"Not my child."
Every parent has uttered or thought that phrase at some point. It's easy to dismiss the news that your child, your little darling, is behaving in an unacceptable manner. He may not be perfect, but surely he can't be capable of causing real trouble.
But children do behave in unacceptable ways when their parents aren’t looking, and today, one of those behaviors is known as cyberbullying.
"It is heartbreaking for a parent to find out that their child is the victim of bullying and even worse, horrifying (and also heartbreaking) to discover that their child is the cyberbully,” said Dr. Andrea Weiner, a child psychologist and expert in social and emotional skills in New Hope, Pa.
Parents are usually the last to know, Weiner said.
"A child is usually identified as a cyberbully when another child (the victim) reports the incident to a parent, a teacher, or to another outside source with evidence that they know who is the culprit," she explained.
Very often, a cyberbully is a child who was once a victim himself, said Dr. Colleen Logan, a counselor and educator with a private practice in Dallas.
"Children resort to cyberbullying for many of the same reasons they resort to any type of bullying — to gain power, to retaliate and to harm others," Logan said. "The 'cyberworld' may be seen as ideal due to the anonymity it provides and the ability to reach a larger audience."
Weiner also pointed out that some children find entertainment value in cyberbullying.
"Some children see it as entertainment because they are bored and have these tech devices to play around with," she said. "Others think it’s funny and do it to get a reaction."
Cyberbullying may more harmful than traditional bullying, said Mary Muscari, associate professor at the Decker School of Nursing at Binghamton University in upstate New York, and author of "Not My Kid: 21 Steps to Raising a Non-Violent Child" (University of Scranton Press, 2002).
Muscari cited four primary reasons why cyberbullying is worse than traditional bullying:
— There is no escape: while a physically bullied child is safe when he gets home, cyberbullying runs around the clock.
— Hurtful material posted online is globally distributed and often permanent.
— Online bullies can take any identity — they can be anonymous, or even worse, pose as friends or family.
— Children avoid telling their parents about cyberbullying because they fear punishment — and being forbidden to use the Internet.
How to defuse the situation
If you discover your child is a cyberbully, calmly talk to him or her. Don't lecture. Don't talk at or down to the child, but have an honest and open conversation that focuses primarily on why the child turned to cyberbullying.
"You may find, depending on the degree of the offense, that your child doesn't even realize what they are doing is bullying," said Corinne Gregory, president and founder of SocialSmarts, an educational program for teens based in Woodville, Wash.
"One big message to have in the discussion is about the victim's feelings," Gregory said. "While your child may be disconnected from how the victim feels, the simple question of 'How would YOU like it if someone did that to YOU?' is something nearly everyone can connect with."
You should talk to your child and make sure he or she understands the consequences of his or her actions. After that, it is important to help him or her make amends, if possible.
The first step is to discuss the situation with a school counselor, Logan suggested.
"Parents of victims, understandably, are angry and upset," she said, "and the situation could easily escalate out of control without the empathic assistance of trained professionals."
Involve all parties
If and when the parents of the cyberbully reach out to the parents of the victim, they should not only apologize for this harmful act their child inflicted, but also explain that they are taking serious action, Weiner advised.
Finally, the child who was the cyberbully needs to apologize to the victim, either in person or in writing. But this should only be done after the bully truly understands the extent and seriousness of his or her inappropriate behavior so that the apology is meaningful.
When it's over, parents may still want to consider removing the child's access to technology.
"It may have to be all technology, because if you remove Facebook, for example, the bullying may continue via text messages," said Gregory. "The point you have to make is that tech access is a privilege. If you can't use it properly, you don't use it at all."
Before the child is allowed to return to technology, parents need to instill strict rules about use (and parents should be more vigilant on monitoring online habits). But the technology privileges shouldn’t return until the child has the emotional and social skills for appropriate online interactions.
The power of words and how they are used is taking a whole new turn with the advent of online and other digital communication between children today," said Weiner. "Helping children to take time to cool down and deal with their anger or frustration before they respond online is an important step."
And if nothing else works, Gregory reminded there could be criminal consequences associated with cyberbullying.
"In many states, cyberbullying is an actual crime," she said. "If your child is ever caught [being] involved in this type of conduct, and perhaps charged with this crime, the long-term effects on career, professional development, etc., can be severe."
"By stopping the behavior now," Gregory added, "you are also helping your child, not just the victim."