Child and adolescent psychiatrist Dr. Sumru Bilge-Johnson has seen first-hand the effects of cyberbullying, and she has a message for parents: “Get involved. You really need to know what your kids are doing online.”
Dr. Bilge-Johnson found that bullying contributed to clinical depression, suicidal thoughts and suicide attempts in teenage patients at Akron Children’s Hospital. The results of her research were published in a study in 2013.
News reports of cyberbullying pushing teens to suicide are numerous. But the relationship between victimization and suicide is complex, and there often are other factors at play.
Still, it’s clear that kids who are bullied as well as bullies themselves are at higher risk for suicide.
“In recent years, I’m seeing more cyberbullying because every kid is on social media,” Dr. Bilge-Johnson said. “That’s worse in a way than the bully at school because with cyberbullying, there is no break. They are online all the time.”
So what should a parent do?
Talk to teens and make sure they know what cyberbullying is. If they think they are being harassed or targeted, they should not delete the messages, but show them to a parent. Parents should print out the messages and contact police and school (the only exception for printing is if there are nude photos). Tell your child to not respond to a cyberbully.
As a general rule, Dr. Bilge-Johnson believes parents should educate kids about internet conduct, set down rules and monitor their kids’ online activities.
Above all, make communication a priority. Have regular family time to talk about the ups and downs of the day, she said. When regular communication is lacking, it becomes that much harder for kids to speak up when something bad happens.
“When kids are being bullied, they may feel it’s their fault, they may feel embarrassed, or even start to believe in what is said about them. And instead of reaching out, they withdraw,” she said.
“Sometimes kids get so locked up, they don’t talk. They don’t tell, until they come to us.”
Kids will usually give off signs of despondency. Dr. Bilge-Johnson said to look for changes in behavior: Not eating or sleeping well; tearfulness, increased isolation, not wanting to go to school, not doing normal fun activities.
If your child is being bullied, isolation may only make things worse. Instead, teens feeling the brunt of a bully should be supported to continue normal activities and stay connected to friends and family while actions to stop bullying continue, she said.
It’s not easy to know when to seek professional help. But if your child shows continued changes in behavior and signs of depression, and no resolution is in sight, Dr. Bilge-Johnson recommends seeking mental health care.
“This is a very big problem for our kids,” she said. “As a community, we have to help them with every resource we have – parents, friends, schools and police.”