How can I talk to my child about Cyberbullying?

By DQ Team  05/22/2018

Topics: Screen Time Management, Parenting Tips, DQ TOP Rules, DQ Parents’Handbook


“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will always hurt me. Bones mend and become actually stronger in the very place they were broken and where they have knitted up; mental wounds can grind and ooze for decades and be re-opened by the quietest whisper.” – Stephen Fry, Moab Is My Washpot

While bullying at school continues to be a global issue, in recent years scholars have been quick to point to the rising issue of cyberbullying: “any behaviour performed through electronic or digital media by individuals or groups that repeatedly communicate hostile or aggressive messages intended to inflict harm on others”1.
Research on the issue supports observations that cyberbullying has become a worldwide phenomenon that needs to be addressed2. In our own research across 30 countries, we found that cyberbullying is the most common cyber-risk faced by children – with 47% of 8-12 year olds victimized by cyberbullying in the past year alone.
Cyberbullying typically occurs between people who know each other offline. However, it can also involve people that children have never met face-to-face: in online games, through chat rooms, or on social networking sites like Twitter. Examples of cyberbullying include:

  • Making fun of someone by posting or sending stories, jokes, pictures, or videos about them
  • Spreading gossip or rumours about someone
  • Impersonating someone online in order to make them look bad, or get them into trouble

While traditional bullying and cyberbullying may share certain similarities, such as the intention of causing harm, many have argued that the effects of cyberbullying may be more damaging to children. Some reasons for this include the anonymity that digital communication provides, the difficulties of oversight and intervention by adults, the difficulty of deleting online content, and the speed at which harmful and unkind messages can spread.
Unsurprisingly, then, research on the impact of cyberbullying on children and adolescents has revealed worrying consequences for their mental health. Cyberbullying has been found to be associated with higher levels of emotional stress, social anxiety, depressive symptoms, and suicidal ideation3.
Nonetheless, no consensus has emerged on how to prevent cyberbullying. While this may be frustrating given its rising prevalence amongst children and adolescents and the seriousness of its effects, we’ve collected some pieces of helpful advice that can be instructive for addressing the issue as a family.
1. Talk – What is Cyberbullying?
When it comes to cyberbullying, your bond with your child is incredibly significant and telling. Research has revealed that an adolescent with poor emotional bonds with their caretaker is twice as likely to engage in online harassment than their counterpart with a strong emotional bond. In addition, poor caregiver monitoring of an adolescent’s online activities increases the likelihood of these adolescents harassing others online4.
As with addressing other forms of online harms, having open conversations are key to both prevention and intervention. If you are unsure of how to broach the topic, use the acronym HURT” as a starting point to help your child develop healthy internet habits and the know-how to handle potential forms of online harassment:

  • Harmful on purpose: The act is carried out with the intention of hurting someone
  • Uses power: Cyberbullies want to feel powerful and often target someone who is weaker than them, or cannot easily retaliate
  • Ripples: Cyberbullying can have a ripple effect as harmful messages can spread widely and quickly to a wide audience online
  • Technology: Cyberbullying occurs through technological means – such as text messages, emails, instant messages, chat rooms, and social networking sites


2. Obey – Three Steps to Confronting Cyberbullying
Harmful and unkind comments are often unexpected and unprompted, but teaching your child what to do in the event that they are cyberbullied will help to develop their confidence and empathy, both online and off!
Here are 3 steps that you can easily teach your child: 

  1. Don’t engage with the cyberbully
    • Responding to an abuser may be empowering for the cyberbully, as it enhances their sense of control over their victim
    • Tell the bully to stop and/or use available technological tools to prevent the bully from contacting you again (e.g., blocking a contact on WhatsApp)
  2. Save the evidence
  3. Reach out for help by showing the evidence to a trusted adult
    • If the situation escalates, consider reporting the incident on the social networking site, or bringing the evidence to your child’s school or law enforcement

More often than not, children understand pretty easily that cyberbullying is harmful. What studies have found, nonetheless, is both victims and instigators may be reluctant to talk to their parents about their online experiences for fear of their digital device usage being restricted5. If you suspect your child may be a cyberbully or supporting cyberbullies, don’t react in anger and try to avoid harsh punishments! These actions may discourage your child from honestly talking about their online experiences.
Instead, try and understand why your child came to use and/or support these tactics in the first place. The following questions can help guide your discussions with your child:

  • Is your comment/post/message about the other person true? Is it kind? Was it necessary?
  • How would you feel if someone was mean to you online?
  • How do you think your friends would feel if you were being mean to them online?


