Bullying has taken on a whole new and aggressive form, and it’s sweeping the nation. With constant access to computers, cell phones and other wireless devices, kids are able to instantly upload pictures, make comments, or send messages that are hurtful in nature – oftentimes without even thinking about it. With technology, there’s no “think” button: there’s just the option to instantly send, share or save, and this is causing major problems amongst teens and tweens in the United States.
Sadly, it’s hard to read the news without seeing some mention of a new cyberbullying incident or tragedy. While major studies are currently being conducted in this area to better understand it, what we do know is that an overwhelming amount of young kids and teens report being cyberbullied.
While the definition of cyberbullying continues to change as technology changes, the Cyberbullying Research Center defines it this way: “When someone repeatedly harasses, mistreats, or makes fun of another person online or while using cell phones or other electronic devices.” Aside from the overwhelming amount of articles we’re bombarded with on a daily basis, many parents want to know the down and dirty details about cyberbullying: What is it? Is my child a victim? And most importantly – what can be done about it?
Cyberbullying: It’s Not the Same as the Bullying You Experienced in Middle School
I once presented to an audience full of parents, and discussed cyberbullying at length, as it was a major problem in this particular school I was speaking at. At the end of the presentation, a father asked me, “Why did you spend so much time talking about cyberbullying? We were all bullied as kids, it’s a rite of passage and a growing pain we all go through. So why all the panic about it now?” While many parents were disturbed by this question, I think about it often. I realized then and there that people often roll their eyes when they hear about cyberbullying because they don’t understand its implications and that it is, in fact, much different than the bullying many of us experienced as kids.
I went on to explain my first encounter with a bully in middle school, who called me fat. That one comment stuck with me for years, and to this day I can tell you who said it and where it was said. This incident happened approximately 15 years ago, and if it happened today it would be a completely different experience. First of all, it was said to my face with a few of the bully’s friends standing around — it wasn’t broadcast throughout the school.
Secondly, as quickly as it was said, it was dropped; I walked away and it was never brought up again. Cyberbullying has revolutionized bullying, as these comments are posted in a very public forum, where hundreds – potentially thousands – of people can view what was said, and also add to the conversation! This bully could have sent out his thoughts via a mass text message which would have reached hundreds of other kids, or posted it on my Facebook wall where all of my friends and all of his friends would have seen this degrading comment.
Cyberbullying is fast, it’s vicious, it spreads like wildfire and it’s permanent. There’s no “walking away” from a Facebook post or a text message that’s sent to hundreds of others. Kids who have access to cell phones and Internet-ready devices see the bully’s comments immediately, sometimes far before the victim can see it or hear about it. It is the instant nature of this bullying and its ability to reach hundreds – or thousands – in a matter of seconds that sets cyberbullying apart from the bullying we may have experienced in school.
Is My Child a Victim of Cyberbullying?
Cyberbullying does not discriminate. No matter what type of community you live in, how popular or “good” your child is, or how great your kids’ friends are; cyberbullying can affect any child. With all of the technologies out there, cyberbullying can take many forms: a text message, a picture message, a Facebook post, an email, an instant message or comments on a posted video.
Complicating this is the fact that teens and tweens are often hesitant to open up to their parents if something is bothering them. Therefore, how do parents know if their child is being affected by cyberbullying? My advice: pay close attention, ask your kids outright, and check, check, and check again. Simply observing your child’s behavior can be very telling. Does your child’s mood change after they’ve been online or after they’ve been texting on their phone? While kids aren’t quick to disclose everything to their parents, they often aren’t good at hiding their emotions. If you notice a sudden change in mood, this may be a very good indicator that something has happened or made them feel sad and/or hurt. At this point, it would be a good time to talk to them; ask them what’s going on, and if there was anything that happened that they would like to talk about. If they don’t divulge any information, it may be time to take the next step, especially if you’re noticing a pattern.
