Parent’s Response to Cyberbullying: What to do when your Child is the Bully
What should you do if your child bullies others online? Elizabeth Englander, our colleague at the Massachusetts Aggression Reduction Center, provided an excellent response to this question in her answer to a parent who commented on the recent New York Times article. First of all, parents need to approach this problem like any other: with a calm and clear head. If you are angry (which you most likely will be at first), take a step back and revisit the issue when you have calmed down a bit. This won’t be the first time your child disappointed you or acted in a way that demands a corrective response.
It will help matters if you are familiar with the technology that your child is using. If your child is on Facebook, then you should have an account on that site as well, and ideally be their “friend.” That way, you can see everything they are doing and intervene when necessary before some issue escalates to the point where it is out of control.
I want to point out here that yes, some teens do have two (or more) Facebook pages – one for their parents, and another for their friends. We have heard arguments that this greatly confounds the ability of parents to know what is going on. I would say in response, though, that a parent who pays basic attention to the “Activity Feed” on their child’s Facebook Wall should easily be able to tell if that profile page is the primary one. Based on the content and posts that are shared by (and with) your son or daughter, you should be able to spot if the profile page with which you are “friends” is the one and only one that your child uses.
“I need to remember that they might not always be the victim but the perpetrator. That is the true test of parenting. Defending your child because you want to believe everything they tell you when there could be little bits and pieces left out to avoid the wrath of Mom or Dad.”
Mother from Minnesota
I have been recently thinking a lot about behavioral theory, and how certain actions are reinforced or deterred. As we all know, there are consequences for every behavior – both positive and negative – and teens need to understand the negative repercussions that go hand in hand with the misuse of technology. In parenting circles, there has been a lot of discussion about “natural and logical consequences.”
A natural consequence is something that naturally or automatically occurs as a result of a behavior (without human intervention). If a teen puts his hand on a hot stove burner, he will get burned. If a student does not study, he will get poor grades. These can be very powerful learning experiences.
However, there are some natural consequences that are simply too high a risk. For example, a teen who drives drunk may get in an accident and end up killing someone. For these kinds of behaviors, it is better to preempt the natural consequence by utilizing a logical consequence – one that is directly related to the potential risk involved. We don’t want our teens to drink and drive, and so if they exhibit risky behaviors associated with alcohol then we might need to take the car away for a while or have them visit car accident victims in the hospital. For maximum effect, the logical consequence should occur as soon as possible after the behavior (since natural consequences are often immediate). It is essential that your teen is able to clearly link the punishment to the behavior.
The same approach can be used when disciplining our teens for inappropriate online behaviors. If they are making hurtful comments about others on Facebook, get them to take a break from Facebook for a few days. If they are sending nasty text messages, then they should lose their cell phone privileges for a while. Be sure to explain why the behaviors are inappropriate and demonstrate what some of the natural consequences could be (harm to the target, damaged online reputation, etc.).
Just like we wouldn’t sentence all minor law violators to capital punishment, there should be a continuum of consequences commensurate with the harm (or potential harm) caused. It doesn’t make sense to completely remove all technology for an indefinite period for anything but the most egregious infraction. Adults have to realize that just one weekend without use of a cell phone would be like corporal punishment for most teens. Therefore, the consequences should be reasonable and dependent on the circumstances. And be sure to stick with it. If your child does not learn from their mistakes and continues the problematic behavior, the punishment needs to be increased.
In general, parents need to carefully think through their response to cyberbullying – whether their son or daughter is the target or the aggressor. It takes time and energy, but it will be well worth it in the end.