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  • Writer's pictureRachel Packer

Sticks and Stones: Youth and cyber-bullying in the age of technology

When we think of bullying- teasing, rumors and even physical fights come to mind. The old taunt “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me” is updating to version 2.0 — in this day and age of technology, words are becoming increasingly hurtful with the rise of cyber-bullying. Many children have access to electronics and social platforms, allowing multiple opportunities for this type of bullying to thrive.

In posting the information below, it is my hope to bring more awareness to what cyber bullying entails, as well as tips to to prevent, help and heal if your child suffers it’s consequences.

1. What is cyber bullying?

Cyberbullying is a term used to describe a range of hurtful behaviors that occur through technology like social networking profiles, video/ image sharing, blogs, e-mails, instant messaging, and/or texting. While bullying may involve face-to-face confrontations, rumors or teasing, cyberbullying is done electronically- where damaging material can be quickly distributed to many people.

Some examples of cyber bullying:

  • Spreading harmful and/or untrue rumors online meant to damage a reputation.

  • Excluding a person on purpose from a chat or group.

  • Sending one or multiple angry, cruel or vulgar messages to someone.

  • Recording a "prank" or "joke" on someone while others record to post online.

  • Sending hurtful and insulting online messages targeting an individual.

  • Pretending to be someone else, then posting the material online. (i.e. Catfishing)

  • Sending or posting material (i.e. message and images) online about a person that contains sensitive, private, or embarrassing information.

2. How “at risk” is my child?

Research has shown that cyberbullying increases in middle and high school. Statistically, this is no surprise, as over 80% of teens use a cell phone regularly. Data from the Cyberbullying Research Center reveals that approximately 20% of teens from ages 11 to 18 have been victimized by or engaged in cyberbullying.

Adolescents and teens are already at a developmentally sensitive place where self- esteem is fragile and social nuances like tone of voice are easily misconstrued. On the internet, all non-verbal cues we use to convey meaning are gone—meaning it is even easier to leave things up to interpretation

More concerning, 81% of young people think bullying online is easier to get away with than bullying in person. In a New York Times article, seventh grade girls interviewed in New Jersey stated that: “We had so many fights … [but] none of them were face-to-face. We were too afraid. Besides, it’s easier to say ‘sorry’ over a text.” Another concurred. “It’s easier to fight online, because you feel more brave and in control,” she said. “On Facebook, you can be as mean as you want.”

It is statements like the ones above that expose an underlying danger- social media gives the “protection” of anonymity. As cyber-bullying almost always occurs outside of school and most severely on weekends, academic discipline codes say little about a school’s authority over a student’s use of personal technology. This emphasizes how important it is for parents to take the lead in educating, monitoring and protecting their children regarding social media.

3. What if my child doesn’t ask for help?

When our children are suffering we, as parents, naturally want to stop the hurt as fast as possible. Yet statistics from the 2012 Indicators of School Crime and Safety show that an adult was notified in less than 50% of bullying incidents.

In situations where your child might be embarrassed or afraid of your reaction, it is almost always better to slow down and listen to your child instead of immediately jumping to “rescue mode”. This demonstrates respect for your child and instills empowerment, helping them learn and gain problem-solving skills.

Some common signs of a bullying victim are:

  • Complains of physical ailments (i.e. stomach ache), feeling sick or faking illness in order to avoid school or a social event.

  • Changes eating habits, like suddenly skipping meals or binge eating.

  • Has difficulty sleeping or frequent nightmares.

  • Has a decline in grades.

  • Has a sudden loss of friends.

  • Shows a decrease in self esteem.

  • Engages in self-destructive behaviors such as running away from home, harming themselves, or talking about suicide.

4. What do I do if my child is the bully?

If you suspect or hear that your child is being hurtful to others online, have an open conversation without blame, guilt or shame. Emphasize that bullying is cruel and that everyone should be treated with respect. Focus on the need to treat others as they would want to be treated.

Your child may be bullying others if they:

  • Have friends who bully others.

  • Blame others for their problems.

  • Don’t accept responsibility for their actions.

  • Are competitive and worry about their reputation or popularity.

  • Have unrestrained access to technology or social media.

5. How can I prevent cyberbullying from happening?

Children with parents who are actively and positively involved in their lives engage in less risk-taking behavior in general and are better prepared to respond in a healthy way to negative situations.

Below are some quick tips on how to make the internet safer for your child:

  • Keep the computer in a common area of the home so you can easily see which sites your child is frequenting.

  • Become familiar with Facebook, MySpace, and Twitter. Ask your children if they will show you their profile pages.

  • Talk with your children about online issues. Let them know they can come to you for help if anything is inappropriate, dangerous or might be classified as bullying.

  • Establish trust. Let your children know that they will not be punished for being honest with you about what they experience online.

  • Discuss rules for online safety and Internet use. Set time limits for being online and explain your reasoning with them. Ask your children to contribute to establishing the rules.

  • Ask questions about common abbreviations or lingo used online.

6. How can parents protect their children against cyberbullying?

It might be tempting to think the solution is just to take away phones, ban the latest problematic social network site, or delete social media altogether. However, when one social outlet gets banned, bad behavior can just move elsewhere (i.e. to ever evolving new sites or apps). It's important to encourage your child to talk to you, but also respect and honor your child's decision to resolve situations independently.

Generally, try to:

  • Help your child develop conflict resolution skills.

  • Encourage your child to take responsibility for their actions in all areas of their life. Emphasize that saying “sorry” has less value online.

If the bullying does not stop:

  • Contact the caregivers of the bully. This may be uncomfortable and awkward, however, it is essential that they are aware and involved in their child’s online activity.

  • Contact the child’s school if you believe that the bullying is occurring on school property.

  • If your child is the bully, consider setting firm boundaries regarding how and when social media will be accessed, if at all.

  • Call an attorney or the police if your child is in danger.

Overall, the stronger a child’s self-image is, the less vulnerable he or she is to bullying. Sameer Hinduja, Co-Director of the Cyberbullying Research Center states that “Everything hinges on the messages we tell ourselves and the beliefs we internalize about the adversity we face.”

If your child is struggling with adversity, social or communication issues, seeking the help of a counselor is an excellent way for your child to develop resilience and learn tools that improve social, communicative and emotional skills. Resources:

• ConnectSafely: A parent’s guide to cyberbullying.

• Desoto Times-Tribune: Cyberbullying is the coward’s way.

• New York Times: Online bullies pull schools into the fray.

• National Crime Prevention Council: Parents can help stop cyberbullying.

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