by Lela Davidson
Bullying is not new, but so-called cyber-bullying is forcing parents to address this age-old problem in a new way. In Bentonville, Ark., three high school students were arrested earlier this year on a charge of sending harassing communications, a Class A misdemeanor. Their crime: publishing vulgar and derogatory rumors via the Twitter account @Burnbook10. Theirs is not an isolated case, and bullying that happens online can be especially vicious.
Dawn Spragg, a licensed counselor working with teens and their families, sees a lot of teens dealing with online bullying. She believes there are several things that make social media such a potent force for bullies, including the speed that information is shared, the scale of communicating with so many people at once, and the ability to share photos and video – even if they’re not real. Not only have the methods of bullying changed, but also the bullies themselves, and their targets. “No one is safe from this new approach to bullying,” Spragg says. “Popular or cool kids were not subjected to bullying in the past, but now anyone can pick on anyone from behind a computer screen. You don’t have to be able to back it up.”
While social media can contribute to bullying, limiting access to electronics is not the answer, says Spragg. “Kids have access to computers and phones 24/7 in other places,” she says. “If you take it away, they will go somewhere else.” Sharon Cindrich, author of Smart Girls Guide to the Internet and syndicated column Plugged In Parent, agrees: “Limiting screen time? That’s like asking whether keeping kids from playing on the playground will stop them from being a bully.”
According to Brad Reed, director of student services for Bentonville school district, where the students were arrested for harassing other students, virtual bullying is more destructive because of the immense damage it does to a person’s self-concept, ego, and self-worth. “Today, cyber-bullying can be broadcast not just down the hall but across an entire school, community, and even around the world in just seconds,” he says. “What used to be an isolated act of humiliation, now intensifies that humiliation exponentially. Cyber-bullying goes far beyond the physical damage of the past; it destroys the heart and mind of the victim, sometimes in ways that are irrevocable.”
While social media may be driving the number of bullying acts upwards, Reed says response is more aggressive today. She offers parents these bully-prevention strategies.
Know Your Child
Protecting your kids is an inside job. Do whatever it takes to understand your child and the world they live in – whether that means eavesdropping, reading their texts, or lurking on their social media pages. Make it your job to be the first to know if your child is a bully, or a target. Knowing your child deeply will also help you identify when something has changed, because there is not really a way to get ahead of the technology.
Adolescence is a difficult time, and it’s very easy for middle school and high school kids to get caught up in bullying without even knowing what they are doing. Cindrich says the best way to prevent kids from becoming bullies is monitoring and guidance. “It has to start early, with supervision of emails and instant messages and online gaming,” she says, “and then continue as parents monitor online Internet surfing, check kids’ texts and talk regularly to [their] kids about friends and school.”
Set the Example
“Parents have to model good neighbor behavior and be aware of the way they talk about friends, relatives, teachers, neighbors, politicians – everyone,” says Cindrich. “A parent’s habits and social behavior have a strong impact on their child’s social learning, especially in the tween and teen years.”
Cindrich says bullies often leave an online trail that law enforcement and public safety officials can easily track. Make sure you keep records and print out any messages for future reference. According to Reed, the trend nationwide is to take a more aggressive stance against bullying: “The days of ignoring bullying or downplaying it as something that is not that serious or just what everyone [except the bully] must endure are long gone.
We more fully understand the destructive nature of bullying now and the long-term damage that results from it.”
Spragg warns parents against trivializing what people say about their kids. Something that parents think is not a big deal can be devastating to a teen. “It’s important to validate the pain and embarrassment,” she says. New laws and policies support prosecution of bullies, but only when it is reported. Reed agrees: “Bullying thrives on fear and secrecy, so parents should try to help children overcome the fear and bring these acts to everyone’s attention.”
Spragg encourages counseling to help teens deal with the pain of being bullied and to validate their feelings. “[They need] to talk to someone about what happened to them or what is being said about them,” she says. Spragg also suggests mediation with the bully. “If this is done well, it can move victims to a place of healing.”
Not comfortable that your kids 12 and younger are just dying to be on Facebook? Everloop.com is a safe, free alternative social networking site for ages 8-13. It offers parental monitoring and claims “the most comprehensive privacy protection” to guard against bullying, bad language and other worries. Launched in 2011, the site is projected to have 1 million users by 2013. Hilary DeCesare, chief executive officer and co-founder of Everloop, gave Atlanta Parent these tips for keeping your child safe in cyberspace.
Set Rules: Establish your own basic guidelines for what your kids should and shouldn’t be doing online.
