New Bully on the Block
By Tracy Howard, Director of Guidance
Posted November 13, 2012
This article originally appeared in the Spring 2010 issue of Corridors: The HTS Magazine.
Name calling. Ostracizing. Taunts. Intimidation. No matter what form it takes, bullying inflicts emotional damage that can last a lifetime. And when it takes place in cyberspace, the effects are both more widespread and more devastating.
As parents and educators, we are well aware of the role wireless technology plays in our children’s social lives today. They text and tweet and poke and blog, day and night, with an ever-widening circle of friends. To a large extent, chat rooms have replaced rec rooms as the place to hang out.
But as CBC reporter Joan Leishman notes, sometimes “the chatter and gossip can spin out of control, slip into degrading abusive attacks.” -Cyber-bullying CBC News Online
An unwelcome offshoot of modern technology and the new ‘social media’ is an insidious form of bullying known as cyber-bullying. The National Crime Prevention Council (U.S.) defines cyber-bullying as the use of the Internet, cell phones or other devices to send or display messages or images intended to hurt or humiliate another person. It can include threats, sexual remarks, pejorative labels (hate speech), rumour and/or ridicule.
Unfortunately, it’s a problem that seems to be growing. Kids Help Phone reports that 2008 saw an alarming increase in calls about this issue. Schools across the country are also noticing a rise in the number of electronic bullying incidents being reported by students in middle and senior grades.
Cyber-bullying is characterized by three elements common to all forms of bullying: unequal power, hurtful actions and repetitive behaviours. But unlike the schoolyard bully, the cyber-bully can be hard to find… and stop.
According to Bill Belsey, a Canadian educator and expert on the phenomenon “Cyber-bullies can easily hide behind the electronic curtain of anonymity the Internet provides, can communicate their hurtful messages to a very wide audience with remarkable speed, and do not fear being punished for their actions, since it is usually difficult to identify cyber-bullies. In addition, cyber-bullying is often outside the legal reach of schools since the behaviour often happens on home computers or via mobile phones.”
Children who are the target of cyber-bullying may be too embarrassed or frightened to seek help. Many victims are careful to keep the situation to themselves, for fear that adult intervention will only make the problem worse.
There are several signs that parents can watch for:
• Change in overall disposition (a normally outgoing child may become moody and withdrawn)
• Change in eating pattern
• A sudden lack of interest in being with friends that continues for a period of time
• Not wanting to attend school (making up excuses not to go to school)
• A sudden disinterest in instant messaging or use of the computer
• An increase in stress and anxiety levels
Psychologists warn that bullying (including cyber-bullying) is one of the greatest causes of stress and anxiety among teens and pre-teens, hindering both social and academic development. While all forms of bullying can leave victims feeling humiliated and powerless, the effects of cyber-bullying can be particularly devastating.
So what can we do to help protect our children from online bullies?
To begin with, we can educate ourselves about it. There is a wealth of information available online. You can start at www.kidshelpphone.ca, www.cyberbullying.ca and www.stopcyberbullying.org.
Secondly, we can look for opportunities to ask questions and give children a chance to open up. In the car on the way home, while preparing dinner or watching television… any time you’re alone with your son or daughter. Keep your questions simple, general (directed away from your child) and age-appropriate. What is it like in the Dining Hall each day? Do you know any kids at school who are getting text messages they’re upset about? What happens on the playground at recess? Try not to overreact to any upsetting or disconcerting information you may hear. Pause, take a deep breath and keep the conversation going. Remember, you are gathering information about the world your child lives in and the issues they are facing when they are away from you. Be open to what your child is telling you. You don’t want to send the message that you can’t handle what you’re hearing. Teenagers can be particularly sensitive to perceived criticism and will quickly clam up if faced with a ‘negative’ reaction.
While it is understandable to be upset or angry if your child is being victimized, your reaction may be misinterpreted as disapproval or disappointment in them, for getting into this situation. On the other hand, going out of your way to validate your child’s feelings helps to make them feel safe and in control.
Once you have all the information, you can decide if
action is required. If so, outline your plan and, if your child is old enough, invite their input. This will give you a valuable opportunity to address any guilt, fear or anger your child may be struggling with. While you may be sure a
certain course of action will resolve the problem effectively, it is important to remember that your child is the one who will have to live through it. The more helpless they feel, the more sure they will be that the situation is just going to get worse. Talking them through every possible outcome will go a long way toward alleviating fears and making your child feel less isolated.
Most importantly, the message you are communicating to your children is that they are not alone. You are letting them know that you know what cyber-bullying is and you understand and care about their feelings. You are showing your children that, no matter what the problem, you can be counted on to help.
Now you can go about dealing with the problem together. The final step in addressing the issue is to focus on what your child can do. To combat cyber-bullying children can:
• Block the bullying individual (change phone number/email address/social network id)
• Talk to a parent, teacher and/or counsellor
• Save and print the offending material to review with a parent, teacher or counsellor
• Not respond to any communication other than to request that the bully immediately cease all communication.
These strategies can be effective whether your child is the victim or bystander of online harassment. Once the bully’s access to your child is minimized, it’s time to rebuild confidence, dignity and self esteem. Encourage them to seek out a new activity where healthy new friendships can be forged.
Fortunately, for most children the Internet is a wonderful place to learn, communicate and have fun. As parents, we often stand in awe of their effortless mastery of the
technology that surrounds them. But it is our responsibility to be vigilant. Stay alert for signs of stress and anxiety. Keep the lines of communication open. Together we will do whatever we can to protect our children from the new bully on the block.