Health & Medical Children & Kid Health

When and How to Respond to Cyberbullying

When and How to Respond to Cyberbullying

About the Interviewee

Robert Trestan is Eastern States Civil Rights Counsel for the Anti-Defamation League (ADL). Based in Boston, he covers 14 states on a range of civil rights issues, including discrimination, religious freedom, law enforcement training, the monitoring of extremist groups, and various legislative initiatives. Mr Trestan provides hate crime training to law enforcement agencies through the country. He regularly testifies on behalf of the League on pending legislative priorities throughout the northeast.

In Massachusetts, Mr Trestan built a statewide coalition that was largely responsible for drafting one of the most comprehensive antibullying laws in the country. He regularly provides training on cyberbullying for attorneys and educators.

Before coming to the ADL, Mr Trestan was Director of Civil Rights at the Boston Housing Authority for more than 10 years. He represented the Authority in several significant civil rights cases and was responsible for overseeing the implementation of a Department of Justice plan to eliminate racial bias in subsidizing housing.

From 1990-1994, he was an Assistant Public Defender in Florida.
Mr Trestan received a BA with honors from Trent University, Peterborough, Ontario, Canada, and a JD from the University of Miami School of Law. He is a member of the Florida, District of Columbia, and Massachusetts bars.

The Interview

Medscape: How should clinicians advise parents of young patients whom they suspect are the target of cyberbullying?

Robert Trestan: Because many children are reluctant to report being bullied, clinicians are in an ideal position to recognize a potential problem and speak to the child’s parent or guardian. Everyone has the right to a public education in a school that is safe and conducive to learning. Bullying impairs students’ ability to concentrate, learn, and feel safe.

When children are targeted, encourage them to talk to their parents or a trusted adult. Parents and clinicians need to explain that no one should feel shame for being targeted. Parents must involve school officials as soon as they become aware of the problem, and they should insist that the matter be investigated and that appropriate action be taken to stop the bullying. If they suspect that a crime may have been committed, such as threats to cause physical harm, law enforcement should be notified.

Tell targeted children not to reply to the cyberbullying and to save the evidence, which can help identify the perpetrator and may be requested by law enforcement officials if criminal behavior occurs. Parents should consider contacting the perpetrator’s parents or guardians (if the identity is known), Internet service provider, the school, an attorney, or law enforcement who can help address the matter appropriately. Because the effects of bullying can last a lifetime, making a referral to therapist is recommended.

Medscape: What are some of the warning signs to look for?

Mr. Trestan: There are some common signs that indicate a child who uses email, online social media, or both may be the target of cyberbullying. These include:

  • Becoming upset, sad, or angry during or after using the Internet or a cell phone;

  • Withdrawal from family or friends;

  • Reluctance or refusal to participate in activities that he or she previously enjoyed;

  • Unexplained decline in grades;

  • Refusing to go to school or expressing anger or dissatisfaction with a specific class or school in general;

  • Increasingly reporting symptoms of illness for which he or she wants to stay at home; and

  • Showing signs of depression or sadness.

Using the Internet more than 3 hours daily increases the likelihood of repeated online intimidation by 1.5 to almost 3 times. Sexually active young people are about 1.25 times more likely to be the target. Teens in single-parent households are 1.5 times more likely to be targeted by cyberbullying. The affluence of a child’s family seems to increase the risk for being targeted. Hispanic youth are more likely than white youth to suffer cyberbullying.

Medscape: Is there anything clinicians working directly in schools should look out for?

Mr. Trestan: School psychologists and nurses are on the cyberbullying frontline and must make responding to children who show signs of being victimized by this behavior a priority. Children cannot stop the bullying on their own and require professional help when dealing with the emotional impact of cyberbullying.

When cyberbullying causes a "substantial and material" disruption on school grounds, it becomes a school issue. The law requires a "nexus" or connection to warrant intervention by school authorities. If a child is afraid to go to school because of bullying at school, or is harassed at school as a result of off-campus cyberbullying, school authorities have a duty to respond. In these situations, parents should insist that the school deal with the problem.

Medscape: Are there any tips a clinician can give to parents who are trying to protect their children from cyberbullying?

Mr. Trestan: Everyone needs to remember that once you post information online, you can never take it back. It is essential that parents actively talk to their children about Internet and cell phone safety and expected and responsible online behavior, well before cyberbullying occurs. Computers should be set up in the family room where internet usage can be supervised, and structure online time.

Parents and children should come to an agreement about sharing passwords. Children who share passwords with peers are 1.5 times more likely to report being a target of cyberbullying.

Young children may not understand the implications of their online actions. In those cases, clinicians and parents need to take the time to explain. Understanding the emotional effects of cyberbullying may help the child avoid future bullying.

Medscape: Are there different behaviors or characteristics in victims of cyberbullying versus physical bullying that might help clinicians identify high-risk young patients?

Mr. Trestan: The main difference is that cyberbullying follows you everywhere. There is no escape, making the emotional impact significantly more severe. Cyberbullying victims report higher levels of depression than victims of face-to-face bullying. Although everyone is vulnerable, gay and lesbian students have been shown to be at a higher risk in the school environment.

The effects of bullying are well documented; studies have shown that difficulty making friends, loneliness, low self-esteem, depression, poor academic achievement, truancy, and suicide are all associated with being bullied. In addition to these risk factors, the targets of cyberbullying may be subject to additional distress owing to the pervasive and invasive nature of modern communications technology: Cyberbullying messages are circulated in an instant and are irrevocable.

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