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Bullying and Technology: What does it mean for parents?

Benjamin Shain, MD, PhD

Benjamin Shain, MD, PhD

As parents, we always want to protect our children, but that has become more complex with constantly evolving technology – especially when it comes to bullying.

Bullying is defined as aggressive or deliberately harmful behavior that occurs between peers, is repeated over time and involves an imbalance of power. Issues with physical, verbal and social bullying have been discussed for a long time, but now the discussion has turned to the Internet.

Bullying over any type of screen – computer, cell phone, tablet, etc. - is now known as “cyberbullying” and has started an entirely new conversation about bullies. How do I know if my child is a bully or being bullied? Should I monitor my child’s screen interactions? How do I go about doing that? The questions are endless.

These questions aren’t easy to answer, but there are best practices to follow when dealing with any type of bullying and some important points to consider when dealing with cyberbullying specifically.

Always encourage your child to talk to you. This may be easier said than done, especially as he or she enters the teenage years, but be patient. In particular, try not to discourage your child from talking with you, such as adding monitoring when information is revealed or using the information against his or her wishes.

Pay attention to changes in behavior. While some of those changes are simply your son or daughter growing up, sudden changes may signal something more. Look for signs of depression – overt sadness, angering more easily, isolating behaviors, declining grades, and decreased interest in seeing friends or participating in typically enjoyable activities. If you see these behaviors, you may want to consider a mental health evaluation.

Monitoring your son’s or daughter’s screen social interaction is difficult, if not impossible, in this age of ever-present screens and children often being more tech-savvy than parents. Even if possible, though, consider that screens may facilitate bullying, but they also facilitate social support. Kids use screens to connect with their friends outside of school, and sites such as Facebook and Instagram offer as much support and sense of belonging as potential for bullying.

The other issue with monitoring is privacy. Kids have become accustomed to a high degree of privacy and often see any type of monitoring as an intrusion. Of course, there are times you may want to limit screen time or encourage other activities, such as hobbies, sports, or face-to-face socializing. Think carefully, though, about direct monitoring, such as reading your son’s or daughter’s text messages, which may have the consequence of causing significant distress as well as discouraging open communication for fear of additional monitoring.

Parents are in a difficult position when it comes to bullying, but you aren’t helpless. Have these tips in your back pocket if you have to deal with bullying – though hopefully you won’t have to.

Benjamin Shain is the head of the Division of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, and vice chair of the Department of Psychiatry at NorthShore University HealthSystem.

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