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Cyberbullying has been a hot topic for years, but when all of us, young and old, were thrust in front of our screens due to COVID-19, the experts warned we could see an uptick in this behavior — especially among young people.

Sure enough, we are six months into the coronavirus pandemic and Google Trends is seeing an 80% increase in parents searching for help in dealing with cyberbullying. According to a Digital Trends piece that came out in April about cyberbullying and distance learning, research indicated that they had seen a 70% increase in cyberbullying among kids in the first weeks of social distancing. Statistics indicate that roughly 50%-60% of kids have been cyberbullied.

Just so we are clear about what we are talking about, cyberbullying is using any type of digital platform to scare, harass, shame, embarrass, hurt or threaten another person.

Numbers to know

› Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Hotline: 800-662-HELP (4357)

› National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 800-273-TALK (8255)

 

With everyone online right now, there are lots of easy targets and the stakes are high. Some kids are taking their own lives because of it, and many others are dealing with anxiety and depression as a result. If you know what to look for and have some precautions in place, you have a much better chance of intervening before the situation takes a tragic turn. The big question is, what can parents do to address this problem?

If you notice a change in your child's behavior or disposition, pay attention. Here is a list of nine signs your child might be the victim of cyberbullying:

* Appears nervous when receiving a text, instant message or email.

* Seems uneasy about going to school or pretends to be ill.

* Unwillingness to share information about online activity.

* Abruptly shutting off or walking away from the computer mid-use.

* Withdrawing from friends and family in real life.

* Unexplained stomachaches or headaches.

* Trouble sleeping at night.

* Unexplained weight loss or gain.

* Suicidal thoughts or attempts.

Now that summer is here, your kids don't need to be on their screens as much. Making some parental decisions about how much time your children are allowed to use their screens and standing by it can be helpful to the entire family. Screen Strong has a 7 Day ScreenStrong Challenge you might find helpful. Think of it as a seven-day cleanse for your entire family to help them kick off the summer.

Once you have completed the cleanse, set the tone for the rest of the summer with a family meeting about expectations moving forward when it comes to screen time. This is what parents say they struggle with the most because it causes such a huge uproar in the home.

Think of it like this: When you tell your child to hold your hand to cross the street and they throw themselves on the ground and pitch a fit because they don't want to hold your hand, you don't respond by saying, "OK, you don't have to hold my hand. Just be careful." You get your child off the ground and tell them, "You are holding my hand. Period." It doesn't matter how big a tantrum they throw, you aren't going to give in because you know the street could be very dangerous. For older teens, it would be like you putting them behind the wheel of a car with no training and telling them to be careful.

Screens have a great place in this world, but without limits or set expectations, they can negatively impact your children, and the entire family for that matter. In order to put structure around screen usage, be very clear about what appropriate behavior looks like when you are online, and define cyberbullying for them. The goal is to create an environment where it is abundantly clear that cyberbullying will not be tolerated and to let them know what to do if they think they are being cyberbullied. Working through this together can strengthen your relationship, too.

Create a schedule of things your kids can do instead of being on their screens. For example, reading is one of the best things they can do to increase their vocabulary and build their imagination. Exercise, getting outside or even doing things inside to get their heart rate up and create some sweat can do wonders for decreasing stress and anxiety along with elevating their mood. Look for activities you can do together as a family and ways for your kids to meaningfully contribute to your family and the lives of others who may need help with things like mowing their lawn, weeding their gardens, walking the dog and such. First Things First has a 30 Day Family Activity Challenge you might find helpful.

If you do not see change in a positive direction, you may want to seek professional help to deal with this situation. Also, it is helpful to talk with your children about other adults in their life they can talk to besides you because, honestly, sometimes it's just hard to talk with your parents about certain things (see related box).

These are complicated times for sure. As parents, our role is to lead — even when our children don't appreciate the direction and structure we are giving them. A child or teen's ability to assess their well-being is extremely limited due to their prefrontal cortex not being developed. Instead of being intimidated when it comes to doing what you know is in your child's best interest to help them thrive, make sure they know that you get how hard this time is and that you are for them. While they may act like they don't care about being in relationship with you, don't be fooled. Knowing that you care, that your love is unconditional and that you are there to listen is powerful, and although they may not acknowledge it, rest assured they notice.

Julie Baumgardner is president and CEO of family advocacy nonprofit First Things First. Email her at julieb@firstthings.org.

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