3. Play – Build Empathy
If your family has already started talking about cyberbullying and your child knows how to handle cyberbullies, the next step in cyberbullying prevention and intervention is both the most abstract and the most important.
What does building empathy entail? What does it mean to treat others with respect? Sometimes, identifying where a joke crosses the line can be difficult for younger children. In your homes, one method of developing your child’s empathy is through role-playing.
This can be a creative, fun, and constructive method for teaching children to shift their perspectives from bully to bystander to victim:

  1. What do you know of your child’s interactions with others online: do they use social media sites like Facebook or Twitter? Who do they communicate with?
  2. Come up with some hypothetical scenarios where a cyberbullying incident may occur. Perhaps someone has left a mean comment on your child’s Facebook post, or you’ve unthinkingly posted an unkind comment in the heat of the moment.
  3. Assign roles! As your family members shift from one role to another, have each person share their thoughts and feelings. Shifting our perspectives becomes a learning process for everyone – not just your kids! – and we learn why people may turn to cyberbullying in the first place  
  4. Involving your child in the process of working through the situations not only teaches them how to address cyberbullying specifically but also strengthens their self-confidence to handle a variety of possible situations


Just like your efforts to manage your child’s screen time use, how to address cyberbullying at home differs from family to family and child to child. As you walk the line between protecting your child from harm and encouraging them to reap the benefits of digital connectivity, combine both active mediation (conversations about digital use) and restrictive mediation (making strict rules around your child’s online activities).
Addressing cyberbullying takes a village. Outside our homes, confronting it requires support from peers, school and community leaders, and law enforcement. Nevertheless, as primary caregivers, your intention to listen before reacting is communicated with your child. This way, they understand that they can come to you regardless of whether they were victimised or victimiser.
What have been your own experiences of cyberbullying? How has your family addressed the issue in your homes? Tag us with #DQEveryChild and share your own stories and experiences.

This is the fourth in a series of 9 posts that the DQ Institute is publishing for parents and caretakers to help you get started on inculcating healthy and responsible digital habits for you and your family. If you’ve found the tips here helpful, you can find more in our previous post on managing your personal information online. Otherwise, check back next month for our post on being a Digital Citizen in the 21st century!
1. Tokunaga, R. S. (2010). Following you home from school: A critical review and synthesis of research on cyberbullying victimization.
2. Ang, R. P., Huan, V. S., & Florell, D. (2014). Understanding the relationship between proactive and reactive aggression, and cyberbullying across United States and Singapore adolescent samples. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 29(2), 237-254; Ang, R. P., Tan, K. A., & Talib Mansor, A. (2011). Normative beliefs about aggression as a mediator of narcissistic exploitativeness and cyberbullying. Journal of interpersonal violence, 26(13), 2619-2634; Li, Q., Cross, D., & Smith, P. K. (Eds.). (2011). Cyberbullying in the global playground: Research from international perspectives. John Wiley & Sons.

3. Bottino, S. M. B., Bottino, C., Regina, C. G., Correia, A. V. L., & Ribeiro, W. S. (2015). Cyberbullying and adolescent mental health: systematic review. Cadernos de saude publica, 31, 463-475.
4. Ybarra, M. L., & Mitchell, K. J. (2004). Online aggressor/targets, aggressors, and targets: A comparison of associated youth characteristics. Journal of child Psychology and Psychiatry, 45(7), 1308-1316; Ang, R. P. (2015). Adolescent cyberbullying: A review of characteristics, prevention and intervention strategies. Aggression and violent behavior, 25, 35-42.
5. Aboujaoude, E., Savage, M. W., Starcevic, V., & Salame, W. O. (2015). Cyberbullying: Review of an old problem gone viral. Journal of Adolescent Health, 57(1), 10-18.