Managing our children’s relationship with the computer, internet, television and phones has become a daily struggle for most modern-day parents – and it’s a new struggle which previous generations did not have to contend with. The latest research from UK’s Childwise shows that children aged between five and 16 are now spending an average of six-and-a-half hours per day in front of a screen. Many parents worry about the impact of this screen time on their child’s development.
But aside from the sheer volume of time our children are spending online, there are other causes for concern with this increasing digital takeover of our lives. What if your child was being bullied by someone they were communicating with via a chat room? What if somebody had hacked your child’s email account and written messages on their behalf? What if your child had sent a private message or photo to somebody and it had now been spread throughout their school and perhaps to hundreds of other unknown people online? Worse still, what if your child did not even know who had done it? These are all instances where technology has been used to bully or harass another person – otherwise known as cyberbullying.
Cyberbullying can lead to many social and emotional issues for its victims. Child sexual exploitation is also linked to cyberbullying – this is when an adult poses with a false identity online and forms a relationship with a child. Once the child has been groomed through a friendship stage, the perpetrator embarks on a relationship with the child, which then becomes abusive.
Who is bullied?
According to a US-based website www.nobullying.com, in 2014 seven out of ten (or 69 per cent) of young people aged between 13 and 22 had experienced cyberbullying. In 20 per cent of cases the bullying had been extreme, and in 37 per cent of cases the bullying was frequent.
Although we know cyberbullying is not a rare occurrence, reporting cases, dealing with perpetrators and assessing the impact on victims are all highly complex. There is no statute law dealing with cases of cyberbullying in Hong Kong. Instead, tort law can be used, such as the law against defamation of character. However, investigating these types of cases can be a huge drain on police resources with little guarantee of a conviction at the end. In addition, people are often not well informed of their rights.
Punishment for these crimes is often complex too, as it overlaps with freedom of speech legislation, and there is much debate about how you measure the impact of these crimes on the victim. Does sending some nasty messages online deserve criminal intervention? Is it worse to send a sexually explicit image or a humiliating message? In addition, many victims do not realise that cyberbullying is a crime, and they may also be too embarrassed or ashamed to seek support.
Signs and symptoms
Does your child appear upset after using a computer or being online? Does your child appear afraid to go to school? Is your child acting nervously, losing confidence, or becoming distressed and withdrawn? Is your child experiencing problems with eating or sleeping? Perhaps your child might have withdrawn from their social circle? Cyberbullies often act anonymously, which adds to the insecurity and lack of control for the victim. Abuse often occurs while the child is at home, so there is no safe haven for your child.
You know your child best, so no one indicator should be taken as absolute proof of cyberbullying. However, if you notice several of these changes in your child, it may be worth investigating further.
The impact of bullying of any kind on a child can be devastating. Children can become anxious, withdrawn, their self-esteem suffers and this may lead to any number of more serious mental health issues. There have even been cases of cyberbullying-related suicide. The lack of control victims feel over how far the hurtful messages have spread only adds to their torment. Cases of cyberbullying are often not detected for long periods as much communication is hidden from an adult’s supervision.
Keeping children safe
There is no one-size-fits-all strategy for keeping your child safe from cyberbullies, but what is clear is that managing screen time and the communication that goes with it needs to be an ongoing conversation between parent and child that develops as your child matures.
Talk about online privacy, and explain that online behaviour – including sharing personal information such as address, phone number, photos of self and others – should mirror behaviour in person. Parents and children should agree on specific site use and set up privacy settings together. Parents should have accounts, too. Ask your child if they know where reporting functions are and how to report inappropriate behaviour, and how to block someone and keep information private.
Another thing parents can do is install parental controls and utilise child-safe search engines, such as www.kidzsearch.com. Although different devices and providers will have their own processes for setting up parental controls, a good starting point for general advice is the US website www.staysafeonline.org, or the UK website www.saferinternet.org.uk. Parents should regularly check browsing history of computers and consider keeping computers in communal areas of the home.
Embarrassing as it may be, talk to your children about the relationships they have both online and offline, and explain that once a picture or message is sent, it is gone and there is no retracting it. Ask your child whether they would send this message to their granny or granddad. If the answer is no, don’t send it!
Yet with all the technological knowledge at our fingertips, the most important factor in protecting your child is maintaining a safe and warm relationship. If your child feels able to tell you when something is disturbing them online and the reasons why, they will hopefully report it to you or a trusted adult before the bullying becomes a big issue. It is really important to reassure your child that they won’t be judged whatever their part in the communication.