Jenny, like many parents, didn’t even know what cyberbullying was when it happened to her son, Sam. To encourage other parents to start a conversation about the issues and support their children, she shares her story.
“I had always been careful about Sam having access to social media, even though all his friends were on Facebook,” says Jenny. “When he was 11 and asked for an Instagram account, I agreed because it seemed the ‘safest’ social network. He could share photos, and I could follow his account to check that nothing inappropriate was being shared, or said.”
Some weeks later, Jenny noticed a couple of odd comments on Sam’s Instagram from accounts she didn’t recognise. That night, she checked his phone and discovered countless Instagram direct messages and voicemails from two boys at school who were threatening Sam.
“I felt physically sick,” says Jenny. “They were threatening to kill him, commit horrific acts of violence against him, calling him every name under the sun.”
As soon as Jenny heard the messages, everything clicked into place. “It suddenly all made sense – his reluctance to go to school, newfound concerns over his weight and appearance, the change in his personality.”
The next day, Jenny sat down with Sam to talk about what she’d discovered. He told his Mum everything that had happened but begged her not to contact the school about it. Jenny wanted to contact the school and police, but also wanted to respect Sam’s fears: “I understood he was concerned that the bullying could get worse, so I told him I’d speak to his Dad about it, and we’d go from there.”
After talking with Sam’s Dad, Jenny decided she had no choice. “Given the nature of the bullying and the threats, I took the voicemails and evidence of comments into school. Fortunately, they took it extremely seriously.”
Jenny admits she felt as though she had failed her son, by not realising right away what was happening. “I spoke to other Mums in a Facebook group I am part of and asked advice. It was lovely to hear that I wasn’t alone, and I wasn’t the only parent to miss the signs.”
With hindsight, Jenny advises other parents to keep an eye out for small changes in a child’s personality. “Look for the signals that something is wrong, whether they’re more secretive with their phone, or making excuses why they can’t do things they normally do.”
After meeting with the school, the parents of the boys involved were brought in, and the matter was deal with. “Things are so much better now, and my son feels much more confident. There’s a huge sense of relief that this weight was lifted off his shoulders.”
These days, the family talks regularly about online safety and bullying. “The good thing now is that he realises he can tell me anything at all that is worrying or upsetting him,” says Jenny. “I’m so much more confident that I can support my younger children to deal with these issues.”