Beyond Cyber Hysteria – Part 2: Cyber bully busting

Did we buy our children a bike and drop them off in the highway? Did we ever not say, “Drive safely” when our children drove off for their first time after they got their license? Did we not tell our children, “Don’t talk to strangers” when they go somewhere on their own?
Mary Kay Hoal, cyber-bullying expert.

Whilst bullying is by no means a new phenomenon, the relative anonymity the online world allows, and the fact that nasty words and images posted online cannot easily be erased, has seen increased alarm over cyber-bullying. The Australian television show 4 Corners produced a harrowing and informative episode on this, which may be viewed here: The Bullies Playground.

How common is cyber-bullying?

Although only around 10% of teens say they have been bullied online, research shows that teens don’t tend to use the term “cyber-bullying” as they find it amusing. If young people are asked whether or not they have ever received abusive text messages, for example, more tend to respond in the affirmative. The real statistics for cyber-bullying may therefore be much higher. We also know bullying tends to peak both online or offline for children around Year 5, and again around Year 7 or 8: it is assumed this is because these periods of transition often increase anxiety.

Janice Turner wrote a perceptive piece on the impact even less directly hostile exchanges can have on vulnerable young people in the UK Times recently: When hatred comes to your home page. In it, she writes:

(my friend, a psychotherapist) says it is the ordinary stuff which devastates her patients, the photos of a sleepover to which you weren’t invited, your best friend ignoring you and chatting on someone else’s “wall”. And everyone will know, by how many friends you have, whether you’re a big, fat loser. It’s not even proper bullying, just crude kidult passive-aggression. But, boy, does it hurt.

Even so, her patients cannot stop themselves logging in. They have to look. And so the mean-girl snubs, the whispering behind hands, follow them home and upstairs into lonely bedrooms.

We think as adults we are tougher, that something as remote and notional as a chat room cannot hurt us. Indeed, it is a blast, a liberation, when talking online to say what you really mean for once, to make mischief, to dispense with uptight British niceness, or even assume the guise of an avatar, a pumped-up, better-hung version of our own weedy workaday self.

In the glow of our screens, safely at home, we think our egos are armour-plated. But there is no protection as we step on to the ten-lane superhighway of a billion heartless strangers. It can smart like hell, that withering rebuke from someone you’ll never meet…

Whilst certainly even being snubbed socially can smart, social commentator, author and academic Dr Karen Brooks cautions that we should not overreact to some of the exchanges that happen online in her piece on bullying published in The Courier-Mail:

A prominent television campaign to discourage cyber-bullying even describes “using harsh words” as bullying.

While it is important that we educate young people about this – the implications, effects and consequences, on perpetrator and victim – it is also important that we do not conflate normal child and adolescent behaviour with the type of bullying that can have devastating consequences.

Frankly, if a child cannot handle being teased (distinguishing intention is paramount) or the occasional “harsh” word delivered in an emotive moment, then we have another problem we need to be discussing.

Building resilience in our children is essential. We hear a great deal about “cotton wool kids” – those who fall over psychologically and emotionally as soon as they discover they are not as perfect, wonderful, clever or talented as they have been led to believe.

I agree that both building resilience, and setting sensible guidelines, is critical.

What can be done?

Rule number 1: Don’t punish the victim by denying them access to technology. Although it is tempting to simply switch everything off, research shows that sometimes girls hold back from telling adults about cyber-bullying because they fear they will be banned from using the internet. Rather than making threats, keep the lines of communication open and establish trust.

When I work with young women, I keep it simple. My advice to them is: ask yourself, Would you do this in the real world? Would you go to your local shops and hand out pictures of yourself in your bikini? Would you agree to become friends with some random who marched up to you at the cinema and wanted to start hanging out ? Would you stand up at assembly and yell out, “I hate Samantha, she is a fat cow!” This last example is used in the excellent clip “Talent Show”:

It is also important to get to know your child’s preferred cyber world;  you cannot offer advice and guidance if you are not familiar with the cyber-environment they are part of. I also like the idea of encouraging your child to connect  to a cyber-mentor, a trusted older person who can “Friend” them on Facebook, for example, and keep an eye on what is happening and step in and offer advice if needed. Most young people can identify at least one older person who they think is cool enough to want to allow “in”. I also like the idea of developing scripts with your child that they can use when things do go wrong. I have done this with a 15-year-old friend. When her Facebook “Friends” spoke to her in a disrespectful way on her wall, we worked through suitable responses she could use and settled on the following: “Hey guys, I get that you’re joking but I still find it hurtful when people use that kind of language about me so let’s keep it sweet – coolies? :)” It is amazing how an assertive statement, followed by an emoticon, can diffuse a potentially hostile situation!

If the bullying is full-blown, teen Tom Wood, a cyber-bullying survivor who now blogs on how to resolve cyber conflict offers the following 5 Steps:

1. Don’t respond to the bully AT ALL (It will make it worse, trust me;)

2. Save the evidence, whether it is text, images or websites (He provides instructions on how to do this at his site)

3. Block and Delete the bully from the service (Again, instructions are provided)

4. Report Abuse to the Admins of the service

5. Tell trusted people, which may be friends, adults, teachers, parents and police if necessary – as it is a criminal offence.

One of the biggest challenges schools I work with are facing is knowing how to respond to concerns over cyber-bullying, particularly as the inappropriate online behaviour is rarely happening during school hours as most schools use filters to block social networking sites. The New York Times ran an outstanding feature on this: Online Bullies Pull Schools Into The Fray. I would strongly recommend schools circulate this and formulate some discussion questions to share at a staff meting. Questions that I think worthy of consideration include:

  • Professor James, an education law scholar, is quoted in the article as saying: “Educators are empowered to maintain safe schools…the timidity of educators in this context of emerging technology is working to the advantage of bullies.”  Do you agree? What steps should schools be taking to ensure all students feel secure?
  • Should schools have the right to search mobile phones? What is your school’s policy on this?
  • The NY Times explains that Principal Tony Orsini caused a controversy when he sent a letter home to parents stating that “There is absolutely NO reason for any middle school student to be part of a social networking site.” Do you agree? Has your school offered parents guidelines on how to manage their child’s cyber usage?

Next week I will look at some of  the ugly elements of cyber world – including the proliferation of P*rn. The reality?  We need to deal with the fact that it is not a matter of if our child will see it online, but rather when.

To make a booking for me to present my new parent workshop on managing cyber world, please email me:

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