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Cyberbullying Prevention: What Parents Can Do

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It’s very easy for anyone to create a fake online profile and say or do mean things online. It’s easy for anyone to become a cyberbully. As parents, our children may face cyberbullying at some point in their lives. It’s important to know about cyberbullying prevention and how to deal with it when it happens.


See The Impact of Cyberbullying with Tina Meier for a complete transcript of the Easy Prey podcast episode.

Tina Meier is the executive director of the Megan Meier Foundation, a global bullying and cyberbullying prevention foundation. She formed the foundation after her thirteen-year-old daughter took her own life after being cyberbullied. She believes that even one child struggling with bullying, cyberbullying, or self-harm is one too many, and we have to be there to help and support them.

The Tragedy Behind Tina’s Cyberbullying Prevention Work

Tina’s daughter Megan struggled early on with depression, ADD, and self-esteem and was bullied in school. In eighth grade, she switched schools and was doing very well. She was on the volleyball team and was generally a happy kid.

Like everyone else her age in 2006, Megan wanted a MySpace. Tina let Megan create an account, but put rules in place. Then Megan met a boy. Tina asked if she knew who he was, reminded her never to give out her address or school name, and gave her other precautions, but eventually allowed it. Tina figured that she could be strict at home, but all Megan had to do was go to a friend’s house or the library to do it anyway. At least if Tina was aware, she could monitor it.

Megan talked with this boy for five weeks. One night, the messages turned mean. The next day, Tina had to take her other daughter to the orthodontist after school. She told Megan to log off MySpace before she left, but Megan didn’t. When Tina returned home, Megan was crying at the computer.

Tina saw the messages between Megan and the boy and two other girls who had gotten involved. They were saying horrible things about Megan, and Megan was defending herself by saying, “I’m not that, you are!” Tina told Megan that she was none of the cruel things they were saying, but defending herself by calling other people names wasn’t nice. Megan cried, “You’re my mom, you’re supposed to be on my side!” and ran up to her room.

Tina went into the kitchen, but twenty minutes later, she had a horrible feeling. She ran upstairs to find Megan hanging in her closet. The paramedics got her breathing again, but twenty-four hours later, Megan passed away.

The People Behind the Cyberbullying

The boy Megan talked to wasn’t a real person. The day after Megan died, his account was completely gone. Six weeks later, Tina found out that the boy was really Lori Drew, a mom who lived four houses down, her daughter, and another girl. The mom was the driving force behind creating the account and cyberbullying Megan. Apparently she heard Megan call her daughter a lesbian.

Tina knows Megan wasn’t perfect, but if that mom had come to Tina, Tina could have had a discussion with Megan about the behavior. But because the mom chose cyberbullying instead, Tina never got a chance to have that talk.

Why Tina Still Tells This Story

Though many parents find this story frightening, Tina doesn’t tell it to scare them. She tells it as a reminder to hear what’s happening and learn from it. She didn’t think her daughter would ever kill herself, let alone one floor up and twenty minutes later. Megan left no note, and Tina and the rest of her family were left to grapple with the tragedy.

The reason I still talk about this and tell this story is not to put fear in parents’ minds or scare them, but really to be able to hear what’s happening and how we can learn from it.

Tina Meier

One of the reasons this story is so fascinating to a lot of people is it’s hard to fathom an adult behind this. This other mom ganged up with her fourteen-year-old daughter and was acting like a teenager. Tina doesn’t believe they thought Megan would take her own life. But when she speaks about bullying and cyberbullying prevention, she says that even though this woman didn’t have that intent, the reality is that it happened. When you create fake accounts and say cruel things online, you don’t know what somebody is feeling on the other side of the screen.

When Tina found out who was behind her daughter’s cyberbullying, she talked to an attorney. There were no laws around this situation in Tina’s home state of Missouri. (She lobbied successfully to have that changed in 2008.) There was a federal trial in Los Angeles, because that was the location of MySpace headquarters. It became a case of United States vs Drew, the first case of its kind. There were many concerns regarding freedom of speech and First Amendment rights.

