How to Spot the Warning Signs of Cyberbullying Before it's Too Late

How to spot the tell-tale signs.

Bullying is an unfortunate part of growing up and always has been. But today much of it takes place online or via mobile phones. And unlike face-to-face bullying, the cyber version can have more serious effects on someone's physical and mental health. In fact, this particular version of harassment has been show to cause particularly deep emotional scars and is costing our kids their lives.

Founder of Kindness On Purpose, Katrina Cavanough says cyberbullying is more than just words on our screens – it’s a serious health concern, affecting a huge swathe of young people. “Children and adolescents who are bullied are three times more likely to experience depression, and nine times more likely to feel suicidal or attempt suicide,” she says.

For example, the former face of Akubra Hats, Amy "Dolly" Everett was just 14 when she took her own life in the first few days of 2018 after being bullied online. Taking to social media, the iconic Aussie company posted, "Bullying of any type is unacceptable... Dolly could be anyone's daughter, sister, friend. We need to make sure that anyone in crisis knows there is always someone to talk to."

If you're not familiar with this style of bullying here are the basics: It involves sending, posting, or sharing negative, harmful, false or mean comments about someone else. That's painful in and of itself, but unlike bullying of old it has the added layer of staying with you – possibly forever because once things are circulated via the internet, they never really disappear.

This is a serious problem for all of us, but particularly our most vulnerable. Thankfully, Cavanough says you can identify the signs of cyberbullying and take action to protect young people – the key is to maintain an open line of communication with your child.

Start a conversation

Whether you’re a parent or carer, it’s a good idea to have a conversation about cyberbullying when the child first starts using technology. This includes discussing responsibilities and dangers of online activities. Sensitive and caring chats about the risks and benefits can help young people navigate those platforms safely.

Though it’s a difficult conversation, Katrina says talking to children about bullying can help them learn to cope with their emotions better. “There’s no shame in being bullied. As parents and carers, we need to keep talking to our children all the time. And we need to be honest about our feelings and our fears,” she says.

Teach emotional safety

In order to help children deal with bullies, it’s important to help them understand how to react to them. “One of the key things we talk about at Kindness On Purpose is teaching kids to be more emotionally safe – this is called emotional coaching,” Cavanough explains.

The key thing with emotional coaching is to help children understand that they’re going to have an emotional response to bullying behaviour. “The reason why children and adolescents get overwhelmed when they’re being bullied is because their emotions feel too big and they feel they’re getting out of control and can’t handle them,” she says.

Look out for red flags

While some warning signs are noticeable, others aren’t as much. “The most obvious [indication] is a change in demeanour,” Cavanough explains. It could be that your child refuses to go to school, starts getting lower grades than usual, or avoids social gatherings.

Pay attention to how they act during online time or immediately afterwards. You may notice your child spend more or less time online, or become upset when they put their phone away. Other red flags to watch for include obvious changes in mood, behaviour, sleep and appetite.

Watch for red flags such as changes in mood, behaviour, sleep and appetite. Image: Getty.
Don’t play the blame game

Unfortunately, victim-blaming is fairly common in schools. But as Cavanough explains, it’s important not to blame the target. “Sometimes I hear teachers say, ‘If your child was only a little bit more resilient, this wouldn’t happen to them’. But we need to structure safety around the child that’s being bullied.

“We also need to work with bullies that are doing the bullying. We need to increase their empathy. If you can increase their empathy you can decrease that person’s capacity to hurt another person. It absolutely can work,” she says.

Blocking isn’t the answer

While “blocking” is a reasonable start, Katrina says it isn’t necessarily the answer. “It’s the same as saying to a child, ‘When you’re being bullied in the playground, just walk away’,” she says. “It doesn’t work because the bully will follow. So whether it’s blocking or walking away, we need to teach our children better skills, and ways of looking after their feelings.”

It may also be a good time to reassess technology use. Advise your child not to respond to nasty emails, chats, texts, or comments. And consider reporting your concerns to the online administrator or mobile phone provider. Alternatively, you can report cyberbullying to the eSafety Commissioner. But if bullying or abuse is ongoing, report it to the police.

If you need help in a crisis, or just need someone to talk to, call Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800.

Feature image: Getty.