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Parents Article: Cyberbullying

What is Cyberbullying?

In Northern Ireland 39% of Year 6 pupils and 29% of Year 9 pupils reported being bullied (Department of Education NI, 2011). While some of this bullying is what is considered to be “traditional” – verbal abuse, physical threats or exclusion – around two thirds of bullying is spoken or written (NI Direct, 2019). Much of this takes now place online or via mobile phones, which falls under the definition of “cyberbullying”.

Slonje and Smith (2008) defined cyberbullying as:

“aggression which occurs through modern technological devices, and specifically mobile phones or the internet.”

Cyberbullying is a real issue in Northern Ireland, as well. A report from June 2019 found that 22% of children in NI had recently had a nasty or unpleasant experience online. It was also significantly higher for girls – 27% – than for boys – 17% (BBC, 2019).  This type of bullying often presents a serious challenge for parents. This is because, unlike physical bullying the discreet nature of children’s usage of technology means that is can be much more difficult for parents, teachers or other supportive adults to notice it is occurring. Teachers in Northern Ireland described feeling a level of frustration in their attempts to deal with the growing and very complex problem of cyberbullying (Purdy & McGuckin, 2015).

Why Does Cyberbullying Matter?

Some have argued that because of a lack of physical presence, cyberbullying is “less serious” than traditional bullying. The advice to “just turn off” devices, block or ignore bullies however is insufficient. 

The effects of cyberbullying are no less serious than those of traditional bullying, though the two often occur at the same time. Grossman and Rapp (2016) noted that victims of cyberbullying were more likely to be:

  • absent from school;
  • depressed;
  • suffer mental health issues;
  • and other negative effects.

These may lead to negative physical health outcomes such as self-harm and in the most serious cases, cyberbullying has been linked to a victim being almost twice as likely to have suicidal ideation, and a perpetrator being 1.5 times as likely (Hinduja & Patchin, 2010).

One of the reasons that cyberbullying is particularly damaging psychologically is the fact that it is constantly in the child’s life. Unlike traditional bullying, where the home or other places might provide a “safe space”, with cyberbullying the victim may continue to receive text messages or emails wherever they are (Slonje & Smith, 2007).

Additionally, while children are usually very aware of who the perpetrator of traditional bullying is with cyberbullying, cyberbullies can remain “virtually” anonymous through the use of temporary/throwaway e-mail and instant messaging accounts, anonymisers and pseudonyms on social networking sites (Patchin & Hinduja, 2010). While children typically know (or suspect) who the perpetrator is, the layer of anonymity can make it challenging for parents or other authorities to identify them with certainty.

Another important distinction between cyberbullying and traditional bullying is the fact that the person carrying out the cyberbullying may be less aware of the consequences of their actions (Slonje & Smith, 2007). A report by Nottingham Trent University noted that cyberbullies are anonymous to the consequences of their actions online, which isn’t the case with face-to-face bullying. This may lower the barrier to entry into bullying behaviour, and explain why children that might never be involved in traditional bullying may take part in cyberbullying.

Importantly, the negative effects often harm the perpetrator of the cyberbullying as well. While the most serious harm is inflicted upon the victim, those taking part in cyberbullying also have negative outcomes. Nixon (2014) found that perpetrators of cyberbullying are more likely to report increased substance use, aggression, and delinquent behaviours. Therefore, it is important for parents to be aware not only if their child is being bullied online, but also if they might be taking part in it.

What Can I do as a Parent?

The PSNI give 5 tips – called Take 5 – to address cyberbullying. These are:

  1. Put down the mouse and step away from the computer….take 5 minutes to think!
  2. The internet and mobile technology are very powerful. But if misused, they can also be dangerous to yourself and others.
  3. When people act out of anger, frustration or fear things get out-of-hand quickly. Emotions create a situation where we click before thinking. We don’t think about how the person on the other end could misunderstand our message or our intentions.
  4. By not reacting and taking the time to calm down, we can avoid becoming a cyberbully ourselves. If you are the victim of bullying, speak to someone.
  5. What can we do for 5 minutes to help us calm down? Get some exercise, call to a friend’s house etc.

They also advise people to think very carefully about what they post online. Children should keep their online content private, but also be prepared for any images or messages they share to be viewed by the public. Talking to your child about the potential consequences of shared images or videos can be useful in preventing cyberbullying before it starts.