The case went to trial, and the jury found Lori Drew guilty of three of the four charges brought against her. But in 2009, a judge overturned the case on the grounds that everybody lies on social media.

From Seeking Vengeance to Cyberbullying Prevention

In the beginning, Tina felt only a deep sadness and a desire for vengeance. Megan had no clue who was behind it. Lori Drew and her daughter even came to Megan’s funeral. She couldn’t stop thinking, How could you do this?

But she also didn’t want another parent standing there. She didn’t realize cyberbullying prevention would be her path until Megan’s story came out and she started hearing from other parents, sudents, and educators. She realized she had to keep talking about it so that maybe somebody else wouldn’t have to be in her position.

We have to keep talking about this. Something has to be done.

Tina Meier

The next question was how to tackle cyberbullying prevention. She formed the Megan Meier Foundation in December 2007 to assist with that goal. Her first thought was to hold the social media companies liable or create a way to keep people from creating fake accounts. That ended up being unfeasible.

Her next step was to get laws on the books. Internet technology was growing so fast that there were no laws. She successfully lobbied to change the laws in her home state of Missouri, and other states were following suit. But the problem with laws around cyberbullying and technology was you had to prove who was behind the screen and their intent.

Though laws are important, talking to children about cyberbullying prevention is also essential.

Tina finally began to realize that while laws and policies are important, awareness and education is just as important. We have to work with students to tell these real-world stories and help them understand the issue.

While laws and policies are important and they need to be reviewed and updated … it’s this awareness and education of talking about real stories, real situations, to get kids to understand.

Tina Meier

Technology Rules for Cyberbullying Prevention

Tina recommends introducing rules around technology, especially if your child is young. Always talk about those rules with your child, though. Be open and honest – we’re doing this and here’s why – and write it down. If the child is older, have a discussion about what’s reasonable. It’s essential to have an understanding, contract, or whatever you want to call it, and post it somewhere.

The hope is that we can be more restrictive in the beginning to keep them safe. As they get older, we can start releasing that tight control. When they get into high school, we as parents need to have more trust, because when they move out they will suddenly have no restrictions and need to know they can handle that responsibility.

Tina’s Tip: Play Dumb

If you tell your child, “Here, listen to this story, this is why I’m strict with you about technology,” they’ll roll their eyes at you. But if you say, “Hey, I heard this story on the radio, have you heard it before?” they’re more likely to listen. Then it can lead into questions like, “What would you need if you were struggling like that? Do you feel like you could come to me? Are you worried I might ground you or take your phone away?”

Try to be open and have honest conversations. At the end of the day, you want them to be able to come to you with a crisis.

If They Don’t Want to Talk to their Parents

We’ve all been teenagers who don’t want to talk to our parents about certain things. But it’s essential for kids to have someone to go to. If they don’t want to talk to you, who would they want to talk to? A grandparent? Someone from church? A coach? A neighbor?

When we get into a car accident, we panic, and then we immediately grab our insurance card so our agent can help us deal with it. In essence, we want to give our children that – there’s a crisis, so what do they do? Write it out and put it in their bedroom, in their backpack, or another place they’ll have easy access to so they have options.

Cyberbullying Prevention Starts with Mental Health

Tina recently got a call from a parent concerned about their sixteen-year-old. The teenager is isolated, stays in their room at all times, won’t talk to their parents, and is glued to their iPad at all times. They don’t want to go to school, their grades are dropping, and they’ve stopped paying attention to hygiene.

That parent could take away the iPad that their child is glued to, but that doesn’t change the fact that something is going on. They could try talking, but it might not work. Tina advised emailing their school and teachers and find out how they are in class, and also taking them to a doctor and explaining their concerns.

If your child is showing symptoms of a mental health issue, cyberbullying prevention has to start there.

