New research shows that nearly one third of kids report being bullied online. But what should you do if they tell you about it?
Amid the stress and distress of the pandemic, it is easy to forget that bullying is still a huge problem for children and teenagers. For some young people, the lockdowns may have provided a sanctuary away from school or peers who were making their lives a misery. For others, the bullying either shifted online, or began online.
A recent survey by the National Anti-Bullying Centre in DCU, of over 500 children aged 11-18 years, which was conducted as part of a larger European study looking at children’s digital lives during Covid times, found that 28pc of children and young people reported being the target of cyberbullying. With nearly half of boys, particularly, describing that they experienced more cyberbullying since lockdown.
Of those who were bullied online, only about two in five told a parent or teacher. One in five told a friend. That suggests that there were a huge number of children and teenagers who experienced bullying online, and felt they had to deal with it, or cope with it alone.
When you talk to children and teenagers about their experiences of bullying, online or in other environments, they describe enormous pressure to say nothing and to try to deal with the problem themselves. A very significant block for children is the belief that telling an adult will only make the situation worse. They fear that the adult will take matters into their own hands and that they will have no say in what then happens. Depending on the adult response they fear that they may be branded a “snitch” by their peers and may draw even further abuse on themselves.
Shame or embarrassment also prevent children telling, with some fearing that their parent (or a teacher) will think they are weak or pathetic for not being able to stand up for themselves. Some may fear that they will draw scorn or pity upon themselves. Some will be reluctant to speak because they just can’t see any solution and may feel it is their own fault, and consequently their responsibility, to deal with it. Specifically, regarding cyberbullying, teenagers can be reluctant to “block” the person in case they react by becoming more aggressive, or by continuing to be mean about them to others out of view.
This can make bullying an intensely isolating and distressing experience for any child or teenager. They are left alone with the attack on their self-confidence and self-esteem inherent in any bullying. Key signs that your child or teenager is being bullied are often a withdrawal into themselves, stopping activities, or not hanging out with friends. They may try to avoid school or other locations where bullying happens. You may witness a noticeable change in their mood, appearing sad, withdrawn, or angry.
If a child takes the risk of telling you about being bullied, it can be very easy to immediately move into problem-solving mode. While there will be a time to deal with the problems that the bullying is causing, that time is not at the start. The first step is just to listen and to empathise.
Our response needs to be warm, understanding and caring. We need to show the child or teenager that they have done the right thing by telling us. We need to be respectful and to take the time to listen to what they describe as the problem, and how they are feeling about it. This is especially true if they describe fear about what might happen next now that they have told us.
Depending on the circumstances we may have to take action to ensure they are safe. They may need to miss a day or two of school, for example, if you are aware that they are physically at risk from some peers. Once we have established their immediate safety, we can take our time to work with them to come to some potential solutions or responses to the bullying that they describe. For some children the old adage of “a problem shared is a problem halved” holds true. It can be supportive enough to have been listened to and they may feel empowered to tackle the bullying themselves.
Others may need some support to develop assertive responses to mocking or teasing. They may need help to develop some allies among other children or teenagers who can help them to withstand the bullying they are receiving. Some others may need us to intervene on their behalf, with their knowledge. In situations of exclusion, for example, it can be impossible for the targeted child to address the issue themselves and they may need the adults around to tackle the dynamic among a group or among classmates.
Irrespective of the specific solutions, the most important thing for any child will be that they are heard, they are believed, and they are respected. If they have trusted us enough to tell us about the bullying, we need to repay that trust by taking time to empower them, rather than taking over.