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Image credit cyberbullying.org

As parents, the desire to protect our children from harm is there from day one. But once they reach their tweens, it seems our kids are especially vulnerable. They’re on the cusp of adolescence, navigating the rough waters of middle school, dealing with so many changes in their bodies and minds. And in the digital age, it’s the time when another threat looms—cyberbullying.

The average kid in the U.S. gets their first cell phone and starts going online, including social media, at 11 years old, and that’s what opens the door to cyberbullying. Someone texts, emails or posts a mean comment, vicious remark or an unflattering photo or video—anonymously, of course—to a friend or two. Then they share it with others, and so on and so on, instantly creating an endless, inescapable, 24/7 loop of insults, nastiness and online bashing targeted at one very young, very vulnerable, very defenseless person. Just the thought of it breaks your heart.

And chances are, your tween or teen has been swept up in the tide. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 52% of students say they’ve been cyberbullied; 33% say they’ve experienced it online, 25% have been targeted repeatedly through their cell phones, and 11% have had embarrassing or damaging pictures taken without their permission.

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But even if your child isn’t a victim, that doesn’t mean they’re not very much a part of the problem: According to a Pew Internet Research Center report, 88% of teens have seen someone be mean or cruel to another person on a social network site; 66% have witnessed others joining in; and, alarmingly, 22% of teens who see online bashing say they have joined in the harassment themselves. But even the vast majority of teens who don’t actively side with the haters and trolls aren’t entirely innocent. Nine out of ten kids say they simply ignore taunts and cruelty when they see it. That passivity is a natural reaction, especially when you’re witnessing the bullying at a virtual remove and you simply don’t know what to do, but it has its costs: Joining the crowd of onlookers is exactly what bullies thrive on. The more views for their viciousness, the better.

I’ve thrown a lot of daunting facts and figures at you, but here’s a few more you should know. Studies have found that kids are who are heavy cell phone and mobile device users are more likely to engage in cyberbullying or be bullied themselves. And let’s face it, in today’s world, where tweens spend six hours a day on their screens and teens spend nine, that means they’re all vulnerable.

What’s a parent to do? We can’t close the door on cyberbullying, but we can keep it at bay. That’s one of the reasons I created Screen, an app that lets parents remotely enforce healthy time limits on all of your kids’ devices. Reduce screen time, and you’ll reduce the risks. But hopefully that’s just the start. Most kids don’t talk to their parents about cyberbullying; they keep it hidden. Make sure your child has an adult that they rust and can go to when needed. Start a conversation — about cyberbullying, staying safe, being a responsible digital citizen, and so much more.

By @TaliOrad