If your child is suffering from a mental health crisis, you have to deal with that before you can deal with anything else. Any concern with their health or safety has to be addressed first. If you can’t engage them in an ordinary conversation or get them out of bed in the morning, it may be time to address a mental health concern. Get them evaluated by a doctor and see if they need some kind of treatment – whether that’s a medication, therapy, vitamins, meditation, or something else. And remember that just because your child is struggling doesn’t make you a bad parent.

Because your child may be struggling does not mean you’re a failure.

Tina Meier

Cyberbullying Prevention Beyond Mental Health

Your child might have issues online without showing mental health symptoms. Take a deep breath, listen to them, and validate their feelings. That doesn’t mean you approve of everything they’re saying or everything they’ve done. All you’re doing is listening to them and validating their feelings.

Once you are able to say, “I hear you saying this, I hear that you’re upset, I hear that you’re embarrassed,” then you can say “How can I help you? What can I do?” You may be tempted to tell them they started it or if they’d handled it a different way this wouldn’t have happened. But all that will do is cause arguments. Listen and validate first. Then both of you will be calmer and you can work on it together.

Steps to Deal with Cyberbullying

As a first step, always get screenshots. If it’s a network like Snapchat where the sender knows if you screenshot it, use another device to take a picture or video. Once you have that evidence, block the person and report it to the internet service provider.

If it’s someone that you know, reaching out to other parents doesn’t often go well. Their kids will deny it, and parents want to believe their kids. If it’s something happening at school, you can take it to the school. If there’s a physical threat – self-harm or to hurt someone else – contact police with the screenshot. And if your child is really struggling to cope, talk to a counselor.

Communication for Cyberbullying Prevention

Open and honest communication is essential to cyberbullying prevention. If your child has ever talked about suicide or self-harm, it’s important that you be honest and address the issue. Dancing around it tells them you’re uncomfortable with it and they can’t go to you for help. If your child says they’ve thought of killing themselves, you need to be able to engage with them. Even if you’re shaking, you need to be able to say “I’m shaking, but I can handle this. We’ll work on it together.”

When children are small, we’re in control of every aspect of their lives. We don’t ask them what they need, we fix their problems automatically. But kids get older, and they’re getting technology earlier. We try to protect them by laying down the rules. When you take a “my way or the highway” approach and don’t allow discussion, your child dismisses you. They assume you don’t and won’t understand.

A more helpful approach is to communicate and connect with them when setting those boundaries. It’s not about letting them do whatever but want, but about communicating. Explain what rules you’re setting down and why. We need to communicate well before there’s a problem so we have those communication channels available when we need to think about cyberbullying prevention.

It’s also helpful to have at least a basic understanding of social media – what networks your kids use and how they work. You can get on YouTube and watch “TikTok for dummies” videos if you need to. Kids get creeped out when their parents are too into social media, but if they’re upset that the snap disappeared and you’re asking what a snap is, it’s difficult to have a conversation about these issues.

Cyberbullying is a Complex Issue

There’s no cyberbullying prevention magic bullet that will solve everything in one go. When kids are having trouble at school, parents often want the schools to fix it. Schools can intervene in simple cases, but they can’t be private investigators. In order to deal with these issues, they would need more than one full-time person who could instantly trace IP addresses and get instant subpoenas to do it, and that’s not possible.

It’s easy to fall into paranoia and try to monitor your child 24 hours a day, but that’s not possible either. Dialogues and open discussions over time are better than panicking and over-monitoring.

You’re going to make mistakes. Tina has made mistakes, and there’s some things she still can’t believe she did. But take a deep breath and give yourself a break. You can’t solve cyberbullying overnight. Take it one step at a time and open that dialogue with your child. Cyberbullying prevention starts with open conversations.

Tina and the Megan Meier Foundation can be found at meganmeierfoundation.org. The website has lots of resources, videos, and statistics, and anyone from anywhere in the world can call or email the foundation office. If you need support, the foundation will find resources and support available in your area. They don’t charge anything, and you can reach out anytime.

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