What to do if your child receives cyber-threats or you suspect cyberbullying
“A number of middle school students—including my daughter–are receiving vicious anonymous emails and text messages from peers. The school sent a letter home describing the problem as “cyberbullying.” What do I do to help my daughter? When do I worry? Do I call the police? HELP (please!” – A concerned mother from Omaha, Nebraska
This digital age problem is called “cyber bullying” and the impact can be lethal to our children’s mental and moral health.
Cyberbullying can include anything from excluding a classmate from a buddy list, spreading vicious rumors, harassing by instant message to posting death threats on a website.
Bullying has always been one of the tougher problems about growing up; technology just makes inflicting brutality far easier. With just one keystroke cyber-bullies can send harmful, vicious and often anonymous e-mails, blogs, instant message or text messages to unsuspecting victims.
Worse yet, the target may not be the soul recipient: with just a simple mouse click dozens if not thousands of other recipients from down the block or across the country can simultaneously receive the same vile message through cyberspace.
This should be a wake-up call that our children need more specific guidance, developmentally appropriate supervision, and clear expectations for the wide, wide web.
No child should ever be allowed to send or receive cruelty.
If you are uncertain but suspect your child is cyberbullied view the 9 Warning Signs of Cyberbullying. Here is what to do if you suspect or know your child is a victim.
Responses for Less Serious Offenses
If you discover your child is the victim of cyberbullying, here are the best ways to respond to less serious offenses within the first twenty-four hours.
Always use your judgment. If your instinct tells you that your teen’s physical or mental health is at stake, do not wait. Get help!
1. Be Empathic and Supportive
If you discover your child is a bullied online, take this seriously. She needs your empathy. Chances are your child did nothing to bring this on so support her but also find out the facts.
One survey found that almost half of kids who received abusive message did not know who sent them.
Believe your kid if he says he doesn’t know who sent it. Ask if this has happened before.
Tell your child to let you know if the problem continues. Cyberbullying generally does not just go away and often becomes a repeated occurrence.
2. Don’t Be Too Tough
A study at Clemson University found that kids often did not tell their parents about cyberbullying for fear of losing online privileges.
Another study found that almost 60 percent of kids did not tell their parents when someone was abusive to them online.
Do not overreact or ban her from using the Internet altogether. Doing so may curtail your child from telling you she was victimized. After all, you want your child to feel comfortable coming to you.
3. Respond Based on Severity
If the first offense is minor, your best response is just to ignore the message by blocking it or just not responding at all. Tell your child to do the same as well. The best advice is to never respond to harassment. Doing so only gives power to the bully and is more likely to repeat the cyber-attack. Be clear that you want your child to keep you posted if she receives any further messages as well as how she is being treated by this kid offline. It is a good idea to save the message and print out a copy of it.
4. Monitor Closer
Monitor your child and your electronic equipment much closer for the next week or two.
Review the Four Safety Rules to Curb Cyberbullying with your child. Post them on the computer screen! And keep then monitoring.
5. Google Your Child’s Name
In the next days, Google your child’s name on the Web. Just go to the google.com search engine site, insert your child’s first and last name in quotation marks and see what has been posted online about your child.
Robin Kowalski, Susan Limber, and Patricia Agatston, authors of Cyber Bullying suggest that you also use the google.com/alert function to set up regular searches for your child’s name. Google will end you an e-mail each time your child’s name appears online.
6. Keep Passwords Handy
You should have your child’s account numbers and passwords at all times. Also have the phone numbers to your cell phone company and the URL of your computer server handy. You will need those to change your child’s password and account (which you should do!)
If you do not have those passwords, now is the time to get them. You cannot monitor your child unless you have the password and account information to each social network and online account your child is on. Make sure you have all of those accounts.
7. Become Computer Literate Quickly
You need to be savvy enough to help your child through this online problem and give him the best guidance. If you are not computer literate, now is the time.
Go through that tutorial and read the manuals.
You might seek out your child’s technology teacher and ask him to give you a quick lesson.
Do an online search on cyberbulling and the electronic device your child has.
Call your server and the company behind the product (the cellphone or computer). You may be surprised to discover how helpful they are.
Responses for Serious and Abusive Messages
If you discover that the cyber message has a more serious and threatening tone, then you need to respond to incident accordingly taking these next steps. (See also: What Parents Should Do When Bullying Continues Or Intensifies)
1. Save Evidence
An online bully’s identify can sometimes be determined and you will need that evidence for authorities or show her parents. So save any abusive messages to your hard drive and print out a copy as well. A copy of the email with the full header information left intact can provide law enforcement officials with the information needed to trace the sender.
