Patricia Goodman, a therapist at Openings Centre for Counselling and Psychotherapy, offers advice for parents on protecting our children from cyber bullying

I work as a therapist in private practice and as a school counsellor at a local secondary school. In my work at the school, the most common issue the children and young people bring through my door is anxiety. It is a sad reality that I witness every week. And, in my opinion, the internet and in particular, social media, are mostly to blame.

Most of us, if we are lucky, will be returning to work and our children back to school, after a summer break, rested and refreshed. But there is no break from social media – Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram, Twitter etc – and especially not for young people.

Generation Z (also known as Post-Millennials) has grown up with the internet and social media and with the majority owning a smartphone, they have constant access to the internet. They can be connected 24/7 to their friends and family. There are benefits to this high-level connectivity but also dangers, such as increased anxiety and cyber bullying.

Cyber bullying ranges from competitiveness between young people and leaving others out of group chats to extreme online abuse. Serious harassment can lead to a young person feeling isolated and depressed, with low self-esteem.

Childline, the NSPCC service, defines cyber bullying as ‘using the internet, email, online games or any digital technology to threaten, tease, upset or humiliate someone else.’ Children and young people can be bullied online for any reason but most often bullying focusses on difference. This includes racism, homophobia, sexism and against people with special needs. More specifically, cyber bullying can be based on someone’s appearance, how they dress, their family and how they behave socially.

It includes abusive comments, sharing pictures or personal information without consent, hacking into someone’s online profiles, phone or email and pressurising someone, especially with regard to sending sexually explicit photos. As young people are naturally self-conscious and since social media is so central to their lives, you can see how cyber bullying can be extremely distressing.

“Real life friendships and relationships contribute hugely to a young person’s self-confidence and sense of belonging in the world . . .”

In my work with young people, I have found the most prevalent form of cyber bullying to be sexting. Sexting is sending messages, photos or videos of a sexual nature via text or social media. The pressurising of girls to post provocative photos of themselves on social media is particularly common. Some girls think this is normal behaviour and even expected by boys in order to be accepted. Boys too may think it is normal to ask a girl for sexual images and also to post them of themselves. Young people may think it is part of being in a relationship with someone. They may think sexting is private when it might not be.

With their desire to fit in and to be popular, young people can feel pressurised to engage in sexting. However, few think through the effect of sexting as once a message or photo has been sent or posted, it can be shared. If shared, the young person is then vulnerable to bullying, such as blackmail and humiliation.

So how are we as parents to inform and protect our children? There are both practical steps to be taken and also more fundamental, longer-term strategies. Most social media sites, such as Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat, have privacy settings. It is important that your child makes their profile private. In that way, only people he or she knows or allows, can follow them online and access their profile. If their profile remains public, anyone can access their personal contact details, personal photos and videos and even their exact location at any given time through location tagging features.

In the case of someone being offensive on social media, that person can be actively blocked from following your child and accessing their profile. Likewise, on most social media sites there is a report button where you can report abusive content. You can also report abuse to CEOP (Child Exploitation and Online Protection).

Longer-term, more fundamental strategies towards limiting the risks of cyber bullying are essential for the wellbeing of our children and young people. It is vital to make sure we talk to our children about what they are doing online and which social media sites they are on. In this way we keep the lines of communication open and ourselves informed.

In a family culture of openness, our young people will feel more able to reach out to us if there is a problem. They will feel they can talk to us and feel supported; social isolation and loneliness are very often associated with cyber bullying, potentially closely followed by depression and anxiety.

As well as talking openly to our children, we need to encourage them to talk face to face with their friends and peers. Real life socialising, as opposed to virtual talking, is so important to keep young people grounded in reality and for them to develop solid friendships. ‘Friends’ on Facebook or ‘streaks’ on Snapchat do not compare to having a good laugh with their friends or a heart to heart in person.

Real life friendships and relationships contribute hugely to a young person’s self-confidence and sense of belonging in the world. High self-esteem, and with it crucially self-respect, will foster resilience – a quality young people need now more than ever to counter whatever the virtual world may throw at them.

Advice and support for young people

Off the Record Bath – Tel: 01225 312481, visit: offtherecord-banes.co.uk
Childline – Tel: 0800 1111, visit: childline.org.uk
Openings Centre for Counsellingand Psychotherapy – Tel: 01225 445013, visit: openingsbath.org.uk
Youngminds – Parents’ Helpline: 0808 802 5544, visit: youngminds.org.uk