Raising children in the digital age presents challenges (and opportunities) never experienced before. For families, this can mean finding solutions to previously unknown problems.

One of these is cyberbullying. The advent of digital technologies like social media and online forums have allowed for connection on an unprecedented scale. They have also opened up a new realm for bullies.

For parents, keeping your children safe is now about protecting them not just physically, but in cyberspace as well. For Christian parents, your role includes training your children to be wise, responsible and capable of making good choices (Proverbs 22:6 and 29:15; Eph 6:4). In the case of cyberbullying, you need to know how to respond to both victims and perpetrators with Christlike grace and truth (John 1:14).

This post covers essential information about cyberbullying, including some signs that could indicate your child is being cyberbullied and expert tips for keeping your children safe online.

We’ll start by exploring what cyberbullying is and how it can affect children and young people.

What is cyberbullying?

Cyberbullying is bullying that happens online, when someone is deliberately and repeatedly hurt or embarrassed through electronic means. For example, a cyberbully might share embarrassing photos of someone on social media or send threatening text messages via mobile phone.

It can include any action intended to embarrass, upset, frighten or exclude the person being bullied, such as teasing, spreading rumours and making nasty comments. Often, cyberbullies use photos and videos in addition to words.

Australian Government website Bullying. No Way! points out that for online actions to be classified as bullying, they must occur “between people who have ongoing contact and be part of a pattern of repeated behaviours​ (online or offline). Single incidents or random inappropriate actions are not bullying.”

However, single actions may be called bullying if the people involved know each other and the action can be repeated by sharing or forwarding content – such as the sharing of an embarrassing video or nasty comment.

Some common electronic means cyberbullies use to target people include:

Some cyberbullies hide their identity, making it hard to tell who is behind the activity. Others work together to target a victim, by relaying a threatening message around, for example.

Unlike bullying that happens face-to-face, cyberbullying can occur anywhere and at any time. Cyberbullying can be incredibly invasive and hard to escape, even at home.

It also allows for hurtful, embarrassing and frightening material to be rapidly and widely shared. Furthermore, the person doing the bullying is distanced from their victim, so there are no immediate consequences for their actions. For these reasons, cyberbullying can be especially distressing.

Some cyberbullying statistics

Cyberbullying is a common experience for children and young people. According to the Australian Government’s eSafety Commissioner, one in five young people reported being socially excluded, threatened or abused online in the 12 months to June 2017. One in five (15 percent of children and 24 percent of teens) also admitted to behaving negatively towards a peer online – such as calling them names, spreading lies or deliberately excluding them. Of these, over 90 percent reported having a negative online experience themselves.

Figures from McCrindle Research showed that in 2018, three in five (2.3 million) Australian students have experienced bullying in some form. Of these, 13 percent have been bullied via social media and 11 percent by text message. The results led McCrindle social researcher Ashley Fell to call bullying a “national crisis”.

More recently, 2019 figures from the United States’ Cyberbullying Research Center indicated that approximately 37 percent of students surveyed reported experiencing cyberbullying in their lifetimes. Thirty percent of them reported being cyberbullied two or more times during the previous 30 days.

These figures are almost double what they were in 2007, when just under 19 percent of students reported being victims of cyberbullying in their lifetimes.

In Australia, figures from ReachOut.com (an online mental health organisation for young people and their parents) also indicate the seriousness of cyberbullying. Their results, based on nationally representative surveys of 1,000 Australian young people aged 14 to 25, indicated 380,000 young people were cyberbullied in Australia in 2017. They also showed that young people experience cyberbullying as part of their everyday lives, including at home, school, during after school activities, and while travelling to and from school.

What are the effects of cyberbullying?

As with face-to-face bullying, victims of cyberbullying may feel:

  • anxious, stressed or moody
  • scared, unsafe or confused
  • guilty, ashamed or embarrassed
  • excluded or alone, like no-one can help
  • sad, depressed or angry
  • hopeless, as though there is nothing they can do about it
  • rejected by friends or other people

Research has shown that victims of cyberbullying may experience a range of mental health concerns. A 2018 study published in journal Frontiers in Psychology notes that cyberbullying has been linked to social, physical and psychological problems for adolescent victims. A 2015 literature review, for example, found a positive correlation between cyberbullying and depressive symptoms in 12–18-year-olds.

Furthermore, research has shown a link between cyberbullying, self-harm and suicidal behaviours. Published in 2018 in the Journal of Medical Internet Research, a systematic review collated results from 26 independent studies, covering a population of 156,384 children and young people. The authors found that victims of cyberbullying are more than twice as likely to self-harm, have suicidal thoughts and to attempt suicide than nonvictims. To a lesser extent, perpetrators of cyberbullying are at risk of suicidal behaviours and ideation when compared with non-perpetrators.

