Although having several benefits, increased access to internet and the accompanying rise in social media usage has brought with it the problem of cyberbullying. One concern for parents, teachers, students and the society in general is the widespread occurrence of cyberbullying among school children. Locally and internationally, this has resulted in several anti-bullying campaigns across various schools and calls for parents to take action to shut down cyberbullying. The consequences of cyberbullying can be very grave with some children deciding to commit suicide because they are unable to cope with the constant bullying and victimisation. So how do we protect our children and reduce the risks associated with their social media usage?
Firstly, we must consider the age at which we allow children to start using social media and every parent must determine whether it is appropriate for their child to have their own social media account. Developmentally, children under the age of 12 are not mature enough to have personal social media accounts. Generally, at 12, children are now starting to develop their reasoning skills and ability to think logically. It is at this age that children are better at planning for the future and thinking about the possible outcomes of their actions. Additionally, although this age group has an understanding of what is right and wrong, these beliefs are now being established. Since their capacity to think critically is now developing, the likelihood of poor decision-making is higher. Furthermore, there are several risks associated with internet usage so it is advisable that parents wait until children are old enough (at least 16 years) to make sound decisions.
However, if parents allow young children (<=12 years) to have social media accounts certain precautions should be taken. Parents should monitor their child’s friend list, what they post about and their interactions with other users of the various social media platforms. Monitoring the child’s online activity will allow parents to notice signs of cyberbullying; see if their child is experiencing victimization and whether their child is bullying other children. However, parents should not be constantly policing accounts. They should aim to teach children how to use social media responsibly and make good decisions on their own. It may be helpful to use scenarios which consider some of the potential dangers linked to social media usage such as blackmail, child pornography and cyberbullying.
Everyone contributes to the problem of cyberbullying whether it be the children, their parents, teachers, the school environment or behaviour in the wider society which influences norms. Parents who are unaware of or see nothing wrong with their child’s behaviour magnify the problem. Additionally, when children witness bullying and do nothing, bullying is then viewed as acceptable among the peer group. Therefore without consequences when bullying is reported to educators and principals, the problem will continue.
Since everyone contributes to the issue, everyone has a part to play in solving the problem. There needs to be a greater effort nationwide to stop cyberbullying not just within schools. While schools should have a comprehensive anti-bullying policy with guidelines for reporting and corrective action, parents also need to be involved since cyberbullying often occurs at home. This is why monitoring children’s online interaction is important. More importantly, parents need to provide guidance for their children and teach them appropriate ways to interact with persons. PTA’s can also help by providing resources for parents to start the discussion with their children about cyberbullying. Ultimately, the focus should be on raising children and building a society which treats people with kindness and respect.
Latonya Maughn is a Child Psychologist educated at The University of Chester and a Research Analyst at DB Research Services.