Recognizing warning signs and documenting the bullying may help, experts say.
By Misha Valencia | Sept. 5, 2019
The bullying started with some teasing and mean comments, but escalated significantly when Mallory Grossman, 12, a cheerleader and gymnast from New Jersey, began middle school. It spread to social media where a group of children tormented her.
They took pictures of Mallory at school, without her knowledge, posted them online and taunted her with text messages containing screenshots of the vicious comments made about her. “They called her horrible names, told her you have no friends and said, when are you going to kill yourself,” said her mother, Dianne Grossman.
Ms. Grossman frequently reported the bullying to the school, but the harassment continued. She said that by the time she found out about the full scope of the cyberbullying, it was too late. Mallory died by suicide on June 14, 2017.
“The vicious things Mallory’s peers said about her became her reality,” her mother said. “No matter how untrue they were, she started believing it. Words matter — they have the ability to cause significant harm.”
Ms. Grossman is working to pass Mallory’s Law in New Jersey — a bill that would create more accountability in how schools in the state respond to bullying.
A report last year from the Pew Research Center found that 59 percent of teens said they had been bullied or harassed online — and that many of them think teachers, social media companies and politicians are failing to help.
Cyberbullying includes tactics like posting vicious comments (including text messages), spreading rumors, making threats, telling people to kill themselves, impersonating someone through a fake account and creating a social media account to harass someone.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that any type of bullying increases a child’s risk for anxiety, depression, difficulty sleeping, academic problems, and there’s a significant connection between bullying and suicide-related behaviors.
“Bullied children experience shame and humiliation. When they see others ridiculing them online they worry who else saw it, shared it — how far their image traveled,” said Mildred Peyton, a bullying expert in Maryland.
But the impact of cyberbullying is often minimized because of the notion that there is no physical threat — the bully is not there and targeted children could just avoid going online. However, experts say that the children eventually feel the real-life impact when online pictures and rumors about them spread through their schools.
“People are emboldened behind a computer screen and things can escalate very quickly, often turning into a mob of children making cruel comments,” Dr. Peyton said. “Victims can’t get a break from the harassment since the bullies can access the internet anytime. Even if a child isn’t online, pictures of them can still be circulated by their peers — and they are humiliated in school when they find out.”
She added: “Children being bullied need help — and oftentimes so do the bullies — their behavior is often indicative of instability in their own lives.”
A 2016 report by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine reports that bullying is a “significant public health problem” with long-term negative effects.
“When cyberbullying began, many schools believed that since it was happening off school grounds they weren’t required to intervene or they didn’t have the legal authority to do so,” said Parry Aftab, a lawyer and cybercrimes expert. “Some schools were sued if they tried to take action,” she said.
While there has been something of a shift in thinking on how to address cyberbullying and some states have enacted stricter legislation targeting online bullying, it is still a pervasive problem, and states vary in their approaches to fighting it.
“Schools often still treat bullying as if it’s about conflict resolution,” Ms. Aftab said. “Parents can be seen as overprotective for being concerned — but bullying isn’t about peer conflict, it’s about a child intentionally being targeted and harassed.”
If there are no consequences for online harassment, Ms. Aftab said, “bullies are often emboldened and the behavior continues.”
Following are some steps experts suggest parents can take.
Recognize Warning Signs
Nearly 60 percent of kids don’t tell caregivers they’re being cyberbullied, making it critical to know the warning signs. These include:
- Children appearing upset or mad when they’re online.
- A significant increase or decrease in online activity.
- Becoming withdrawn, anxious or avoiding social situations.
- Turning off the computer or changing screens when an adult walks by.
- Having difficulty concentrating.
- Changes in grades or acting in uncharacteristic ways.
Monitor Online Activity
Regularly check children’s online presence and privacy settings on their social media accounts.
Document and Report
If someone harasses your child online, take screenshots of the comments. Include the website or app name in the image and a picture of the commenter’s profile.
If the cyberbullies attend your child’s school, report it to administrators and show them the images. Report harassment to the site or app where it happened and include that these are posts about a minor. Block bullies’ online accounts and phone numbers that send harassing texts.
If schools are unresponsive, Dr. Peyton recommends going up the chain of command to the superintendent. Caregivers can also contact their state’s department of education and familiarize themselves with local anti-bullying laws.
It’s also important to discuss with children what to do if they witness cyberbullying: Don’t participate in it, don’t share content and tell a trusted adult. Some experts recommend that peers post a positive comment when they see children attacked to offset the abuse.
If your child is physically threatened online, go to law enforcement. If it’s not taken seriously, Ms. Aftab recommends speaking to a detective, lieutenant or captain until someone listens.
Make a Plan
Discuss cyberbullying with children and explain that if it happens, it’s not their fault. Teach them not to ignore it (inform a trusted adult, take screenshots) and create a plan of action outlining what to do if they’re targeted.
Children may want to respond to cyberbullies and defend themselves. Discuss with children what, if any, response is warranted and ensure that they understand that any response can also circulate online.
If they experience bullying, the long-term impact can be significant. Ensure that children have support, including speaking to a therapist.
Turn to Resources
Children often feel ashamed over being bullied or fear that if their parents or caregivers get involved, the bullying may get worse. So it’s important for children to have many places to turn, such as the Crisis Text helpline and Stop It Now, which provide free 24-hour support to children.
Correction: Sept. 5, 2019
An earlier version of this article misspelled the first name of the mother of Mallory Grossman. She is Dianne, not Dianna.