In addition to this, Family Lives, a UK family support charity suggests that parents look out for the following signs that your child might be being cyberbullied:

  • Low self-esteem
  • Withdrawal from family and spending a lot of time alone
  • Reluctance to let parents or other family members anywhere near their mobiles, laptops etc
  • Finding excuses to stay away from school or work including school refusal
  • Friends disappearing or being excluded from social events
  • Losing weight or changing appearance to try and fit in
  • Fresh marks on the skin that could indicate self-harm and dressing differently such as wearing long sleeved clothes in the summer to hide any marks
  • A change in personality i.e. anger, depression, crying, withdrawn

This is not an exhaustive list, but parents should keep an eye out for any sudden and unexplained changes in their child’s mood or behaviour. This is equally true if you worry or suspect your child is taking part in cyberbullying. In this case, it is important to talk to your child about the potential harm they may be causing. Children may lack the emotional intelligence or empathy to fully understand that the messages, images or videos they comment on, post or share have consequences. Your child may think that it is “just a bit of fun”. As a parent and an adult, you have the experience to explain the damage such behaviour can do.

If you discover that your child is the victim of cyberbullying, parents should:

  • Get their child to show them any distressing or messages, as well as any new messages that come;
  • Advise your child not to respond, and warn them that acting when angry can make things worse;
  • Tell them that the bullying usually ends when they seek help.
  • You should then see if the child knows (or suspects) who is bullying them, and contact the relevant adults. These might be teachers if it is a school colleague, a young group leader or other parents.

If you are concerned about your child and bullying, online or otherwise, you can contact Parenting NI for freephone on 0808 8010 722.

The full research article can be downloaded here. You can also listen to our accompanying podcast about bullying for some further information and guidance:

Parental Mental Health

In recent years, a great deal of work has been done both in Northern Ireland and more globally to combat the stigma associated with mental health issues. We now know that about one in five people will suffer a mental illness serious enough to require treatment throughout their lives (Mental Health Foundation, 2016). The exact causes of various mental illnesses are highly complicated – they are a complex mix of genetics, experiences in life and random chance.

Certain factors can make mental ill health more or less likely, or can increase or decrease the length of illness. One such factor is being a parent. Rates of clinical depression can be as high as 35% in mothers with young children (Smith, 2004). Being a parent is stressful, and when combined with other potential stresses like being a single parent, poverty or physical illness the likelihood of causing a drop in mental wellbeing, such as anxiety or depression is higher.

Being a person with mental ill-health is extremely challenging. There is an enormous stigma associated with being mentally unwell – despite concerted attempts to address it. Research has suggested that people with mental illnesses are among the most devalued of all people with disabilities (Lyons & Hayes, 1995). This is especially true of parents with mental illness. There is a perception that parents with mental illness are unfit or unable to parent their children (Bassett et al, 1999) in society. Such parents feel that the healthcare and social services systems treat them poorly.

Despite this, many people with mental illness have children. One study found that as many as 60% of people with serious, chronic mental illness had a child under the age of 16 (Smith, 2004). For those parents, there are a number of specific challenges, such as (from Bassett et al 1999):

* Their existence as parents was often ignored. Poor link ups between adult mental health and children’s services made it hard for treatment to acknowledge their parenthood;
* They feared losing custody of their children;
* If they were hospitalised, they were often traumatised by this;
* They are socially isolated;
* They worried about the care of their child if they became ill;
* They struggled to access help and support;
* They faced stigma.

For more information on the impacts and seeking support you can read the full report in the link below.

Read the full report

Click here to download the full article and find out more about the research around parental mental health. Our Support Line is also available on 0808 8010 722.

You can also have a listen to our latest podcast episode where we chat to Tinylife about their Positive Minds for Premature Parents project and talk to mums about their experiences with mental health after having a premature baby.

Active Dads: Parents Article on Dads & Exercise

Fathers play an important role in the lives of their children. Children who have supportive, close and positive relationships with their fathers do better mentally, academically and physically in life. In addition, studies have shown that children whose fathers embrace being a parent confidently have lower levels of behavioural issues as teenagers. Despite this, many fathers struggle with practical actions that they can take to have a constructive impact on their children.

One key area that fathers have been shown to have a particular role to play is physical activity. Parental levels of activity in general and supportive attitudes are important indicators of how active a child is. The most important single factor, however, is paternal activity levels. In other words, having a physically active father makes kids more likely to be active too.

Research has found:

  • a consistent relationship between the child’s activity level and the father’s activity level
  • results were the same irrespective of age or weight
  • children are twice as likely to be active if their mother was, but three and a half times more likely if their father is
  • dad’s physical activity had a bigger impact on girls than boys
  • children who have one parent who is supportive of physical activity are more likely to continue being active, and even more likely if both parents are

How do I do it?

The easiest and potentially most rewarding way to encourage physical activity in your children as a father is to include them where possible in the activities you do. The NHS has a helpful guide for how much physical activity is suitable for children of various ages:

  • Babies should be encouraged to active throughout the day e.g. When they begin to crawl, stimulating play is good;
  • Toddlers who are able to walk unaided should be active for around 3 hours a day. Active play, such as at a play park, ball games or skipping is suitable;
  • As children get older, from age 5 until 18, it is recommended that they are active for at least 60 minutes a day. This should be moderate to vigorous activity such as sports, running or other exercise.

Click here to read the full report.