DEAR DOCTOR K: My daughter will be starting middle school this year. How can I protect her from cyberbullying?
DEAR READER: Bullying can be particularly difficult during middle and high school, when popularity and peer acceptance feel like the most important parts of life. Adding technology to the mix makes it worse still.
Cyberbullying is not simply bullying that takes place through electronic means. There are two unique problems with bullying through text messages or social media. First, if the bully keeps quiet about it, the bullying can be invisible to others. Just your child and the bully know about it. And if your child has trouble talking to you about it, no one else will know — not teachers, school counselors or your child’s friends.
Second is the opposite problem made possible by modern technology: The bully can hurt your child by spreading false and hurtful stories very easily to large numbers of people, including most of your child’s classmates. Once something is out in cyberspace, it’s very hard to control it.
For these reasons, cyberbullying can be particularly damaging. It can lead to anxiety, depression, substance abuse — even suicide.
It’s not easy to prevent cyberbullying. Probably the most important thing parents can do is talk to their children about what they do, see and experience online. Start these conversations early — as soon as your child starts using the Internet or a cellphone.
Your child may not come to you if she experiences cyberbullying. For clues that it might be going on, watch for changes in behavior. Ask lots of questions if you notice this occurring.
If she does encounter any cyberbullying, report it. Some of it could be illegal and should be reported to the police. This includes threats or sexually explicit content.
Even if it’s not illegal, all cyberbullying should be called out. After years of neglect, the problem of school bullying is being taken increasingly seriously. Ask your school’s advice about who the best person to help would be. It may be a guidance counselor, or the parent of the bully.
There are two sides to cyberbullying, and you should also talk to your daughter about not becoming a cyberbully herself. Let her know that comments and posts, even offhand ones, can make people feel bad.
Tell her that bystanders also play an important role. Some kinds of bullying, particularly cyberbullying that involves widespread distribution of hurtful information, involve the actions of a group. Help your daughter understand that she will become part of the bullying if she passes on hurtful comments, or laughs at or talks about the victim. But if she refuses to participate, stands up to the bully and stands up for the victim, she can help make things better.
By being mindful of behaviors that indicate your daughter is bothered by something, and by gently inquiring, you may be able to detect bullying and work with your daughter to do something about it.
(Dr. Komaroff is a physician and professor at Harvard Medical School. To send questions, go to AskDoctorK.com, or write: Ask Doctor K, 10 Shattuck St., Second Floor, Boston, MA 02115.)