How to Identify, Address, and Prevent Online Bullying

Categories: ASD and DD, Child-focused

October is National Bullying Prevention Month!

[This column was published in the Stoughton Journal on October 8, 2021]

Cell phones, tablets, and social media sites have been important sources of entertainment and connection for young people in recent years – and especially during the pandemic. Unfortunately, the increase in online activity over the past several months has created more opportunities for bullies, and many children and teens have become exposed to online bullying during this time. 

What is it?
Online bullying, or “cyberbullying,” involves sending or posting harmful content directed toward others using a digital communication device.* Cyberbullying affects students of all ages and can lead to troublesome outcomes, including low self-esteem and school refusal behavior / attendance issues. Examples of cyberbullying include your child having derogatory comments made toward them on social media, having embarrassing or compromising photos of them shared without their permission, being texted repeatedly despite asking the other individual to stop, or even being purposefully excluded from an online game or group. 

What are the signs?
Children and teens can manifest signs of bullying in different ways. Some children and teens may tell a friend or adult that they are being bullied online. However, sometimes they may choose not to talk about it. You may notice changes in their behavior, such as: 

  • Acting more withdrawn, isolating from peers or family members
  • Being generally more angry or sad, possibly more likely at times immediately after accessing technology or returning from school
  • Seeming nervous, particularly when involving technology or social situations
  • Engaging in school avoidance, refusing to go to school, and/or engaging in pleas not to attend school in the morning (including remote learning)
  • In extreme cases, some young people may engage in self-harm and/or suicidal ideation or attempts.

How do I prevent it?
Collaboration between the school and home environments leads to the most effective preventive measures for cyberbullying. Some ways to prevent cyberbullying include: 

  • Monitoring children’s and teens’ technology usage
  • Encourage ongoing, open communication. Encourage your child to come to you, or another safe adult, if they encounter issues.
  • Have conversations about cyberbullying: Keep the conversation open and non-judgmental. Discuss what cyberbullying is, what it looks like, ask if they (or a friend) have ever encountered anything similar, and discuss a few specific ways to address cyberbullying, such as: 
    • Let a parent or trusted adult know about the cyberbullying.
    • Tell the cyberbully to stop.
    • Block the bully from communicating with you.

Check with your child’s school to see if it has a social skills curriculum and/or antibullying program that proactively addresses bullying and uses specific language that most children can understand. If so, you can request information regarding the language and skills being taught at school and reinforce them at home.
Add parental controls to technology to disable features that may lead to difficult situations. For example, if the child states that people are “saying mean things to other people” on their game, you may choose to disable the chat feature on the game.

My child is involved with cyberbullying (as a bully, the targeted individual, or bystander). What do I do?
If your child is involved with cyberbullying, there are several actions that you can take. These may include the following:

  • Thank your child for disclosing this information to you. Let them know that you will work together to address the issue and that the situation will improve. 
  • Have the child describe what is happening to increase your understanding of the situation. For example, is it occurring on a certain social media site? Is it a peer at school, someone else? Have they tried anything to stop it yet (and – if not – let them know that is totally fine)? Have they told anyone else about it?
  • Inform relevant members of the child’s life (e.g., teachers, school psychologists, other family members) of the situation to increase support. 
  • Limit access and/or put parental controls on problematic technology.
  • If the bullying includes threats of harm, this may warrant contacting the police.

*Feinberg & Robey, 2010

By Whitney Kleinert, Ph.D., LP, NCSP, LABA, BCBA-D

May Institute is a nonprofit organization that is a national leader in the field of applied behavior analysis, serving individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and other developmental disabilities, brain injury and neurobehavioral disorders, and other special needs. Founded more than 65 years ago, we provide a wide range of educational and rehabilitative services across the lifespan. May Institute operates five schools for children and adolescents with ASD and other developmental disabilities. For more information, call 800.778.7601 or visit