By Dr. Michael Weiss
on March 15, 2007
Picking fights, physical threats, intimidation, taunts, teasing, harassment and generating fear in others has been the pastime of school yard bullies for as long as groups of kids have congregated.
But wait. Did I just say "school yard?" Enter the age of cyberspace. A bully on a playground can prey on all of those kids within arm's reach, but the cyberbully can prey on anyone within reach of a computer or cellphone. Now the bully can find you where you live or sleep - just a few keystrokes or clicks away.
The term 'cyberbully' was coined by Canadian Bill Belsey, who was among the first to mobilize against the problem. At Belsey's Internet bully-watchdog Web site, he gives this succinct description: "Cyberbullying involves the use of information and communication technologies such as e-mail, cellphone and pager text messages, Instant Messaging, defamatory personal Web sites, and defamatory online personal polling websites, to support deliberate, repeated and hostile behaviour by an individual or group that is intended to harm others."
How would your overweight nine-year-old son feel if a highly unflattering photograph of him eating lunch was posted on an Internet site for others to vote on who is the ugliest or fattest kid? How would your 11-year-old daughter feel if everyone she knew received an e-mail with her face cut-and-pasted onto a pornographic image, while being called the 'class slut'? How would your 14-year-old feel if every morning on her way to school, she was Instant Messaged on her cell phone with a threat of injury or death?
Studies describing cyberbullying and what to do about it are almost nonexistent. The problem is so new that few even have a handle on how often it occurs. Dr.Qing Li, a professor of educational technology at the University of Calgary is among the first to measure the scope of the problem. Her findings indicate that the incidence of cyberbullying is at least as prevalent as old-fashioned bullying - about one in six kids experience cyberbullying regularly - and the problem is getting steadily worse.
Even bleaker are the newer methods that technology offers to torment in ways that go well beyond face-to-face bullying. Dr. Li says, "The nature of new technology makes it possible for cyberbullying to occur more secretly, to spread more rapidly, and to preserve easily." Similarly, Indiana University's Dr. Susan Herring sees that this new-found electronic anonymity "reduces social accountability, making it easier for users to engage in hostile, aggressive acts."
What can we do?
Though the cyber-realities of bullying make this a new problem, some ideas about how to manage face-to-face bullying are still extremely relevant. So what works?
Make everyone aware and get everyone to talk
Create open forums in schools to raise awareness of the problems. Develop situations - whether direct conversation or anonymous Internet sites - where kids feel secure in confiding to adults what's going on.
Families and schools can collaborate
Join with your local school to spread the word about bullying. Schools are the crossroads of the bullying problem and teacher involvement is essential. But don't just dump one more responsibility on busy teachers. School administrators need to create added staff - or volunteer parents - who are trained in anti-bullying and social development curricula. This is as important as reading, writing and arithmetic.
Identify kids in trouble
Ask any group of kids (or teachers) about who is in emotional trouble. They usually know. Find the bullies and find the routine targets and get them counselling. Parents can look for extreme emotions, particularly routine sadness or withdrawal. If your child seems to be 'down' a lot, explore what's going on.
Don't engage in online exchanges with bullies.
Teach kids the conversational skills they may need if caught in a corner. But in Cyberland, don't respond. Resist the urge to retaliate. All you are doing is encouraging them.
Bystanders are part ff the problem
Realize that most bullying involves playing to an audience. Bystanders need to recognize they are the fuel that propels a lot of wrong behaviour. They need to learn how to ignore the bully.
Kids (and families) need to band together
Help kids create and maintain friendships. Kids need to stick together. Safety in numbers always applies. Parents need to know who their kids' friends are and talk to them and their parents routinely. We're all in this together.
Kill them with cyber-kindness
Consider using a site showing a message aimed at harming someone as a place to express kindness for the target. Help your kids see the opportunities and value of offering empathy, encouragement and support to those in need.
Keep home and school computers in plain view
Give kids the freedom of private conversations on the computer slowly and progressively. In the meantime, keep the computer in a common area where it's easy for parents and teachers to see what's going on.
Teach kids how to guard their identity in places like chat rooms. They should use more than one nickname online and have all of them different from their real name and e-mail address.
Call a cyber-cop
Call the providers of Internet and cellphone services and report what's going on. All of the big companies that provide cyber-access have rules and regulations against harassment.
Call a real cop!
Call the authorities if you, as a parent or teacher, have good reason to believe that a child is in danger. The police are there to help, but most of the time they're not brought in. Insist that the authorities pursue Internet surveillance methods to find the perpetrators. Keep any cyberbully materials that you get on your cellphone or computer. It's evidence of potentially illegal actions.
In the end, if someone wants to hassle your child, they're going to do it. But, with any luck, we are raising kids to have enough common sense to know when they should stick up for themselves and when the better part of valor is to stay out of the fight. We also want to raise our kids to have an instinctive nose for unfairness and the courage to stand up for others. If you are spending most of your parental efforts into loving and supervising your kids, and you're teaching and modelling kindness to others, well, this too shall pass.
Originally published in ParentsCanada magazine, Spring 2007.