If you’ve ever wondered if bullying is on the rise, or if our kids are just ‘going soft’ and ‘need to toughen up,’ consider this: access to technology changes the game entirely. While once an issue kids could get a reprieve from by separating themselves from the physical presence of the social masses, there are fewer places to hide when technology is involved. Here’s what parents need to know about cyber bullying, and what can be done to protect our children.
Cyber Bullying: Definition
Looking for a formal definition of bullying is a struggle, perhaps because it’s difficult to put into words a succinct descriptor. Bullying, after all, seems to encompass so many details. Regardless of how the words come together, there are common themes among differing definitions:
- An Imbalance of Power Exists: there is a perceived imbalance of power between the bully and the victim. This doesn’t necessarily mean physical strength, though that might certainly be true, but could also be an imbalance in popularity, intelligence, and confidence.
- Behaviors are Directly Aggressive or Relational:
o Direct aggression can include physical violence (taking things by force, hitting, kicking, etc.) or verbal violence (name calling, making threats, teasing, etc.) aimed directly at the victim.
o Relational aggression includes acts like spreading rumors, ostracizing, and gossiping as a means of social sabotage.
- Behaviors are Intentional or Purposeful: when bullying occurs, the acts are no accident. The behaviors are intended or designed to be harmful.
- Behaviors are Repetitive: it’s sometimes difficult to differentiate between an action that was purposeful or accidental, but a repeat pattern of the same behavior(s) is an indicator of intention
Access to technology now provides youth with a platform to bully 24-hours per day, 365 days a year. The themes of bullying described above combined with access to technology is known as cyber bullying.
It’s not uncommon for a child to be both a victim and a bully. Statistics from the i-SAFE Foundation suggest that over 50% of youth have been the victim of online bullying and just about as many have admitted to being the bully. Of those who have experienced bullying, well over half do not tell their parents or another trusted adult.
Respite from the in-person taunting or threats diminish when kids can be reached via email or text messaging and have access to their own technological devices like cell phones and iPads. Remember the days when landlines were our most advanced technology and parents, if they didn’t deter the harasser from calling, to begin with, could screen out those calls for their child? Those days are long gone.
Maybe you also remember the days when time could be your ally? When a weekend, or summer break, might be enough time for a victim to fall off the bully’s radar, or for people to lose interest in the rumor? Those days are also long gone. Technology not only allows for word to spread faster but also to reach more people through social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook. Add to that, things posted on the internet have a way of resurfacing so the fear that the moment hasn’t passed, and that it may never go away, is not unreasonable.
Cyber Bullying: Effects on Mental Health
Bullying can have devastating, and long-term effects on the mental health of children. There may be an academic decline from an unwillingness to go to school and/or inability to concentrate on school work. Youth are likely to experience symptoms of anxiety (uncontrollable, excessive worry, restlessness, irritability, sleep disturbances) and depression (feelings of sadness and hopelessness, diminished interest in activities, loss of energy). The risk of self-harm increases (examples include cutting and burning) and in severe cases suicidal thoughts, suicide attempts and death as a result of suicide can occur as a result of cyber bullying.
Six Steps You Can Take to Protect Your Child
- Open The Lines of Communication: making sure to have open lines of communication with your child serves many purposes, starting with the avenue to address the scary statistic above about how many youths don’t disclose victimization. If it’s not the very first conversation you’ve had with your child on the topic, the likelihood that he or she will come forward in the future is greater. Those initial conversations on the subject are vital. Starting with an understanding of what constitutes bullying, traditional or cyber bullying, (use the points above to drive that conversation, if needed) and what your expectations are for your child regarding the issue. It is difficult for parents to stomach the thought that their child may be the victim of a bully but sometimes worse that their child IS the bully. Ensure your child knows he or she can come to you with any concerns on the topic (for themselves and/or others), and that there is a clear understanding of what the consequences may be should your child be playing the role of the bully.
- Appropriate Timing of Technology and Social Media: thoughtfully consider the timing that may be appropriate for your child to have access to their own technology (i.e. cell phones, iPads, etc.), social media (snap chat, twitter, facebook, etc.), and email accounts. There isn’t a specific rule around ‘right timing’. Instead, that’s a decision to be made by parents taking into consideration development and maturity of your child, as well as the boundaries you feel comfortable setting and enforcing (see next point).
- Set Boundaries Around Technology and Social Media: when the time is right, and you approve for your child to have their own technology and/or social media accounts, set the ground rules. Make a decision around when and how technology and social media can be used. Consider if there are times when technology and social media should be turned off and communicate those expectations clearly. Ensure there is an understanding regarding parental access to accounts as well. The article, Is Your Child Ready for a Cell Phone?, found on WebMD offers some additional points to think about when making this decision including information on development and boundary setting.
- Educate Yourself on the Abbreviations Used: countless statements are now communicated through abbreviations rather than spelling it all out. Keeping up with what it all means can be difficult. Check out Netlingo for abbreviation understanding. This will help as you are monitoring your child’s technology and social media, so you aren’t left feeling like you’re reading a foreign language. In addition to lists, there is a search option that will allow you to quickly locate a definition of the acronym you are looking for and the website is regularly updated.
- Take Reports of Bullying (Traditional & Cyber) Seriously: if your child comes forward with concerns about bullying, or concerns of your child bullying others are brought to your attention, take it seriously. It’s easy to say that kids need to “toughen up” but the truth of the matter is that if allegations aren’t taken seriously, the effects can be devastating. Not only does trust diminish and kids are then less likely to come forward in the future (with this and other issues that arise), but the long-term effects, as we discussed above, can be significant.
- Keep Proof and Report as Necessary: should an incident of cyber bullying come to your attention that leaves you concerned about safety make a report to law enforcement. Be sure to keep proof, to the extent that you are able, of the incident. Remember that accounts can be hacked and information changed or removed so keeping screenshots of text messages, social media posts and emails can be helpful should you have the cross that bridge.
Navigating the quickly evolving world of technology can be a struggle for parents. Technology throws a curveball in what you thought you knew based on your own experiences growing up. The most important thing is to keep the safety of your children in mind when making decisions. It may not win you the prize of the most popular parent, but you’ll sleep better at night knowing you’ve done what you can to protect your children.
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