Bullying isn’t limited to the schoolyard anymore. How do parents protect their children from a bully they can’t see?

Hunn Photo by Timothy D. Sofranko

“When you think about what it’s like to be a teenager… There can be issues with self-esteem, jealousy, envy. People are more impacted and influenced by their peers during adolescence than at any stage in life.”

By Jayna Morris
NKU Marketing + Communications

Technology’s power to connect us is matched only by its potency as a weapon. Derogatory texts and emails, false rumors on social media, embarrassing photos posted without permission, and fake online profiles meant to harass are all part of today’s arsenal for online bullying—a phenomenon felt most acutely by children.

According to the Center for Disease Control, approximately 4,400 young people between the ages of 10–24 years old commit suicide every year. Kids who report being frequently bullied are at increased risk for suicide-related behavior.

Vanessa Hunn, associate professor of social work at Northern Kentucky University, says that while cyberbullying itself isn’t new, the legal consequences of it are. She points to the tragic and complex story of Rebecca Sedwick—the 12-year-old girl from Florida who committed suicide after being bullied online for months in 2013.

“From a legal standpoint, it is difficult to make a direct causal connection between bullying and suicide,” Hunn says. “Other factors like depression and other lived experiences may contribute. While bullying may be a factor in suicide, we don’t know if it is the primary factor or a contributing factor. That is a case-by-case analysis.”

All 50 states have laws that pertain to bullying, according to the Cyberbullying Research Center, but fewer than half of them have policies that relate to cyberbullying specifically.

At NKU, Hunn teaches a class called Juvenile Suicide, Bullying, and Cyberspace, in which she uses Rebecca’s case to discuss the risk factors that lead to cyberbullying, as well as solutions to combat it.

“When you think about what it’s like to be a teenager, it’s a time of self-discovery, development of self-esteem and identity. “There can be issues with self-esteem, jealousy, envy. People are more impacted and influenced by their peers during adolescence than at any stage in life.”

Dr. Stephen Yungbluth, a trained mediator and associate professor of communication at NKU who specializes in conflict management, says there is a big difference between being mean and being a bully.

“When we’re talking about bullying, we’re talking about a repeated pattern of behavior,” Yungbluth says. “Saying one thing mean in passing or one comment online is inappropriate behavior, but if there are repeated, negative interactions, then it’s bullying—especially if you’re drawing the attention of others and inviting them to participate.”

Unfortunately, most parents don’t even know if their child is being cyberbullied—or being the bully themselves—because they may not show physical signs of distress. And evidence of harassment and harmful messages can be obscured from parents’ view with the click of a mouse.

This article will appear as part of a feature package in the Fall/Winter 2016-17 issue of NKU Magazine. 

Dealing with Cyberbullying

Hunn and Yungluth recommend a multifaceted approach if you think your child is being bullied or bullying others online—an approach that includes lots of open dialogue:

• Contact your child’s school. According to the Academy of Pediatrics, more than 160,000 students miss school on any given day out of fear of being bullied. Teachers are more likely to be conscious that something is going on, as cyberbullying often takes place at school and on school computers. Teachers or administrators can identify who is doing the cyberbullying and work as a mediator to stop it from continuing.

• Ask your child daily how things are going. Go beyond the typical, “How was your day”-type of questions, and ask them if there is anything they need to make their school experience better. “Something is amiss when children are being aggressive to their peers,” Hunn says. “Is that child being bullied and in turn bullying others? What is going on with a child that may result in that child being aggressive with other children?”

• Develop empathy in children early. Teach your children how to put themselves in another person’s shoes. Back up your conversations about empathy by volunteering at local non-profits, churches, soup kitchens, and shelters. “If you can instill empathy early on so a child can imagine what another child feels, then they’re less likely to harm someone,” Hunn says.

• Talk to your child about their online experiences. “You can’t rely just on parental monitoring software. You can’t rely on just checking all their texts and emails,” Yungbluth says. “There are all kinds of websites and other social media applications where things can happen. Parents need to have conversations with their kids about what their expectations and hopes are and ask them about their experiences online. Are they having positive experiences? What are they getting out of the equation? Talk about what the valuable uses of the devices are, but also talk about what types of activities are harmful.”

• Advocate for anti-bullying policies. The National Education Association recommends reviewing your state and district policies related to bullying. “Ensure that space is carved out to address bullying at local meetings and state conferences. Get bullying on the map.”

Yungbluth Stephen Yungbluth, associate professor of communication