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Harvard Commentaries
Harvard Commentaries
Reviewed by the Faculty of Harvard Medical School

A Parent's Life A Parent's Life

Preventing Cyberbullying

January 17, 2014

By Claire McCarthy M.D.

Boston Children's Hospital

Bullying: it's been around for as long as people have existed. For so many different reasons, people are often unkind. During youth, when popularity and peer acceptance feel like the most important part of life, it's particularly bad — and the addition of technology makes it worse still. 

What Is Cyberbullying?

"Cyberbullying" is bullying that takes place through electronic technology, such as text messages or social media. Unlike traditional bullying, cyberbullying can:

  • Be invisible, so other people don't realizing it is happening
  • Spread rapidly and be seen by many more people. And once something is out into cyberspace, it's very hard to get rid of it. 

Because of this, cyberbullying can be particularly damaging and difficult. It can lead to anxiety, depression, substance abuse — and, as we sometimes hear in the news, even suicide. It's much more common than many people realize: The 2011 Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System survey found that 16% of students in grades 9-12 reported being the victims of cyberbullying. That's 1 in 6. 

Some children are more likely to be victims of bullying. They include children who are:

  • Isolated or different in some way (such as those with a physical or learning disability)  
  • New to the school or community
  • Lacking strong social connections  

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Tips for Parents

It's not easy to prevent cyberbullying. Probably the most important thing parents can do is talk to their children about what they do, see and experience online (including text messaging).

It's important to start these conversations as soon as your child starts using the Internet, and certainly when they start using a cell phone.

Help children think about how comments and posts can make people feel bad. Many youth don't even realize the impact their offhand comments can have.

Talk to them about the important role they play as a bystander to cyberbullying. Bystanders can make things worse — or they can make things better. Help your children understand they they become part of the bullying when they pass on hurtful comments, or when they laugh at or talk about the person being bullied. However, when they refuse to participate, stand up to the bully and stand up for the victim, they help make things better. 

These are not topics that can be covered in one conversation. It takes many conversations over time. It requires you to be involved in your children's lives and get to know their friends. What's more, watch for changes in your child's behavior. Ask lots of questions when they occur. 

Find out if your child's school has any rules about what can be posted online, and make sure your child knows about them. This is a good way to talk about being a good online citizen, and help them understand that they can be held accountable for what they do. Kids may feel like they can get away with anything online. But it's really important for them to understand that, indeed, there can be consequences. 

Speaking of consequences, it's also important to report any cyberbullying you encounter. Some of it could be illegal and should be reported to the police. This includes threats, sexually explicit content or photos of a person in a private location (your home, for example) that were taken without permission. But even if it's not illegal, all cyberbullying deserves a response. Talk to your child about it —and decide who the best helping person would be. It may be a guidance counselor, or the parent of the bully, or the victim. Teach your child that it is never okay to be unkind — and that it is their responsibility to do something whenever they see unkindness happen.


To learn more about cyberbullying and what you can do to prevent it, go to


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Claire McCarthy, M.D., a senior medical editor for Harvard Health Publications, is an assistant professor in pediatrics at Harvard Medical School.  She is an attending physician and Medical Communications Editor at Children's Hospital Boston.

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