party, a family member, or even a same-age romantic partner. They might also be recruited by connections from Facebook, Instagram or other social media.
The recruitment and grooming process often starts with positive attention, compliments and flattering encouragement. Young people who have been marginalized by their families, peers or schools may be especially susceptible to the persuasions of someone online who tells them they are attractive and desirable and can profit from it.
What We Can Do
- Teach the children. Child and adolescent involvement in online media will continue and even grow in coming years. Schools and families should address these issues as soon as children begin to engage in screen time. Ask questions (“What do you like about this video?”). Point out ways that media can influence people’s behavior. Correct misperceptions of norms. Guide children and teens in appropriate online behaviors.
- Integrate these topics into existing teaching. Ask questions with examples about texting or social media. Address empathy (“How would it feel to get a text like that? Why would someone send such a text?”). In a unit on bullying or dating violence, be sure to offer electronic examples. Ask students to come up with their own scenarios and include the social media sites they and their friends use.
- Offer resources for support and make sure all students, parents and educators know about them. Encourage people to act quickly when they become aware of troublesome behaviors.
- Support ongoing research and develop stronger programs. I’d like to see more research-informed guidance for parents, schools and communities. We need effective policies, practices and curricula to prevent cyberbullying, EDV and online sex trafficking. I’d also like to see more research looking at parent and family roles in creating healthy online habits for children, and clearer guidance for parents.
I know my daughters will continue to be actively engaged in online media. I believe the power of good in this technology will ultimately be a positive force in their lives. And I also believe that by staying engaged and informed about their online experiences, I’ll be able to support them in that process in the best way possible.
Pamela M. Anderson, PhD, is a Senior Research Associate at ETR. Her research focuses on adolescent romantic relationship development and sexual risk outcomes.