By Charlene Underhill Miller, PhD
I remember the humiliation, even though it was long ago. As the lunch bell rang at school, a friend distracted and tied me to the tether ball post with a belt -and then left, laughing. He was a friend that thought it was funny, but it was mean. Thankfully, a teacher found me; my “friend” suffered consequences and was forced to apologize.
Many students report having been bullied – amazingly, most of them by “friends.” One study states that the risk of cyber-bullying is seven times higher among current or former friends or dating partners than among those who had never been friends or dated.
Bullying is defined as persistent physical, verbal, or emotional acts that create an imbalance of power which can have lasting effects on the victim (Nansel et al., 2001; Olweus, 2010). From 2002 to 2011, researchers reported the percentage of students involved in incidents of cyber-bullying ranged from 10% to 50% (Bullying Statistics.org, 2009; Kowalski et al. 2012), and girls are twice as likely as boys to be victimized.
Times are different now that bullying has gone virtual. My playground humiliation was observed and addressed. But students today are subject to humiliations that go viral through social media such as texting, Instagram, Snapchat, YouTube, Yik Yak, Twitter, and gaming chat rooms. Even though it may be very public among kids, it may be invisible to caring adults outside those social networks.
Cyber-bullying has exploded within the last decade, with parents and school administrators trying to stay ahead of ever changing technologies that kids often use differently. Whether the harm is caused by teasing gone out of control or by malicious intent, a victim never thinks it’s “just a joke.”
The effects of cyber-bullying are very much like when the school yard bully physically beats kids up or abuses them to their face. Cyber-bullying also leads to higher absenteeism and higher rates of depression. In one important way, cyber-bullying is different: sometimes the perpetrator remains anonymous. When this happens, the victim’s feelings of stress and powerlessness can increase dramatically.
Here are five ways to help you and your child deal with a frenemy:
1) Educate yourself.
Staying up with the latest form of social media is difficult. Chances are your child will not really want you to become informed. Sometimes it’s easier to get oriented to the latest platforms by one of your kid’s friends or someone else you know of that generation.
Asking your child or a peer to teach you may offer you an inroad to communication. “So, do you know anyone who has been bullied over these sites?”
Use empathy and caring language like, “Wow, that’s got to be embarrassing! How does something like this stop? Has this ever happened to you?”
How do I feel about learning the kinds of social media that young people use? Am I
inclined to assume that “cyber-bullying will never impact my child?”
2) Stay connected.
It is crucial that parents stay in touch with one another. Create a “village” of support where information and concerns can be exchanged.
Schools are often aware of the cyber-bullying and inappropriate content going viral. Stay in communication with school administrators who often share their latest concerns about bullying of all sorts. Take that information home to your child.
“Do you know what I heard at school today? I heard that someone posted some awful pictures about someone you may know.”
Your child now knows you have some awareness and you’ve created an inroad for discussion.
In the rare event that your child “friends” you on social media, you will become privy to much of what is going on. In the more likely event that your child doesn’t let you anywhere near their social media, you may want to enlist your child’s older siblings, cousins, youth leaders, or coaches to keep a watchful eye as your child’s social media “friend.”
Who can teach me about my child’s social media world? Who in my “village” can help keep a watchful eye on my child’s online activity?
3) Educate your child.
Talk with your child about the how “bullies”- virtual and otherwise – target their prey. Stress to your child the importance of watching out for their friends and make sure they know where to go and what to do if they see someone else being victimized. “Be a buddy, not a bully,” should be a mantra they know.
What would be my reaction to my child and what would be my reaction to my child’s bully if I were to find out that bullying is taking place? What might I say that would help my child feel that I have his or her interest at heart and that I will neither over nor under react?
4) Pay attention.
As our kids grow, a wider range of kids move in and out of their lives. Watch closely your child’s mood from day to day. Don’t assume your child is simply “going through a phase” if she of he starts to show signs of increased difficulty at school, heightened depression, anxiety, psychosomatic illnesses, truancy a desire to stay home, a sense of helplessness, or suicidal thoughts and gestures.
Do I write off my child’s mood to adolescence? Am I reacting to misbehavior rather than taking time to wonder what might be causing the misbehavior? What creative methods can I use to engage my child in conversations about what seem to be sensitive subjects?
School districts have policies in place to deal with bullying and malicious online behavior. If you suspect that your child is the brunt of such behavior, help him or her talk about it and assure your child that help is available, and that others can be
advocates. If serious, report the abuse to your school and potentially to law
enforcement. And then help your child build boundaries between them and the bully – physically and online. If your child is exhibiting anxiety, paranoia, depression and suicidal thoughts and gestures, make sure your child is seen by a local mental health professional.
If my child does not want me to tell the school authorities or otherwise get involved, what would be the consequence if I were (or were not) to discreetly do so anyway? How would I confidentially discuss my child’s experience with those who are in a position to help stop the bullying.