Jill Cook: Teach online privacy to restrict cyber-bullying

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We must remember it’s people who protect children, not technology, so discuss safety issues with your child, says Jill Cook

Bullying can have a devastating impact on children or young people, as the recent story of schoolgirl Chloe Meredith – driven to self-harm after months of online bullying – showed. Parents often wonder what they can do to protect their children from bullying, especially in the age of “cyber-bullying”. Technology like the internet, social media sites and mobile phones certainly give children some fantastic opportunities – however, they also create another way for children to be targeted via so-called cyber bullying.

At ParentLine Scotland, the national helpline for anyone caring for or concerned about a child, we take calls from many people looking for advice and support because their child or a child they know is being bullied in this way.

One dad recently called to say his daughter had been pushed around by some girls after school, adding that she’d later gone on Facebook and was threatened that “the whole class would kick her head in tomorrow.”

And this is far from an isolated incident. For example, we also heard of a 14-year-old girl traumatised after someone made up a false Facebook account in her name, added her friends before sending nasty messages which recipients thought were from her. A horrible experience, which resulted in her receiving many threats.

At CHILDREN 1ST we know cyberbullying can be hugely damaging, with youngsters essentially bullied in their own homes by people who often hide behind their online identity.

This makes it difficult to combat and somewhat overwhelming for parents. However, it’s crucial we remember it’s people who keep children safe, not technology, so the best thing a parent can do is discuss the issue with their child.

Parents should try to understand what their children are doing on the internet and social media sites. And encourage them to be more careful – to restrict the amount of personal information they post, or to make their profile private and block messages from certain people. This way, children can feel confident they have someone to turn to if they’re worried about something happening online.

Also, log and retain any threatening communications and alert the school or the police. And, although it’s tempting, don’t take the young person’s phone or laptop off them. It seems like a punishment and they’ve done 
nothing wrong.

Equally, for parents whose children may be displaying bullying behaviour, it’s important to also discuss the issue and try to get them to understand how what they’ve done impacts on others.

While this behaviour is unacceptable, they have to see and be given an opportunity to change – think of an appropriate sanction (no access to their laptop or phone for a few weeks for example) but give them the chance to “earn” it back.

Jill Cook is manager of ParentLine Scotland. ParentLine Scotland can be contacted on 08000 28 22 33 or parentlinescotland@children1st.org.uk.