Children are experiencing cyberbullying and sexting at record levels, study suggests

Photo (c) Peter Dazeley - Getty Images

A child psychiatrist offers parents some ways to tactfully improve the situation

Parents who allow their kids to use a digital device have enough to worry about – getting their dopamine fix, falling prey to gaming addiction, and teens spending more time with their face on TikTok and Instagram than in a textbook. 

Those digital detours have led to a growing concern that a child’s mental health is at greater risk because of what they encounter online than ever before. A new report by Bark – a company that produces phones, apps, and internet monitoring devices to give parents more power over what their children see and who and what can communicate with them online – echoes that sentiment, showing that the menacing tweens and teens endure is hard for any parent to imagine. 

  • A third think about self-harm suicide: 35.7% of tweens and 64.3% of teens were involved in a self-harm/suicidal situation online in 2022 

  • More than half shown sexual images: 62.4% of tweens and 82.2% of teens encountered nudity or content of a sexual nature, and

  • Four of five are being bullied: 71.2% of tweens and 83.3% of teens experienced bullying as a bully, victim, or witness. Alerts for cyberbullying range from mean-spirited teasing to hateful threats and provoking statements.

Sex crimes running rampant

Underneath the statistic about sexual content lies greater concerns, according to research from Thorn. In studying the topic, Thorn said it had heard from some kids as young as age 9 being solicited online to send nudes. Among all kids who have shared their own nudes, 43% confessed they had shared them with someone they didn’t even know.

The FBI has also sounded the alarm about sextortion – an eruption in incidents of minors being pressured into sending explicit images online and, then, extorted for money. Last year, a disturbing 7,000+ sextortion reports were filed with law enforcement agencies, resulting in at least 3,000 victims, primarily boys, and more than a dozen suicides

How parents can get ahead – and stay ahead

While the stats are troubling and there are apps and phones like the ones that Bark offers, parents still have to make the effort to safeguard their children. To find out what parents should keep an eye out for, ConsumerAffairs asked adolescent psychiatrist Larry D. Mitnaul, Jr., MD, MPH, MS for his insights.

“It is difficult, if not impossible at times if we [parents] are not in the habit of monitoring our child or teen’s presence online. The situation can be especially tough if children are on devices or social media platforms and parents are unaware,” he said.

“As the adage goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. The first step is having safeguards on devices that a child or teen may be using – preferably ones that have the capacity to send parental alerts if concerning messages are being shared.”

Anyone who’s been a parent knows the fragility of trying to have a discussion with a tween or teen, but Mitnaul says parents can ease into the discussion by beginning with a question rather than an accusation such as “can you help me understand what’s been going on?”

“Children and teens are likely to balk at any perceived intrusion into their use of social media. It can be helpful for parents to recognize that the consequences of bullying on social media (such as suicidal ideation or withdrawal from healthy connections and activities) are worth the trouble.”

Tackling potential cyberbullying

When it comes to cyberbullying, Mitnaul said the characteristics he suggests parents put on their radar are simple:

  • If they see their child going through big emotional changes such as feeling angry, overwhelmed, or sad after being on a device or social media.

  • They notice their child tries to keep their use of devices at home secretive (outside of typical hours or in common spaces at home for example).

  • Uncharacteristic changes in behavior without evidence of changes in school, peer relationships, or home life start to show up.

  • The child deletes certain social media accounts or opens new ones – a “cure” that teens tend to use when they’re experiencing anxiety on social media.

  • If they seem anxious or startled when receiving a notification, text, email, or message.

For the parent who receives an alert about potential bullying, he suggests parents remind their child that although they may discover things about their social media usage they would rather hide, your goal is to help them by safeguarding their reputation.

“Bullying, like other wounds, tends to worsen if kept hidden while being continuously reinjured,” he concluded.

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