Start of Main Content
Health Information | 10/04/2022

Protect Your Teen From Cyberbullying

By  Emily Sammartino, LCSW

Bullying is a form of repeated and confrontational behavior in which someone purposefully tries to intimidate, harm, or humiliate someone they see as vulnerable. Bullying behavior can be physical or verbal.

Cyberbullying is bullying using electronic devices like cell phones, computers, and tablets. It encompasses a wide variety of inappropriate online behavior, including sending, posting, replying, or commenting in a negative, harmful, or hurtful way about another individual. Cyberbullying commonly occurs among school-aged children on social media apps (e.g., Instagram, Snapchat, Tik Tok, and Facebook) or via e-mail, online gaming, text messages, and instant messaging.

Living in the information age has increased our dependence on electronic devices. The COVID-19 pandemic and social distancing have only exacerbated this. Unfortunately, this has also included a rise in cyberbullying. Individuals can remain anonymous and post hurtful comments from behind a screen, often without the same level of accountability. According to the CDC’s Adolescent Behavior and Experience Survey, 13.8% of students in grades 9-12 reported being cyberbullied during the 2021 school year.

With this growing problem, what can parents and caregivers do to reduce the risks of cyberbullying?

Know the Signs

Parents and caregivers should learn to recognize the signs of cyberbullying that teens often exhibit. This can help to detect problem behavior early and prevent further harm to your child. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), common signs include:
  1. Noticeable deviance (increase or decrease) in regular device usage
  2. Exhibiting an emotional response when using a device
  3. Hiding or minimizing screens when others are around
  4. Avoiding discussions about a device and its content
  5. Sudden avoidance of previously enjoyed social situations and losing touch with friends
  6. Displaying signs of depression such as low mood and withdrawal
As expected, warning signs are centered around device usage and can be confused with other problems. Therefore, if your child’s behavior checks off multiple symptoms, it is important to have an open conversation about your concerns and to provide support to get to the root of the problem.

Establish Safe Internet Rules

Sitting down to have a conversation with your teen about safe internet usage is an important first step toward preventing cyberbullying. Not only does an open discussion create trust and build connections within the family system, but such dialogue increases a teen’s ability to feel comfortable coming to the family in a time of trouble.

HHS recommends setting clear expectations with children about digital behavior and online reputation. This includes letting them know that what they post online stays there indefinitely and can have lifelong effects. They also recommend setting time limits for device usage and clearly differentiating what sites are appropriate vs. those that are not.

Help Your Child Build Resilience

Resilience is one’s capacity to thrive in the face of adversity. The more resilient one is, the more they will be able to adapt despite what life throws at them, such as changing schools, friendship difficulties, parental divorce or death, bullying, and cyberbullying. Luckily, resilience is a skill that can be learned, and parents and caregivers can foster it in their teens.

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMSA), many factors contribute to childhood resiliency. However, three stand out among the rest: cognitive development and problem-solving skills, self-regulation, and relationships with caring adults. With this in mind, below are some ideas for how parents and caregivers can help their teens build resilience:

  1. Spend time together doing a mutually enjoyed activity
  2. Establish a regular time to check in with your child
  3. Plan a family meeting and set family goals to work towards
  4. Model keeping a positive outlook in difficult situations
  5. Teach and encourage self-care skills (exercising, good hygiene, keeping a regular sleep schedule)
  6. Role-play situations where problem-solving is necessary
  7. Encourage your teen to set up a “safe space” such as their room for decompressing
  8. Be open about your past struggles and provide examples of moments of growth

What To Do If You Suspect Your Child Is Being Cyberbullied

Since online communication has become essential in the social lives of youth, experiencing cyberbullying can make it feel like their entire world is falling apart. If you suspect your child is being targeted, it is important to support them with both actions and words.

Children must continue to feel safe and comfortable during this difficult time. Start by letting your child know that you are working with them towards a common goal: ending the cyberbullying. You can further collaborate by creating a mutually agreed upon plan that utilizes your child’s input and suggestions on how to best stop the situation. Continuing to provide a warm, open environment during this time allows a child to feel safe expressing a wide range of tough emotions.

Additionally, don’t be afraid to seek additional help for you and your child. Cyberbullying can take an emotional toll on youth and their families. Reaching out to website/content administrators can often result in the offensive material being removed. It can also be helpful to set up a meeting to speak with trusted school personnel, such as principals and guidance counselors. Working together with a team of people who make you and your child feel supported and cared for can only help alleviate the situation further.

About The Author

Emily Sammartino, LCSW

Emily Sammartino, LCSW, joined Atrius Health in 2021 and practices at our Chelmsford office. Her clinical interests include children and adolescents, trauma, and personality disorders. Emily currently helps run a teen trauma group at Atrius Health and sees clients individually. She has received training and is well-versed in cognitive processing therapy and trauma-focused behavioral therapy. Emily is a graduate of Boston College School of Social Work with a concentration in trauma and clinical mental health. Before joining Atrius Health, Emily worked at The Boston Center, a partial hospital program for children and adolescents, and in the Waltham Public Schools. In both settings, she delivered evidence-based groups and held an individual case-load of at-risk youth.

More from this author