While remote learning during the COVID-19 pandemic lowered reported instances of bullying, parents fear that, for some students, going back to school will mean going back to being bullied.
“Bullying is something we worry about, especially because we know of kids who have been bullied,” said Joshua Freeman of his family of four in Indianapolis.
Now 15 years after the inception of National Bullying Prevention Month in October, technology’s ever-greater presence in children’s lives has given bullying a new outlet. With just a click, cyberbullies can taunt, harass and threaten relentlessly, even reaching into the home via cellphone or computer. As a result, victims report feeling hopeless, isolated and even suicidal.
What can parents do to protect their kids? Taking an interest in their children’s online world can make a difference, says the National Parent Teacher Association.
This interest does not necessarily require parents to become tech experts. Instead, the federal stopbullying.gov site advises parents to watch for subtle clues that something is wrong, such as their child becoming withdrawn, hiding their screen when others are nearby or reacting emotionally to what’s happening on their device.
For Joshua and his wife, Wendy, that has meant being keenly aware of what “normal” looks like for their two kids, ages 14 and 10.
“Knowing my children’s moods is very important because I can then detect shifts or changes in their personalities that might signal something is going on,” said Wendy.
Talking with kids openly — and often — helps too. “The more you talk to your children about bullying, the more comfortable they will be telling you if they see or experience it,” UNICEF says in its online tips for parents.
“We are big on communication; we encourage our children to share anything they want and as parents we try not to overreact,” said Wendy.
Beyond talking, listening and observing their kids, parents shouldn’t be afraid to make and enforce rules for online activities, experts say.
The Freeman children are allowed to play online games but are not allowed to use social media and they have restrictions on certain apps. “We are not constantly looking over their shoulders, we respect their privacy, but they have to stay within the boundaries we’ve set,” said Joshua.
“We have made them keenly aware that the internet can be a very useful tool but can also be very harmful,” said Wendy. To help protect their children, the Freemans use their cell phone provider to set up restrictions for their devices.
The parents cited tips and reminders they’ve considered together with their kids from free resources available on jw.org, the official website of Jehovah’s Witnesses.
The Freeman’s daughter especially recommended one of the site’s short animated videos, “Beat a Bully Without Using Your Fists.”
“I learned that if you’re being bullied, you should call someone you can trust like a teacher or parent,” she said. “They can help you.”