This post originally came about from a Q&A with Holly Seddon of Quibly as part of their preparation of a free e-book on cyberbullying. We thought the result was pretty good, so asked if we could reproduce it in full here.
Q. How can you talk to your children about the topic of cyber-bullying?
Firstly, its important not to think of cyber-bullying as
fundamentally different to any other kind of bullying; although the
cyber element changes where/when the bullying can occur, it’s still
fundamentally the same. It remains worth repeating the mantra of "sticks
and stones may break my bones but words can never hurt me" on the basis
that it’s true (if you believe it). This can get a child (and adult!)
through any verbal encounter more or less unscathed, which in its own right will
reduce instances of bullying and possibly prevent it getting past its
precursor of "picking on me".
If you think you need to talk to your child about bullying (whether
because you think they are being bullied or even being a bully) then you
should try and do so in a non-leading, non-judgemental manner, as this
can help prevent an escalation. But there’s no easy way to just start,
if you don’t already have that chatty, trusting sort of relationship
with your child – so start talking sooner rather than later.
It’s worth noting that recent FOSI (Family Online Safety Institute)
research found cyber-bullying on the decrease, for the simple reason
that children have learnt that tracing even "anonymous" online
identities is fairly easy, far harder than tracing the same messages
passed on printed notes.
Q. How can you create an environment where the child will turn to the parent when in trouble?
Building and preserving trust and engaging in regular
communication is the best way to ensure you are an early port of call
for a child seeking help and advice. One great way to encourage the
latter is regular and frequent sit-down meals together (not including a
TV!). This doesn’t have to be every day, but often enough a week for the
talking habit to develop. Building and preserving trust is more
difficult. All you can really do is never abuse their trust, and forgive
them abusing yours. Remember there’s a reason they are legally defined
Q. How significant is the importance of where the computer is located in the house-hold?
In terms of a way of preventing your child from being
cyber-bullied, computer (browsing device) location is not really a
factor as the bully has no idea where a target is when browsing.
Ensuring a child can only access the Internet from a shared space in
your house may well prevent them from joining in though! Also see
comments on trust below.
Q. To what extent should parents automatically trust their kids?
They are kids. Most countries set the age of criminal responsibility
around the tweens, and only a few consider under-18s sorted enough to
vote, buy alcohol, buy cigarettes, purchase access to adult content,
etc.. There’s a reason for these age bars, namely that growing up is a
real thing, based on physiological development. A child’s brain is still
growing until they are around six-eight years old, and still going through
significant changes for 10+ years after that, albeit at a decreasing
rate. And then there’s that raging torrent of teenage hormones, which do
weird things to rational judgement.
So trust, yes. But remain aware, engaged without being intrusive, and
look at ways you can develop your child’s awareness and perception of
your relationship as a mutually trustworthy one.
Q. And how far does this go to the line of spying on their online activities?
About this far:
(that’s an infinitesimally short line, in case it doesn’t come out in pixels)
Or to put it another way, don’t, unless trust is not something that is
currently salvageable in your relationship. This does unfortunately
happen for all manner of reasons, but spying will destroy any trust
remaining when (not if) the child learns you are spying on them.
However this doesn’t preclude monitoring and, for younger kids, having
in place a filtering/guidance solution designed to meet the needs of
their stage of development. But monitoring has to be openly done, not
covertly. A process that uses an evolving approach, that tracks their
developmental stage starting from a young age, can build rather than
destroy trust. So start with age-appropriate content guidance and
filtering from "my first browse" until tweens, then move to monitoring
in discussion with your child.
Q. Finally, any hints and tips to give to parents to approach their children about the topic?
Sadly, I have very little to offer here. If you’ve got the kind of
relationship where they will talk with you honestly and openly on any
subject (or another adult where it’s gender-related and embarrassment
precludes talking to anyone of the opposite sex about it!) then a
bullying issue will come out on its own sooner or later. But some things
are not bullying, so try not to overreact to things they do tell you;
relationships between groups of children change even faster than the children do.
If you really think you need to initiate a conversation on this topic,
maybe try to find a (good, ideally humourous) film that gets into the
subject and/or explores the whole growing up identity thing, which is
often related. A well-chosen film or two could mitigate the issue on its
own, but for certain the fictional context can provide a way to start a
general conversation along the "aren’t bullies weird" or similar lines.