Snooping through a teenager’s social media isn’t the best way to prevent cyberbullying — here’s what works instead.
At some point cyberbullying — the use of technology to repeatedly harass, threaten, anger, or shame someone — will affect nearly 80% of Chinese teenagers1. Similar numbers may be facing such abuse in other countries too. Victims are more likely to smoke, abuse alcohol or drugs, commit crimes and even hurt themselves2,3.
Fortunately, a recent study has determined a trifecta of parental approaches that can help lower risk of their teenagers being bullied online. These include maintaining open communication about online threats, not overly restricting social media usage, and refraining from snooping around a teen’s profiles4.
The individual impacts of each of these measures have previously been studied, explains Associate Professor Liang Chen, an expert in computational communication at Tsinghua University who led the study — but this is the first-time the combined impacts have been examined.
“Parents actually employ multiple mediation strategies simultaneously, so we wanted to investigate how the interactive effects of these strategies can influence the outcomes of cyberbullying experiences for young individuals,” he says.
In a 2017 study, which has been cited more than 360 times, Chen and then his co-authors found that children who interacted more frequently with their parents were less likely to be perpetrators of cyberbullying5.
Moreover, Chen determined in a separate study published the same year6, this risk was further reduced when parents practiced ‘active mediation’, which involves discussing media content and offering guidance on appropriate media use, as well as ‘restrictive mediation’, such as limiting children’s time and activities on social media.
To investigate the combined effects of such strategies on the likelihood of being cyberbullied, Chen and his co-authors — postgraduate students Xiaoming Liu and Hongjie Tang — surveyed 642 parents across China to find out the types of mediation techniques they most commonly practiced. They also included ‘non-intrusive inspection,’ which involves befriending their children on social media to browse their friend lists, interactions, and comments.
The researchers examined the issue by asking the parents to rate how often they did certain things, such as reminding their teenager not to reveal personal information online, restricting the type of platforms they can visit, and checking their child’s social media profile.
They then interviewed the respondents’ teenagers aged 13—18, to determine how frequently they made or received comments that were rude, nasty, threatening, or aggressive. They also asked the teens how often they spread or were targeted by online rumors, in order to assess the likelihood of them being cyberbullies or victims, respectively.
In their analysis, Chen and his team found that parents who practiced active mediation were less likely to have teens who were bullied or who were bullies. “Actively engaging with teenagers and creating an open and trusting relationship where they feel comfortable discussing their online experiences, while providing guidance on responsible and respectful online behavior is very effective at reducing cyberbullying,” Chen says.
Associate Professor Liang Chen has been studying has been studying cyberbullying to identify real interventions that can be used to help prevent victimization.
A similar effect was observed when parents weren’t overly-controlling and didn’t spy on their kids’ social media accounts. “Restrictive meditation shows teens they aren’t trusted, which leads to them resisting parental management,” Chen notes, “And high non-intrusive inspection may give rise to a sense of oppression.”
But the most effective way to minimize cyberbullying involves an attention to all of these elements Chen adds. “This integrated approach provides support, guidance, and monitoring while allowing teenagers to develop autonomy and self-protection skills.”
1. Editorial Department of China Information Security. Survey on Internet Use and Network Security of Chinese Youth China Information Security 102(6), 56–59 (2018) In Chinese.
2. Kowalski, R., Giumetti, G., Schroeder, A., Lattanner, M. Bullying in the digital age: a critical review and meta-analysis of cyberbullying research among youth Psychological Bulletin 140(4), 1073–1137 (2014) doi: 10.1016/j.compedu.2017.02.004
3. Zhu, Y., Li, W., O’Brien, J., Liu, T. Parent–child attachment moderates the associations between cyberbullying victimization and adolescents’ health/ mental health problems: an exploration of cyberbullying victimization among Chinese adolescent Journal of Interpersonal Violence 36(17-18), NP9272– NP9298 (2021) doi:10.1177/088626051985455911.
4. Chen, L., Liu, X., Tang, H. The Interactive Effects of Parental Mediation Strategies in Preventing Cyberbullying on Social Media Psychology Research and Behavior 16, 1009–1022 (2023) doi: 10.2147/PRBM.S386968
5. Chen, L., Ho, S., Lwin, M. A meta-analysis of factors predicting cyberbullying perpetration and victimization: from the social cognitive and media effects approach New Media & Society 19(8), 1194–1213 (2017) doi: 10.1177/1461444816634037
6. Ho, S., Chen, L., Ng, A. Comparing cyberbullying perpetration on social media between primary and secondary school students. Computers & Education 109, 74–84 (2017) doi: 10.1016/j.compedu.2017.02.004
Editor: Guo Lili