Safeguarding children against cyberbullying in the age of COVID‑19

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It’s been almost a year since the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the COVID-19 outbreak a pandemic, and people everywhere have been doing their best to adhere to regional and national stay-in-place orders and social distancing rules, in the hope that the world can return to some semblance of normalcy as soon as possible.

Entire families are now stuck inside, with most of their daily activities taking place from behind the screens of their devices. While it is challenging for everyone, it could be argued that coming to grips with the new reality is particularly challenging for children, since they are missing out on an essential part of growing up in today’s world.

From the time they wake up until they go to sleep, their day is dominated by the digital world – they take their lessons online, interact with their friends online, consume copious amounts of media online and play games online.

However, professionals warn that spending so much time online is not only unhealthy; it could also open them up to various kinds of risks, the main one being cyberbullying. It is natural that in the wake of the pandemic and social distancing rules the risk of cyberbullying has increased.

What are the signs of cyberbullying?

Contrary to popular belief, cyberbullying isn’t just limited to social media, but is often present on various platforms and manifests itself in various ways.

With social media, cyberbullying could seemingly look innocent at first glance to casual observers, especially when perpetrators mask their actions by creating memes with inside jokes that are only known to them, the target of their attacks and others in a common social group such as classmates or other members of a sports team, social or church group, and so on.

Alternatively, cyberbullying could be hidden by taking place in private groups and chatrooms, with the materials being intentionally leaked to the victim. All of this makes the act hard to detect. However, often the bullies don’t really care and will disparage, humiliate and attack their victims publicly for added shame.

Another hotbed of cyberbullying, where kids are spending endless hours, is online gaming. While most of the time the attacks manifest in the form of insults, ridiculing of gaming skills or more generally profanities being hurled by the truckload, it is by far not the only type of bullying that could be experienced in online battle arenas.

Often players will choose their victim and will then engage in making the time spent in the game as agonizing as possible, by either killing their online avatars over and over again, or by falsely reporting their behavior, getting them banned. This makes the game unplayable by the victim.

How to prevent and stop online harassment

Well, first and foremost adults should be aware of the warning signs that something is amiss. To protect themselves, kids may drastically reduce the use of their devices, they may become moody, or even delete their accounts and create new ones.

Moreover, cyberbullying shouldn’t just be addressed after the fact; parents should have active discussions with their children about cyberbullying and other pitfalls of the internet. Kids should know that they can trust parents and teachers with their problems and confide in them. For good measure, parents can opt to use parental controls to monitor what their children do online, although some may consider it an infringement on their kids’ privacy.

Children should be made aware that nobody deserves to be bullied and if they see someone getting hurt, they shouldn’t remain silent, but speak up and tell a responsible adult. It’s also important to educate kids about how to report incidents and that they should keep screenshots and records of any instances of cyberbullying they’ve experienced firsthand or seen being perpetrated against someone else. Furthermore, they should also be taught about the various tools that social media and gaming platforms provide to report such behavior.

Further resources

Here is a list of websites that offer advice, contacts, and counseling for victims of bullying.

To learn more about the ways cyberbullying can affect children as well as about how technology can help, head over to the Safer Kids Online platform.

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