Sticks and Phones: Preventing Digital Bullying


Art Bamford | Jul 17, 2014

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez

This is part of an FYI series on navigating digital technology and social media with young people.
Read Part 1 here: VIA MEDIA A New Look @ Navigating Digital Technology with Young People

Bullying used to be something that required face-to-face interaction.

Sadly, communicating online or by text now allows us to hurt each other from a safe distance. The statistics are tricky to discern, since many young people feel uncomfortable reporting instances of bullying, but current data suggest that between 4.5% and 24% of teens today have been bullied “online.” This definition groups together chat, text, and social media posts.1

If you’re a parent or leader wondering whether your teenager might be among those percentages, in this post we will walk you through how to help prevent online bullying, how to spot it when it is happening, and how to respond if it does.

Preventing Online Bullying

  1. The most important thing parents and youth leaders can do is make sure that young people have relationships with a few adults where they feel absolutely safe and comfortable sharing their concerns and struggles. Bullying often compromises a teen’s sense of security, even if adults have done nothing that they think might cause a teen to second guess reaching out to them. A sense of safety is something that needs to be continually and proactively nurtured.
  2. It is also important that parents and youth leaders try to empower young people not only to report bullying, but also to hold each other accountable. Students who may not be bullied themselves can be great allies to those who are. Adults should encourage young people to affirm their peers who have been bullied, and to support them as they report it, which can sometimes be as difficult as enduring the actual bullying.
  3. Finally, the instant a young person receives something that makes them feel uncomfortable or hurt, they should capture it and be encouraged to send it to an adult friend or parents. Make sure teens know the following shortcuts for capturing screenshots:

    Mac: ‘Command’ + ‘Shift’ + ‘3’ saves to your desktop

    PC: The ‘PrtScn’ key saves to your desktop.

    iOS (iPhone, iPad, iPod Touch): Press ‘Home’ + ‘Sleep/Wake’ at the same time, an image will save to the Photos app.

    Android: Hold Volume Down + Power for 1-2 seconds, an image will save to the ‘screenshots’ folder in the Gallery or Photos app.

Recognizing Bullying When it Happens

Bullying takes a lot of shapes and forms, but some of the more common warning signs that a kid has been bullied include: a noticeable change in mood and demeanor, trouble sleeping, loss of appetite, reduced interest in hobbies, nightmares, and not wanting to go to school. The best thing parents and those who work with young people can do is trust their gut, and if something seems wrong, ask about it face-to-face.

We will talk more about monitoring online activity in a separate post, but as it relates here, research indicates that parents typically do not catch bullying simply by keeping an eye on their son or daughter’s online activity.

What’s Next? A 5-Step Response

  1. First and foremost, the victim of bullying needs to be assured that they are, and will be, safe. Affirm them by listening. Victims say that being heard is the most helpful response. It is also important not to restrict completely their access or prohibit them from using their phone or the Internet. That can feel like a punishment, or like they were somehow responsible—neither of which is the case. Work out a plan for how they will respond if more bullying occurs, and encourage them (don’t demand) to block or remove whoever has been involved from their phone or social media accounts.
  2. Next, adults need to respond thoughtfully, not quickly. Investigate thoroughly, and document the evidence. Take screenshots if they have not been taken already.
  3. Reach out to the teen’s school and ask to set up an appointment with a principal or counselor to discuss the matter privately and explore solutions. Often students who bully others are doing so as a response to their own problems at home. Teachers and school counselors may know both sides of the situation, and are typically the most well-equipped to determine an appropriate intervention.
  4. Contact the phone or Internet service or content providers if necessary. Explain the situation in a calm, respectful manner and provide them with whatever evidence you have. Due to some of the very tragic extreme cases that have occurred as a result of bullying, most sites and services have a zero tolerance policy for bullying and will take the matter very seriously.
  5. Finally, in situations where a serious threat of harm has been made, or any kind of sexually explicit material has been shared with a minor, the local authorities ought to be notified. Courts have determined that the medium of communication through which a threat is made has no bearing on whether or not it can be considered a “true threat.”

It’s worth noting that while digital technology has provided a new channel through which bullies can inflict harm on others, it has not created a completely new problem. There is, we are reminded, nothing new under the sun. Bullying has always been a challenge facing kids and parents. The good news, if there is any in all of this, is that these kinds of harmful and damaging comments can now be captured and recorded when they are made online. So while some bullies might feel emboldened from behind their screens, it is also easier to stop this type of behavior with evidence than when it is simply one student’s word against another’s.

Have you had experience helping a young person deal with cyber-bullying? Share what strategies helped resolve the situation in the comments section below.

Here are some additional tools and resources:

VIA MEDIA Part 1: A New Look @ Navigating Digital Technology with Young People
VIA MEDIA Part 2: How Young is Too Young for Digital Technology and Social Media?

VIA MEDIA Part 3: Sticks and Phones: Preventing Digital Bullying
VIA MEDIA Part 4: My [Own] Space: Supervision vs. Surveillance

1. Ybarra, M. L., Boyd, D., Korchmaros, J. D., & Oppenheim, J. K. (2012). Defining and measuring cyberbullying within the larger context of bullying victimization. Journal of Adolescent Health, 51(1), 53-58.; Palfrey, J., Sacco, D., Boyd, D., DeBonis, L., & Tatlock, J. (2008). Enhancing child safety & online technologies.; Levy, N., Cortesi, S., Gasser, U., Crowley, E., Beaton, M., Casey, J., & Nolan, C. (2012). Bullying in a networked era: A literature review. Berkman Center Research Publication, (2012-17).; Dinakar, K., Reichart, R., & Lieberman, H. (2011, July). Modeling the detection of Textual Cyberbullying. In The Social Mobile Web. Additional resources are available in the links provided.

Art Bamford

Art Bamford is a Ph.D. student in Media Studies at the University of Colorado-Boulder. He completed an M.Div. at Fuller in 2015, and holds an M.A. in media and communication from the University of Denver where he worked as a research associate for the Estlow Center's Teens & New Media @ Home project.

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