SOUTH PORTLAND — Bullying has long been a concern in our schools, and in today’s social media-obsessed culture, instances of cyberbullying have increased alarmingly. According to a Harris Poll commissioned by the National Crime Prevention Council, nearly 43 percent of kids have been bullied online, and 25 percent of those have experienced bullying more than once. With statistics like this, it is more important than ever that all of us – parents, teachers and administrators alike – do what we can to create safe environments for our kids to learn and grow.

In my first weeks at Maine Connections Academy, Maine’s first statewide virtual charter school, I’ve gotten to know our students and why they chose to enroll in our school. These students and their families are drawn to Maine Connections Academy for a variety of reasons, including flexible schedules and the freedom to work at their own pace, but many have also chosen Maine Connections Academy because of a previous history with bullying. In fact, in a recent academy parent survey, 14 percent of parents indicated that “bullying in a previous school” was their most significant reason for enrolling their child in online school.

Cyberbullying is defined by StopBullying.gov as “bullying that includes sending, posting or sharing negative, harmful, false or mean content about someone else online.” Cyberbullying can be hard to monitor, since the bulk of it happens online, but this form of bullying can have real-world consequences. According to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, students who experience bullying are at increased risk for poor adjustment at school, sleep difficulties, anxiety and depression.

Bullying prevention is an important conversation for us to continue to have with students throughout the year. Here are some of the tips we give families at Maine Connections Academy to identify and prevent cyberbullying:

Keep an eye out for warning signs. Pay attention to your child’s online activity. Warning signs that your child may be a victim of cyberbullying include: a sudden change in device use, extreme emotional responses to what’s happening on their device, avoidance of social situations, hiding their screen from others and becoming withdrawn or depressed.

Open communication. Make sure you’re aware of all sites, apps and digital media that your child is using. Have conversations with them about what they’re doing and who they’re interacting with online. This also includes a discussion about how they represent themselves to others online.

 Establish clear rules for online activity. As part of your open dialogue about online activity, make sure your kids know what sites or types of content are off limits. Make it clear that your intentions are for their safety and well-being.

 Promote in-person peer relationships. Provide your child with opportunities to connect with his or her peers without a screen involved. Encourage them to participate in field trips or other school-sponsored social activities and provide opportunities for them to connect with classmates outside of school. Show them that they have support not only from their parents and teachers, but also from their peers.

 Educate them on the subject. Make sure your kids understand what cyberbullying is and talk to them about appropriate online behavior. A good rule of thumb is that they should never post, share or say anything about someone online that they wouldn’t say to them in person.

 Encourage them to speak out. Other kids are often the ones most likely to see instances of cyberbullying happen. Talk to your kids about what to do if they see someone being bullied and encourage them to stand up against it. Encourage them not to participate or retaliate if they see a peer being bullied and make sure they know who to quietly report the incident to, like a parent, teacher or administrator. Finally, push them to reach out to and support peers they see being bullied, showing them that they’re not alone.

If we work together as a community and keep an eye out for signs of cyberbullying, we can help provide a safer and more supportive environment for all students to learn and grow.