The study also found a strong link between being a cyber-victim and being a perpetrator, and that students who were cyber-victimised were less likely to report and seek help than those victimised by more traditional means.

Results like these are clearly a concern for families. We share them not to cause alarm, but to emphasise that cyberbullying needs to be taken seriously.

In a Christian context, it’s important families are aware of the issues affecting young people, so they can be best equipped for responding to their concerns.

What are the signs of cyberbullying?

Although cyberbullying can be harder to spot than traditional bullying methods, there are things you can look out for. As a parent, you know your child better than anyone, which puts you in the perfect position to observe any concerning changes in their behaviour or attitudes.

Here are some signs that your child may be a victim of cyberbullies, according to Australian parenting website raisingchildren.net.au.

1. In their school and social life

Your child:

  • refuses or resists going to school
  • starts getting lower grades than usual
  • doesn’t want to see their friends
  • doesn’t want to do their usual sports or activities
  • avoids group gatherings

2. In their technology use

Your child:

  • is upset during or after using the internet
  • stops using their phone or computer
  • spends much longer than usual online
  • stops what they’re doing online if you go past

3. In their emotions and behaviour

Your child:

  • is more moody than usual
  • shows obvious behavioural changes
  • gets unusually angry at home
  • has trouble sleeping or loses their appetite
  • complains of frequent headaches or stomach upsets

What to do if your child is being cyberbullied

Learning to deal with bullying and difficult people is a vital skill for school, work and social situations. If you’re concerned that your child is being victimised by cyberbullies, there are steps you can take to help. Here’s seven tips from Bullying. No Way! and the parent coaches at ReachOut.com.

1. Stay calm and positive

While your first instinct might be anger, this isn’t a helpful response! Children may be reluctant to tell anyone about bullying because they’re fearful of consequences if the perpetrator finds out or if you get involved. Worrying about an explosive reaction may make them even less likely to tell you.

Your attitude has a powerful influence on your child, so focus on remaining calm and positive. Encourage them to talk about what happened/is happening and explain that it’s okay to report bullying. It’s important they know bullying is not their fault.

Focus on finding a solution rather than dwelling on the problem. You might like to pray about the situation with your child. Overcoming this challenge can build their resilience and prevent bullying from continuing, and your help is invaluable.

2. Keep lines of communication open

To help ensure your child opens up to you, it’s important you create time and space to talk. Listen to what they say, without interrupting or jumping in with solutions. Ask about what they would like to happen, how they would like you to support them, and offer to help them find ways to deal with the situation.

3. Connect with your child or teen

Your children know you love them, but it’s also important they know you like them. Taking an interest in what interests them shows your children they are valued, building their self-worth and resilience. This can be simple things, like going for a walk, cooking, reading the Bible together or showing interest in their online world.

4. Help them build self-esteem

Encourage your children to find something they enjoy doing and that gives them a sense of achievement. This could be a sport, hobby or group activity. They might like to volunteer at your church or in your local community. Doing things that help others or build personal accomplishment develops resilience and the ability to cope with difficult situations – like cyberbullying.

5. Help them to disconnect

Children may be less likely to tell you about bullying if they fear devices being taken away. However, as ReachOut.com says, “experience shows us that if you support them to find ways to manage their devices, such as limiting their use when they’re at home, this can give them some breathing space”.

6. Seek help for learning about dealing with bullying

Talk with your child’s school about ways to help students learn about problem solving, conflict resolution, social skills, developing resilience, dealing with strong emotions, and handling difficult situations and people. Christian schools will likely have programs to help students develop godly character traits, such as integrity, honesty and compassion – all of which are helpful when dealing with cyberbullying.

If you are concerned about your child’s wellbeing, seek help from a health professional such as your general practitioner. Your pastor or youth worker may also provide support. Seek help from emergency services on triple zero (000) if you are concerned about your child’s immediate safety.

7. Look after yourself

Discovering your child is being bullied is upsetting and stressful, so be sure to take care of yourself as well as your child. Talking to a trusted family member, friend or counsellor about your feelings and experiences can be helpful. Looking after yourself helps to ensure you are best able to support your child.

Strategies for dealing with online bullying

There are strategies you can use if your child is being bullied online. Some of these include supervising or limiting access to technology and ensuring all online activity is age appropriate.

Bullying. No Way! advise that if your child is being cyberbullied, you should encourage them to:

  • not respond to the message or image
  • save the evidence
  • block or delete the sender
  • report the situation to the internet service provider or phone service provider, who can help you block messages or calls
  • tell other people – including teachers and police if necessary.

If your child or teen isn’t comfortable talking to someone face to face, Kids Helpline have online chat and email. You can also call for free on 1800 55 1800.

For teens, they suggest:

Telling someone

Report the online bullying to a parent or carer, relative, adult friend or teacher.

