Monday, February 11, 2019

Parents know they need to work with their child’s school to prevent cyberbullying, but a new study from the University of Iowa shows many wonder how.

“Parents felt schools, children, and other parents all had responsibility for cyberbullying, but they were unsure when to report it,” says Rachel Young, UI assistant professor of journalism, who talked with parents in a series of focus groups along with Melissa Tully, UI associate professor of journalism. “Moreover, they were unsure whether it should be reported to other parents, schools, law enforcement, or the websites where the cyberbullying occurred.”

The questioning of these focus groups—eight of them, comprising parents of middle and high school students in the Midwest—is among the first efforts by researchers to look at parental roles in cyberbullying. Numerous studies have examined student, teacher, and school administrator perspectives, and others have looked at policy responses to the issue. But few have focused on parental responses to cyberbullying, particularly the family’s relationship with the child’s school.

“This brings a new dimension to our understanding of the parent component of cyberbullying and will help us develop stronger intervention approaches to engage parents and schools,” says Corinne Peek-Asa, director of the Injury Prevention Resource Center in the UI College of Public Health, which funded the research.

Researchers led by Young met with 48 parents recruited from schools in Iowa, Minnesota, and Illinois. They were provided hypothetical situations about cyberbullying involving their children and asked how they would respond to each. A paper summarizing the results, co-authored by Young and Tully, was recently published in the Journal of Youth Studies.

Young says parents were concerned about cyberbullying and wanted to take responsibility for helping their children navigate these experiences online. They knew schools could get involved, especially when cyberbullying affected students’ school performance. But parents weren’t always sure what policies schools had in place to address cyberbullying or the procedures parents should follow in reporting an incident to administrators.

At the same time, in a series of companion interviews with middle and high school children, students made it clear they preferred to handle cyberbullying themselves, without parent intervention. Parents understood this, recognizing that too much parental involvement could damage their child’s social relationships and possibly make the situation worse.

All of this added up to more uncertainty for parents.

“They know they should do something, but what? Go to the school? Talk to other parents?” Young says. “What they do know is that if they do the wrong thing, they could shut down communication with their children entirely.”

Young says her study suggests that schools and parents can build stronger relationships to combat cyberbullying. Parents need more education about when and how to effectively intervene, guidance in how to talk openly about cyberbullying with their children to prevent it from happening, and help in managing their child’s screen time.

She says school districts also should clearly define cyberbullying and what the district expects of parents, while creating procedures for people to report cyberbullying.