Online bullying challenging parents like never before

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Posted at 12:05 PM, Feb 23, 2022
and last updated 2022-02-23 17:55:28-05

TAMPA, Fla. — Social media is more popular than ever, especially with tweens, teens, and young adults. But it comes at a cost. 59% of teens say they've been bullied or harassed online and it's hitting everyone.

When Cheslie Kryst was crowned Miss USA in 2019, it was an incredibly happy moment and it led to continued success, as she became a TV correspondent for the show “Extra!"

But there was a dark side she struggled with behind closed doors even hinting about it on social media, recording a video saying, "Hey ya'll. I do a lot to make sure I maintain my mental health. And the most important thing that I did is talk to a counselor."

The former pageant queen also wrote an article in Allure Magazine revealing she was a victim of cyberbullying.

"I can't tell you how many times I have deleted comments on my social media pages that had vomit emojis and insults telling me I wasn't pretty enough to be Miss USA or that my muscular build was actually a 'man's body,'" Kryst wrote.

Tragically, it all got to be too much and last month she jumped to her death from her high-rise apartment building in New York City.

ABC Action News anchor Wendy Ryan spoke to a clinical psychologist about how social media can affect our mental well-being, especially when it comes to our young people.

"They spend more time online than they spend with their parents. They spend more time online than they spend outside. It's their main world now," said Clinical Psychologist Dr. Tracy Bennett.

She warned young people who experience cyberbullying are twice likely to attempt suicide. And with suicide now the second leading cause of death for those 10 to 34 years old she warned parents needed to know the signs a child's mental well-being could be in trouble.

"Are they showing irritability or depression or anxiety, especially when they go through withdrawal? After they've been on it for a long time, especially intense activities like video gaming, you'll see kids have meltdowns afterwards. And it's because their autonomic nervous system is getting over-aroused like they're in battle, and what goes up must come down. So then, they crash afterwards. And you see kids get really irritable and not able to cope," Bennett explained.

Bennet continued, "Are they seeming secretive or protective or jumpy? Like, do they change their browser, when you walk in? Are they isolating from friends and family? Or refusing to go to school? Do they have what we call anhedonia? Meaning that things that used to be really fun for them just isn't fun anymore?" Bennett asked.

There are other signs their self-esteem could be impacted as well.

"Do they complain a lot about their weight or their body image? Are they suddenly dressing very differently? Like, you know, hiding their face a lot, like putting their hair over their face, or hoods or wearing darker clothes? Or more baggy clothing?" she asked.

As a screen safety expert, Bennett realized young people desperately needed help staying safe on their own since many parents felt overwhelmed with the endless gaming platforms. So she developed online classes for tweens, teens, and parents about social media readiness and online safety called "Get Kids Internet Safe."

And she warns parents who just take away their kid's devices are doing more harm than good.

"If you are constantly yanking screen devices because you're mad at them, or they're not doing something, you're going to become the screen enemy. So I think what we have to do is accept that, you know, these devices are their whole worlds and when we yank it away all the time, they're not going to come to us, when they do get into trouble," Bennett explained.

Bennett said middle and high school students also need to learn it's not just online trolls that can be destructive to their safety.

"Let them know what predators do to groom kids and to earn their trust before they exploit them. So a lot of this stuff is kind of scary, right? We don't want to ruin the world for our kids, we want it to stay safe, and we want them to feel safe. But I think we need to get braver, and I think we need to start teaching them sooner," she added.

And since kids will fail in the online world just like they do in the real world, Bennett said parents need to learn how to help.

"If they're old enough to browse a browser that isn't child protected, then you have to have some hard conversations with them.

And then, we also have to lead by example. We have to get off our own screens and give them stuff to do, when they're not on screen," she said.

Along with the online courses Get Kids Internet Safe, Bennett also wrote a book called Screen Time in the Mean Time: A Parenting Guide to get Kids and Teens Internet Safe.