Q. What should I say to my child about cyberbullies, predators, and trolls?
Cyberbullying comes in different forms. Children should be familiar with what kinds of interactions are not OK so they can recognize them and take action if they occur.
The sad truth is that your child may encounter cruel people online. While games, apps, and social media platforms typically have monitoring systems – both human and artificial intelligence – people who are determined to do harm know how to get around these controls. You can’t watch everything your child does online, so it’s important to discuss the kinds of inappropriate behavior they should be aware of and what to do about it if they witness it or if it happens to them.
Examples of cyberbullying
Threats. It could be a physical threat such as “I will hurt you,” or a general threat such as “you may get hurt if you don’t do what I say.” Threats can also include a person telling someone to hurt themselves.
Bullying and harassment. This is typically repeated cruelty and can include excessive texting, calling someone names, mean comments, following someone around online, spreading rumors, posting embarrassing photos, revealing someone else’s personal information.
Predatory behavior. Predators can be subtle. They will often give a child undue attention to ingratiate themselves and make their prey feel obligated to give them something in return in a process known as “grooming.” A predator’s toolkit includes giving gifts, flattery, being overly empathic and kind, over-sharing personal details, and asking for intimate details. If someone says, “don’t tell anyone else about this,” or “let’s take this conversation private or onto another platform” those are red flags.
Hate speech. Any comments that target specific groups based on religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, race, etc. are considered hate speech.
Anonymity. Sometimes bullies hide their identities so they can do their dirty work without publicly identifying themselves. This can include posing as another person, remaining cloaked, creating fake accounts and pages.
What your child should do
Understand the rules of the platform they’re using. Every site has rules users must follow to ensure the community is safe and positive. When your child wants to use a specific game, app, or social media platform, review the rules together. You can even pose hypothetical situations, such as, “what would you do if someone said something mean to you?” so you can discuss solutions together.
Know the site’s privacy and safety settings. Every site offers settings for users to control their interactions, experiences, and contact with other users. To reduce opportunities for cyberbullying, it’s best to set a child’s account to “private,” turn off location settings, and enable other limitations. Here you can find some more tips just for tweens.
Report or flag the behavior on the platform. Most social media and games allow users to anonymously report others who violate the site’s rules. Make sure your child knows how to use the reporting feature.
Mute the offender. Kids often don’t want to “unfriend” another person but some sites allow you to “mute” others so you just don’t see what they’re doing and saying. Bottom line: they shouldn’t engage with bullies.
Tell you or confide in another trusted adult such as a coach, teacher, or youth leader. Tell your child to come to you and explain what’s going on. Explain that they can tell you about experiencing cyberbullying even if they think you’ll be mad, sad, or disappointed — and even if they think they caused it. Say that you understand that they’re still learning how to conduct themselves online and that mistakes are part of the process. Designate another adult – such as a teacher, coach, or youth leader – that they can confide in, too.
Take screenshots. This is called “saving the evidence.” If your kid witnesses bullying or is the victim of a bully, it helps to have a digital or paper trail in case things escalate.
What you can do about cyberbullying
Review the sites your child uses. When your child tells you that they want to play a certain game or use a certain social media app, by all means, try it yourself. When you create an account, you can even friend your child on that platform so you can keep an eye on them. Using the program will help you get a feel for the environment in which your kid will be interacting, so you know if it feels like a worthwhile place for your child to spend time.
Discuss their experiences. Spot-checking their accounts is a good way to see what they’re doing and how others conduct themselves, but checking in with your child by asking general questions might lead to more in-depth conversations about online behavior. Just ask, “how are things on Roblox?” or, “what’s the hot topic on Messenger?”
Adjust your expectations. Your child won’t be perfect out of the gate. They may need to make a few mistakes to learn how to engage appropriately. If they tangle with someone online it’s probably a sign that they need more offline support to manage their feelings and friends. Provide appropriate oversight and consequences – and keep talking.
Refrain from directly confronting the bully or the parents of a bully. Go through a third party such as the site’s mediation team or your child’s school (if they know the perpetrator). Direct confrontation can bring on more bullying.
Consider parental controls. Some platforms, including TikTok and Roblox offer built-in parental controls that you can lock with a passcode. You can also invest in third-party parental controls such as Bark and Circle that monitor social media and alert you when certain words that may indicate bullying come up in your child’s feed.
Model appropriate online communication. Let your child see you conduct yourself appropriately. You can show them how you handle behavior that makes you uncomfortable and how you cull your contacts and curate your feed so you have better experiences. You can even say out loud what you do if you see negative behavior, including, “I saw someone make a mean comment so I’m muting that person for a while because I want my online time to be fun and engaging.”