You can always use software to monitor their online activities, but when it comes to cell phones, you’ll need to rely on what the actual phone reveals for more information. I have always encouraged parents to “check, check and check again” when it comes to technology. With the prevalence of cyberbullying, checking in what your kids are doing could not be more vital to protecting them. Some parents argue that checking these devices (computers, iPads, cell phones) is snooping, and violating their child’s rights; I argue that this is not snooping, it’s simply being a good parent. When I was younger my father called my friend’s houses to make sure that parents were there, that I was there, and that I was safe. Sometimes he called more than once, just to make sure that I was still where I said I was going to be. While this was annoying (and sometimes embarrassing), he was doing his job as a parent and checking in.
Now that so much activity happens online and on cell phones, this same principle applies. It’s imperative that parents look through cell phones and computers for clues about things such as cyberbullying, as it’s about protecting kids the best we can. Some parents will look at their kids’ devices privately without them knowing in hopes to catch them in some act. However, I recommend that this be an open process, where you let your kids know that you’ll be checking their devices for their safety, and that you’re not doing it to butt into their lives. This is an open and honest way to make sure that your kids know that you care, and that you have their safety and best interests in mind. Additionally, when it comes to cyberbullying, this can be your (and their) greatest defense against it.
I See Signs of Cyberbullying…Now What?
Whether your child has reported an incident to you or you’ve observed it through checking one of their devices, this problem needs to be dealt with immediately. Your first concern should be to check in with your child to make sure that he/she is emotionally okay. As we know, there have been some extremely tragic circumstances as a result of cyberbullying: from young kids committing suicide, to kids not being able to show up at school because they’re so embarrassed and/or afraid. The main concern is always the health and well-being of your child. While recovery and mending may be a long process, their mental state should be your very first concern.
Secondly, it’s time to make sure that this stops and something is done about it. Most recently in the United States, schools have been stepping up in helping parents to battle cyberbullying. Many schools can serve as an incredible resource for parents, and this could be the first place you turn, especially if this involves bullies your child goes to school with. Another option you have is to go directly to the authorities – the state or local police, or your local district attorney’s office. Oftentimes the authorities are able to take action and gather evidence quickly if further (legal) action is necessary.
Depending on the nature of the cyberbullying that you observe or are made aware of, it may even be an option to call the parent of the bully involved and work it out directly with them and the involved parties. This buddy system is a great one, and often times this is a very simple solution to get this cyberbullying to stop. Most importantly, cyberbullying can vary in degrees of seriousness, from things like death threats to calling someone a name; regardless, something that we may think isn’t that big of a deal may be making your child extremely sad or hurt, so it’s best to err on the side of caution to make sure your child is alright.
Preventing Bullying in the Future
As parents, it’s imperative to pay close attention to make sure that our kids aren’t victims or even participants in cyberbullying, as there can be major consequences for both. By having a simple dinner conversation with your child you may be surprised at how much they are willing to reveal. If your child keeps their emotions and thoughts to him or herself, it may require extra steps on your part, such as checking in on their technological activities, and/or talking to other parents. Checking all of these technologies constantly may be a bit overwhelming and time-consuming in this busy world we live in, but if you don’t check in on what your child is doing, then nobody else will. Cyberbullying happens quickly and furiously, so start checking today before the consequences are irreversible.
About Katie LeClerc Greer
Katie LeClerc Greer is the former Internet Safety Program Coordinator for the Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office, and former Intelligence Analyst for the Massachusetts State Police. Her nationally recognized Internet/technology safety programs have been delivered to thousands of students, parents, school staff and law enforcement agencies around the country. Katie is the Director of Content and Internet Safety at www.WhatsWhat.Me, a “kids-only” Website that provides safe, secure social networking for kids ages 7 to 13 and utilizes patent-pending facial recognition technologies, moderation and kid-friendly features. WhatsWhat.me is compliant with the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) and fosters an age-appropriate, “no-bullying allowed” community while teaching positive online behavior, Internet safety and related life skills.