If other students are involved, the school should have policies in place to deal with bullying.

Protecting yourself

Young people can protect themselves with a few simple strategies:

  • ​Don’t retaliate or respond when you’re angry or upset
  • Only give your phone number to friends
  • Keep your mobile phone away from people who shouldn’t have your phone number
  • Use ID blocking on your phone to hide your number when calling others
  • Think before you send a text message or make a call
  • Keep records of calls or messages that are offensive or hurtful
  • Don’t share your passwords, not even with friends (because even good friendships change)
  • Don’t post anything on social media you wouldn’t want others to see or know about
  • Treat your friends how you would want to be treated.

Reporting it

You can block, delete or report anyone who is harassing you online. On social networking sites, look for the “Report Abuse” button.

The Australian Government’s eSafety Commissioner has a page of information about games, apps and social media, offering advice on protecting your information and reporting inappropriate content. They also have a page walking you through the steps for making a cyberbullying complaint.

If you feel physically threatened, call the police in your state or territory.

Changing your privacy settings

You can use the privacy features on your phone or contact your mobile company’s customer care number.

What if my child is the cyberbully?

For parents, discovering your child is bullying others is equally distressing. If you’re concerned your child might be the one doing the bullying, remember that some children bully others because they’ve been bullied. It’s important to stop your child bullying others, but also be aware of signs they may be a victim.

Bullying. No Way! recommends steps for helping a child who is bullying others. They include:

Focusing on positive solutions

Help your child to understand how their behaviour affects others, take responsibility for it and treat others with respect. Christian families could look for Bible verses about how God wants us to treat people. Aside from the example of Jesus, it is filled with specific instruction (for example, the “Golden Rule” of Matthew 7:12; also Matt 5:43-48; Eph 4:29; 1 Cor 13).

Asking your child why they’re doing it and what might help them to stop

There may be a reason behind why your child is behaving this way. Ask them about what they think is happening and consider whether your child may be affected by issues at school or home.

Explaining why bullying is unacceptable

Help your child to understand what bullying is and ask how they would feel if they were being bullied.

Apply your family rules and consequences for their behaviour

If you have already set some family rules for behaviour and consequences, these can be applied once you understand the situation. If you haven’t established rules or consequences yet, now is a good time to set expectations and decide on consequences for inappropriate behaviour. After all, God disciplines his children out of his love and desire for their best, and instructs parents to do the same (Heb 12:8-11).

It helps to be consistent and acknowledge when your children display appropriate behaviour.

How to help your kids stay safe online

Parents play a vital role in helping their children stay safe in cyberspace. While you may not be as tech-savvy as your teen, you have immeasurably more life experience! Here are some tips for helping your children stay safe online.

Get a good balance

There’s no magic figure for the right amount of screen time, but consider how it sits within the context of your child’s health and wellbeing. Too much, for example, may interfere with their schoolwork or time better spent doing other things, such as sleeping, exercising or meeting friends at youth group.

The more time they spend online, the more the potential for encountering bullies. In getting a balance, consider your child’s age and maturity, what type of content they’re consuming, and your family’s routine.

Set clear expectations

Set clear expectations and boundaries around technology use with your children. Limit use of tech in places that are hard to monitor, like their bedroom. You might also want to set rules around when devices are used, such as switching off two hours before bedtime to minimise the impact of blue light on sleep.

You can also help by setting consequences for flaunting your expectations, such as taking their device away for a time.

Install cybersafety software

To reduce the risk of exposure to bullies and other cyber threats, consider installing a home internet filter, such as Family Zone. Programs like these allow you to block inappropriate content. Some also allow you to monitor your child’s internet sessions.

And don’t assume your child’s school computer is safe. While schools have filtering programs, these don’t necessarily extend beyond the school gate. To avoid children accessing inappropriate content on their school device, you might need to provide the protection at home.

Encourage your children to speak up about any concerns

If your child has concerns about anything they encounter online, it’s important they feel comfortable talking to you. Consider creating a ‘house rule’ around reporting any concerning online experiences. Be sure to react calmly, so they’re not afraid of getting in trouble or avoid coming to you in future.

Encourage them to create content

Rather than simply being consumers of online content, encourage your children to be creators. Activities like making videos or writing blogs can foster creativity and learning. Be mindful of what they post online, though. Images and videos of your children are best kept within the family.

Turn off notifications

When your children are meant to be doing other things, like studying or winding down for the evening, have them turn off all notifications and put their phones in aeroplane mode. This will not only help them avoid distractions but eliminate any chance of unwanted messages.

Remember, cyberbullying may be a common problem, but you don’t have to put up with it. Setting boundaries, and quickly dealing with any concerns, creates the best conditions for raising children who are healthy – physically, mentally and spiritually.