With so many children learning virtually this fall and otherwise having to keep in touch with their friends by electronic, cyberbullying is likely to be a bigger problem than usual. According to an industry study last year, almost 30% of children had experienced some sort of cyberbullying before the pandemic isolated everyone. Another study estimates that cyberbullying has almost doubled since the pandemic began.
As the school year starts, parents will be stressed with trying to balance work, childcare, and virtual learning. Adding cyberbullying concerns to the list may be more than they can handle. Fortunately, youth organizations can do some things to help. Most of the tips I have seen were written for in-person meetings with children, such as those at stopbullying.gov. The underlying principles, however, remain the same.
The first principle is to be aware of the vulnerable children in our care. Children need adult mentors, and our organizations may be able to fill that need. Virtual connections will take more work, but they may be our only options at the moment. Of course, we need to establish clear boundaries for interactions, but we also need to encourage healthy conversations between adults and children. Minors cannot tell us about being bullied if we are not listening to them.
Next, know the difference between bullying and conflict. Not every insult is "bullying." Sometimes the disagreement is just plain old conflict, and children need to learn how to deal with it. Negative feedback is a normal part of human interaction, and learning how to respond is an important part of growing up. Wise adults don't get involved in developmentally normal disputes between children. True bullying that warrants adult intervention is a much more serious, and sustained, activity.
On the other hand, this pandemic is causing a spike in mental health problems, and children are not exempt. A given child may be more vulnerable than usual, and normal disagreements can become magnified on social media. What would have been normal pre-pandemic can be a serious problem for an isolated child.
If you are concerned that what you are hearing is more than normal disagreements, or the child is particularly vulnerable, bring the child’s parents into the loop. They are the adults on-site who can best add whatever screening or counseling their child needs. Also look for helpful resources that your organization can add to support the child, such as virtual group meetings with positive peers or peer mentors.
Finally, for severe cyberbullying, report to whatever schools or authorities need to be involved. Emotional abuse may be within your mandated reporter responsibilities, or the messages may be criminal threats. Be certain that your organization has clear reporting guidelines for these situations.
Navigating these issues will require empathy and experience. Given our more limited contacts with children, we need to make the most of what we have. Be certain that your policies and training meet the new normal. If you need help developing policies or applying them to a given situation, we will be happy to help.