Many of us grew up in an era when bullying primarily occurred in person. We heard stories or witnessed our classmates shoved into lockers and incessantly teased and harassed. But in today’s world, bullying has many more outlets than those within the walls of a school. Our children are now targeted through social media platforms as well. It is critical that our children know and understand the serious safety and security issues with the platforms they use.

As professionals, advisors to clients and even parents ourselves, we should take a moment to educate ourselves on the possible signs and symptoms of cyberbullying and the serious impacts it could have on mental health and the well-being of many Internet users – and particularly teenagers who are often most vulnerable to these scourges.

Why now? September is National Suicide Prevention Month and October is Mental Health Awareness Month. This is a great time to refresh what we know about these critical issues.

Q: What is cyberbullying?

A: According to the National Crime Prevention Council (NCPC), cyberbullying is defined as using the internet, cell phones, or other technology to post content or pictures intentionally harming or embarrassing another person.

Q: What are symptoms of cyberbullying among teenagers?

A: The NCPC has explained that juveniles who have been bullied may become withdrawn, show signs of depression, become easily agitated, appear overly stressed out, refuse to go to school, receive lower grades over a short period of time, hurt themselves or threaten to attempt suicide.

Q: What is a recent example of a teenage cyberbullying case?

A: One of the most publicized examples of teenagers committing suicide after being cyberbullied was the case involving Conrad Roy III, who committed suicide after his then-girlfriend encouraged him and pressured him via social media to kill himself. Unfortunately, this was not an isolated incident.

Q: Just how prevalent is cyberbullying today?

A: According to the Cyberbully Hotline, 20 percent of youth who are cyberbullied think about committing suicide each year, while 10 percent of them go on to attempt suicide. According to TeenSafe, an online service that allows parents to monitor their children’s smartphones and control capabilities, in 2016:

  • 52 percent of juveniles reported experiencing cyberbullying
    • 72 percent of those juveniles reported being bullied due to their physical looks
    • 26 percent reported being bullied because of their race or religion
    • 22 percent reported being bullied because of their sexual orientation
  • 40 percent of juveniles with autism reported experiencing cyberbullying
  • 60 percent of juveniles with Asperger’s Syndrome reported experiencing cyberbullying

Q: Why is social media usage so closely associated with cyberbullying?

A: Several of the traditional social media platforms contain easily identifiable user information, but there are newer and more anonymous social media platforms such as Kik, Ask.fm and Sarahah. Sarahah, for example, which means “frankness” or “honesty” in Arabic, is a new Saudi Arabia-based social media platform that allows users to send and receive anonymous messages. Although this platform was created for use in corporate settings, American teenagers have started to use it as a way to ask each other personal questions or as a way to bully others without consequence of being identified.

social media bullying

Q: Is it really that difficult to obtain tangible information from these anonymous social media platforms?

A: Yes – due to privacy settings and corporate protection. Additionally, with apps such as Sarahah, it is challenging for law enforcement authorities to subpoena information internationally. Luckily, there are ways to help prevent juveniles from being targeted on social media platforms. Juveniles and their family members can take steps to protect their social media accounts as my colleague references in the blog “Social Media and the Cyberbully: How to Protect Your Privacy Online” and our 360 Insight Executive Briefing “Security, Privacy and Social Media.”

Q: What are some of the best ways to protect our kids online?

A: Whether you use social media, or have loved ones who do, it is important to be educated about what causes youth to cyberbully and to guide them on how to interact appropriately online.

NCPC lists several ways to educate youth on interacting appropriately including the following:

  1. Keep track of their online behavior
  2. Share examples of inappropriate incidents that may appear harmless to them (e.g., a stranger trying to gather personal information about them or commenting on their pictures, putting others down even if it appears to be a joke)
  3. Teach youth never to arrange a face-to-face meeting with someone they connected with online
  4. Educate them on the negative consequences of bullying
  5. Keep an open line of communication with your children and speak with them about how to react if they are ever cyberbullied

Q: What can I do if I know someone at risk – or am at risk myself?

A: At Hillard Heintze, we strongly promote taking a proactive approach to ensuring safe use of social media and prevent tragic consequences that can result from targeted bullying online. If you or someone you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

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