Keep It Open: No matter what rules you set for your kids, make sure to emphasize that they can talk to you about anything. Opening the lines of communication at a young age leads to regular, ongoing conversations.
Use Safety Controls: Programs are available that let you customize your family’s cyber experience, from blocking inappropriate content to setting time limits, providing activity logs and live streams.
Prevent Sharing of Private Information: Be clear about what information is potentially dangerous, such as sharing home addresses or announcing being home alone.
Get Familiar with Social Media: Start using social media tools and become familiar and engaged yourself. Once you understand sites such as Twitter, Google and Facebook, you can better discuss them with your kids.
Treat All Devices Like Computers: Rules about online safety should be applied to all tech devices kids use, from tablets to cell phones. Let your kids know that information and photos they wouldn’t want posted on the school bulletin board shouldn’t be shared on the Internet or by text.
Limit the Time Your Child Uses Social Media: Set time limits for social media use just as you would for television or video games.
Set Rules and Guidelines Early: The earlier you start with digital guidelines, the easier they are to manage.
Sign a Contract: Signing a contract is a great way to help kids commit to what is acceptable. Stick to that contract.
Anthony Recenello, a life coach for kids, promotes the idea that kids not see themselves as a victim. “The victim sees the world from outside-in,” he says, which means he sees others as affecting his well being. While “the confident, charismatic individual will view the world from inside-out. He feels that he affects the inner state of others.”
Bullies, he says, “are just looking for other insecure people. When you raise a charismatic kid, that child will have the social skills and mindset necessary to deal with a potential bully.”
Parents need to help their child find a purpose and passion. “When you get your child to do something big, it builds their confidence. They are more likely to become a leader who wants to make things happen.”
Recenello, whose site is charismatickid.com, issues these five “positive approach” tips:
Bully About-Face: Take a bully’s negative remark and spin it into something positive about the bully. When you find a way to compliment a person after they just insulted you, that person gets instantly stunned, and then feels guilty for being so mean. Example: Bully says “I don’t like you,” and the kid replies: “I love that raw honesty! No one’s honest anymore.”
Extreme Friendliness: Assertive, positive kids don’t get bullied. Bullies like to find the not-so-confident ones. Nothing is more effective than projecting a cool, positive, and assertive vibe. Confident people make eye contact and are smile a lot.
Reroute situations: Cut off a bully’s act before he begins. If you see him about to dig his claws into you or another kid, teach him to quickly interject the situation. Example: Bully says “Hey, Artie, what you got there in your lunch bag? Got anything for me?” John sees the bully is about to hit upon his pal Artie, so he takes it upon himself to reroute this potentially sticky situation; he puts himself between the two and invites the bully to join them both for pizza after school.
Power of Attention: If the bully doesn’t get any reaction from your kid, he can’t bully your kid. That is the power of attention. A confident kid only pays attention to what he likes. He doesn’t notice what is boring to him. Teach your children to simply ignore the bullies and pay attention to the funny and positive kids.
The Question Train: There’s nothing like forcing a bully to think logically. When you see a bully about to strike, teach your child to ask him questions: “When’s your birthday?” or “What’s your middle name?” If done with the extreme friendliness, this can work like magic.
Picture books often help teach children important life lessons. Here are two new titles that provide an important nudge toward being kind to others. Jacqueline Woodson, a prominent author for young adults, was inspired to write Each Kindness after witnessing “simple acts of unkindness” in her daughter’s third-grade classroom.
Bad Apple – A Tale of Friendship
by Edward Hemingway (Penguin, ages 4-8, $16.99)
A sweet and relevant book about friends and bullying, Bad Apple shares the story of two unlikely friends, Mac the apple and Will the worm. When Mac takes Will to meet his apple friends, they tease him for being friends with a worm. The next day Mac tries again, but the bullies continue to tease him. Will disappears to make things easier for Mac, but Mac decides that one true friend is better than several who won’t tolerate someone different. – Kirsten Gromatzky
by Jacqueline Woodson (Nancy Paulsen Books, ages 5-8, $16.99)
This is a heartbreaking tale of a missed opportunity for friendship as Chloe and her friends act like “mean girls” by shunning Maya, the new girl at school. A class lesson on kindness weighs heavy on Chloe’s heart, but unfortunately, it’s too late to make Maya feel welcome. The dramatic watercolor images along with the author’s ability to create a teachable moment from the bully’s point of view, help convey an important message without being preachy. – Felicia Barman