Your kids' smartphones may be putting them at a higher risk for cyberbullying

New research suggests that beneath all the emojis and pics of cute puppies, cell phones may be exposing kids to something darker.

New research suggests that beneath all the emojis, cell phones may be exposing kids to something darker.

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It seems to be a public mandate nowadays that everyone have a smartphone. But chances are, you didn't live your whole life this way. Even most millennials spent a good chunk of their childhoods in a world where the Internet was in its infancy, before the digital vines grew over our lives. But for the youth of today, not knowing any other reality can produce some profound effects. We're well aware of the dangers of cyberbullying – it's estimated that over one million Canadians, mostly those between the ages of 15 to 29, have been victims of it, but such attacks are not exclusive to this age group. As a new study finds, even younger children can be exposed to cyberbullying – especially if they have a phone.

The study, an abstract of which was recently presented at the American Academy of Pediatrics National Conference & Exhibition, focused on children 8-11 years old (in grades three, four and five), their cell phone use and their experiences. The study compiled surveys from 4,584 students, collected between 2014 and 2016. In total, 49.6% of all students had their own cell phone. The likelihood of cell phone ownership increased the older the students were: 39.5% of third graders, 50.6% of fourth graders and 59.8% of all fifth graders. Out of all the students, 9.5% reported having encountered cyberbullying. As expected, the general trend saw that cell phone-owning students had a noticeably higher risk of being bullied online, a statistic which was most significant in grades three and four. Furthermore, students with cell phones were also more likely to engage in cyberbullying themselves, leading researchers to suggest that cell phone access allows greater exposure to an already prevalent culture.

From their findings, researchers posited the idea that cell phone-owning students may have a greater chance of encountering cyberbullying due to the increased amount of time and access they have to the digital sphere via their phones. Phones are much more personal devices; they stay with the child, can be used at almost any time and offer more individual control compared to a shared family computer.

The Internet is far ahead of our legal system and lawmakers are struggling to find effective ways to handle cyberbullying, especially after the tragic suicide of Amanda Todd. Amanda Todd is by no means an isolated incident either; cyberbullying has been linked to suicide rates worldwide, with 78% of victims having been bullied in person as well as online. Even without such an extreme result, cyberbullying can leave a lasting impact upon the victim and it's not hard to imagine that younger individuals, with less maturity and resources, would feel the effects of it in a more powerful way. Further, it's been shown that cyberbullying can often have the harshest impact on both women and girls.

The conundrum continues for parents, educators and children: when avoidance is improbable, the best route seems to be education and management. There may be a happy medium though, parental control apps for children's phones are becoming more popular worldwide and there are many other apps for specifics, like ones that with help your child report cyberbullying. As more research is done and stories are told, knowledge of all the risks along with the benefits of the digital space might be the best way to equip parents and their children to handle its potential dangers.