Bullying is not new, but so-called cyber-bullying is forcing parents to address this age-old problem in a new way. In Bentonville, Arkansas three high school students were arrested in juvenile court early this year on a charge of 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 information is shared, the scale of communicating with so many people at once and the ability to share photos and video—that may or may not even be real. Not only have the methods of bullying changed, Spragg says, but also the bullies themselves, and their targets. “No one is safe from this new approach to bullying. 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 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. 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
According to Brad Reed, Director of student services for Bentonville school district, where the girls 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.
While social media may be driving up the number of bullying acts, Reed says the response to those acts is far more aggressive than in the past. “There is far more accountability than ever
before, so that is a positive looking to the future.”
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.
Adolescence is a difficult time and it's very easy for middle and high school age kids to get caught up in bullying without knowing what they are doing. The best way to prevent kids from becoming bullies is monitoring and guidance—on the playground and off. “It has to start early, with supervision of emails, instant messages and online gaming."
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. A parent's habits and social behavior has a strong impact on their child's social learning, especially in the tween and teen years.”
Sharon Cindrich, Smart Girls Guide to the Internet
Bullies often leave a trail online that law enforcement and public safety officials can track easily. Make sure you keep records and print out any messages for future reference.
Parents shouldn’t trivialize what people say about their kids. What parents may think is not that big a deal may be devastating to a teen. “It’s important to validate the pain and embarrassment.” 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 validate their feelings. “Being able to talk to someone about what happened to them or what is being said about them.” Spragg also suggests mediation with the bully. “If this is done well it can move victims to a place of healing.”
Lela Davidson is a freelance writer and the author of Blacklisted from the PTA, a
collection of irreverent essays about motherhood and the modern family.