Another option for viewing the full header if often located in the Mail Preferences tab of your email browser. Use the save feature on instant messages. Save any message received on a computer or cell phone that is hurtful, slanderous, or hateful as well.
2. Block Communication
Find available software that blocks that email address. Or report that the address is “Spam” and most email programs will automatically place further communication from that address into a spam folder. Program your cell phone number to block that particular number.
3. Contact Your Internet Provider
If your child is cyberbullied change your phone number, your child’s password, and email account. Contact your Internet service provider to report the incident. Forward the e-mail to your provider (and keep a copy for yourself), and do so as soon as possible since after a certain time period the information may not be traceable. Look for a specific e-mail address provided on the support page of your Internet support provider. It will offer directions as to how to report any abusive emails.
4. Keep Records of Cell Phone Abuse
If your child receives a vicious text or cell phone message, keep a detailed diary recording the date, time, caller ID, or whether the number was withheld or not available. If possible, save the message.
Report any abusive texts to the mobile phone company. Your mobile phone company can trace the phone number.
Consider whether to change your child’s phone number or buy a new phone.
5. Find a Supportive Ally
The next twenty-four hours are hard. Your child somehow has to find courage to walk back onto her school campus. If an anonymous message makes things even tougher—your child not only doesn’t know who the cyber-bully is but also how many other kids on that campus have read the email.
Find one trusted adult (the nurse, counselor, teacher, secretary, anyone!) who your child can go to if she doesn’t feel safe. You may have to call or personally contact this person.
It may also help if your child talks to a friend so she has someone to walk into that classroom with.
6. Talk to the Teacher and Principal
Do inform the school counselor, teacher, or principal if the bully is your child’s classmate or at the school.
If the situation warrants it, arrange a meeting with the principal, teacher, or counselor. They can offer emotional support for your child and may be able to offer perspective as to what is going on. Your child will need emotional support.
Beware that if cyber-bullying did not happen on the school campus, school officials will not offer help in tracking down the offender or even disciplining this child.
7. Decide to Respond
Though it is usually recommended that you don’t respond to the message, if the abuse continues, you may have little recourse. Weigh these next steps carefully. It may be in you and your child’s best interest if you seek advice of a specialist in online safety.
You might try reply to the message with one stern but nonthreatening note stating you are aware of the situation, saving all evidence and will be in contact with authorities if this keeps up. And keep a copy of your note as well.
Another option is to contact the parent with evidence in hand of their kid’s cruel-doings.
You may need an impartial third party to accompany you, but such encounters are usually not recommended because they can backfire. Unless you have hard-core evidence, parents often deny the problem, defend their child and may even accuse yours of being the instigator. Tread lightly.
8. Contact Police for Safety Issues
Call the police and notify school officials anytime your child’s safety is at stake. In particular, call or go to the police if cyber-bullying includes such things as threats of physical harm to a child, stalking or harassment, pornographic images, or extortion. Take such threats seriously. If your child receives an email that threatens another child, call the authorities as well.
Do not wait when it comes to threats of violence and extortion—pick up the phone and notify authorities.
9. Seek Professional Help
Cyber-bullying can cause severe emotional damage and lead to depression. Please monitor your child carefully. Tune into her emotional signs right now but also keep a closer eye on her behavior over the next few weeks. Watch in particular for behaviors that are not typical for your child: a sudden change in mood, sleep, appetite, inability to focus, or just handle life. Seek the help of a trained mental health profession.
10. Consider If Attorney Is Required
If you have contacted the parents (or you don’t feel comfortable doing so), and cyber-bullying continues, you may need to hire an attorney to speak for you.
Another option is to have an attorney send a certified letter describing possible legal options if the cyber bullying does not stop.
In rare cases you may want to press criminal charges. If so contact a personal injury attorney if your child has been harassed or threatened in such a way as to cause severe emotional or physical damage or her reputation has been severely damaged.
In some counties and states cyberbullying may be considered a criminal act and the parents can be held financially responsible if their child engages in wrongdoing that is due to lack of parental supervision.
11. Be Vigilant!
Keep an eye on your child’s emotional health. Cyberbullying is stressful and traumatic. If you see a change in your child’s “typical” behavior that lasts every day for two weeks or if your gut instinct says something is wrong then don’t wait. Please pick up the phone and seek help.
I am an educational psychologist, parenting expert, TODAY show contributor and author of 22 books including Building Moral Intelligence: The Seven Essential Virtues that Teach Kids to Do the Right Thing. Portions of this blog were adapted from my latest book, The Big Book of Parenting Solutions(refer to the chapters on Online Safety, Bullied, and Electronics).
For more about my work refer to my website and blog, Dr. Borba’s Reality Check
Follow me on twitter @MicheleBorba