Research shows that certain online behaviors can make kids more susceptible to cyberbullying

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This year was my 20th high school reunion. Because I now live so far from where I grew up, I could not attend. But even though I couldn’t be there, as I’ve thought about my time in middle school and high school over the last few months I’ve experienced many feelings. I feel old, of course. But I also realized that I don’t look at my high school years very fondly, and I think it might be because I was the victim of bullying.

Because of my religious affiliation, I was spit on. I was called “stupid ‘enter religious epithet here.’” I was deliberately bumped while walking down the hall. Until my senior year, I’ll admit, going to school made me feel uneasy, and I became pretty good at avoiding certain people.

Now, know that I’m over it. I’m secure in who I am, and I feel pity—not anger—toward those who bullied me. I didn’t share this to make you feel sorry for me. What I feel now is a need to protect my kids from experiencing what I experienced. But here’s the difficult part about bullying these days. When I was in high school we didn’t have the Internet. Bullying was solely “traditional” back then. And just as kids are vulnerable to being exposed to a host of things online that were just not available when I was a kid, they are also more likely to be exposed to cyberbullying.

No parent wants their child to be involved in cyberbullying, either as the victim or as the perpetrator. Though there are many factors that go into whether or not one is bullied or is a bully, new research shows that the use of the Internet in certain ways makes kids more vulnerable to being the victim and/or the perpetrator of cyberbullying.

A study published this year in the journal New Media & Society looked at 81 different studies related to cyberbullying—a total of nearly 100,000 participants. The study found that a common attribute of those who are victims of cyberbullying, and also of those who are the perpetrators of cyberbullying, is “risky information and communications technology use.” Or in other words, risky Internet use.

Risky Internet use comes in several forms, including sharing personal information or photos of oneself online or becoming friends with someone who one has met only online. Such risky Internet use becomes problematic, according to the research, because people online are more likely to say and do things online than they would in a face-to-face setting, including saying and doing aggressive things. Another predictor of being the victim of cyberbullying is how much someone is bullied in the “traditional” sense, such as at school or in other social situations. Likewise, someone is more likely to become a cyberbully if they are a “traditional” bully.

Please know that I firmly believe that bullying is never, ever the victim’s fault. Ever. But this research suggests that there are things we can teach our kids that could help them avoid bullies. This research suggests that children need to learn—preferably from parents—what types of online behaviors are safe and which are dangerous. Kids should never share personal information online. Kids should not become friends with strangers that they only know in an online setting. Kids should never agree to meet someone in person that they only know online. And as much as possible, parents should do whatever is necessary to determine if their child is either a victim or perpetrator of bullying in both traditional and online settings. StopBullying.gov is a good site that outlines signs that a child is being bullied, or bullying others, that parents should be aware of. The bottom line, then, appears to be consistent and effective parent-child communication about the Internet, and vigilant monitoring of children’s emotional states.

Now, I’m no expert at bullying or cyberbullying. And I don’t want to suggest that the parenting behaviors I’m recommending will prevent bullying in all its forms, because, as I said, there are so many factors that contribute to bullying. But according to the research I’ve cited here I feel safe in saying that it appears that reducing children’s risky Internet use has the potential to reduce susceptibility to cyberbullying. Too many kids hurt because of bullying in its various forms, and if there is something I can do to help my kids, even in some small way, it’s worth every effort.

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