How to combat cyberbullying

How to Combat Cyberbullying


By: Carolyn Jabs

Contrary to what most parents assume, the biggest threat kids face online is likely to come from peers instead of predators. Recent research from UCLA is startling. Three quarters of teens say they have been harassed or bullied online. In addition to name-calling and insults, students report threats, stolen passwords, malicious gossip, and the publishing of compromising photos.

Cyberbullying differs from traditional bullying because its impact is exponential. Children feel as though their weaknesses have been exposed not only to their classmates but also to the entire world. Victims can’t avoid their tormentors, because messages can pop up any time on cell phones, through instant messages, or on social networking sites. In some cases, students have been so overwhelmed that they have retaliated with violence or even committed suicide.

For the most part, this meanness goes on under the radar of adults. In the UCLA study, only one in ten children spoke up about the problems they were having online. Kids don’t confide in parents because they assume it will get their cell phones confiscated or their Internet access restricted. They don’t talk to school officials for fear of antagonizing the bullies and making the problem worse.

Even though young people have little confidence in adults’ ability to respond effectively to online problems, there are proactive things parents can and should do to help young people have a positive experience online. For starters, don’t assume you know the role your child plays online. Many adults oversimplify bullying and assume that problems will be resolved by punishing bullies, sympathizing with victims, and ignoring bystanders.

Actually, many kids take on different roles on different occasions and in different settings. The same child may leave a nasty message on someone’s Facebook page and then be deeply upset by an anonymous text message questioning his sexuality. She may laugh when a peer’s face shows up atop a naked body and feel deeply anxious about whether the same thing will happen to her.

Adults can prevent some of this by reiterating sandbox rules. Play nice. Don’t hurt — or let other people hurt — vulnerable people. Don’t say something behind someone’s back that you wouldn’t say to his or her face. Still, these obvious real-world rules don’t always translate into virtual environments. Here are some other ways parents can help:

Don’t disconnect. Kids don’t tell adults about harassment because they are afraid of losing online access. Make it clear to your child you want to work through — not avoid — online issues. If there’s a problem, you will help them figure out a solution that keeps them connected — and safe.

Initiate conversation. Don’t ask directly whether your child has been a bully or a victim. Instead, mention that you’ve been reading about this problem and wonder whether it’s happened to anyone your child knows. Listen to what your child says. Ask questions about what he or she thinks. Why did the situation happen? What could either side have done differently? Is it an ongoing problem? If you hear about something that calls out for intervention, work with your child to identify possible solutions. You can find helpful suggestions at sites that include cyberbully.org and cyberbullying.org.

Bust myths. Some kids (and adults for that matter) are under the mistaken idea that a certain amount of bullying is an inevitable part of childhood and can actually be good for people because it “toughens them up.” The mother of one suicide victim says bluntly that that’s “like saying rape is part of marriage.” The best way to undermine such assumptions is to create a “bully-free zone” in your own home. Don’t engage in or permit name-calling or teasing that hurts feelings. Be sure siblings aren’t bullying each other when you aren’t around. Create a climate of mutual respect, support, and encouragement.

Nurture empathy. Many experts think bullying gets out of hand online because kids don’t witness the pain of their victims. Reading age-appropriate stories about bullying is one way to put a face on bullies, victims, and bystanders. (An annotated list of promising books is available from the Anti-Defamation League (http://tinyurl.com/58n8r4). Although most stories for young people deal with off-line bullying, there are exceptions. Letters to a Bullied Girl: Messages of Healing and Hope demonstrates that, for all its power to hurt, online communication can also be compassionate and empowering. You may also want to share the very effective public services announcements about cyberbullying that were created by the Ad Council and available on YouTube.

Discourage sex talk. The most hurtful online harassment often involves sexuality. This isn’t surprising. Adolescents are trying to make sense of changing bodies and emerging feelings, so they are especially vulnerable. Talk to your teen about the importance of sexual privacy. For themselves, that means not posting provocative pictures or confiding sexual feelings online. For others, it means not making derogatory remarks about appearance, spreading rumors about behavior, or spreading degrading photos.

Strengthen healthy social networks. Children who have plenty of real-world opportunities to be with people who care about them are less likely to become bullies and more able to recover from episodes of harassment. Make your home a welcoming place for your child’s friends. If your child is having trouble finding his or her niche at school, help make connections to church groups, community teams, or volunteer organizations.

Many experts are convinced that regardless of whether they are bullies, victims, or bystanders, the habits young people learn online will have lifelong implications. That’s why parents need to take the long view. Learn as much as you can. Talk with your child and his or her friends as often as you can. Most important, develop the kind of caring, supportive, rewarding connections with other people that will inspire your child to do the same thing, both online and off.

Carolyn Jabs, M.A., has been writing about families and the Internet for over fifteen years. She is the mother of three computer-savvy kids. Other Growing Up Online columns appear on her website, www.growing-up-online.com.

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