“REBECCA SAYS EVERYBODY HATES ME.” “Jamal is telling everyone to stop talking to me.”
The words come through on Aren van Delden’s computer screen like blows to the stomach. As a phone and web counsellor with Kids Help Phone, van Delden regularly reads email postings from kids who are being cyber bullied.
“It generally starts happening around age 10 or 11, when the Internet becomes a social networking tool. Before that, they’re using it more for games,” says van Delden, who has worked for about 10 years at Kids Help Phone, a national agency that provides counselling to anonymous callers and emailers. She estimates cyber bullying victims are evenly split among boys and girls, but for boys the threats seem to be more physical and with girls, it’s more about social exclusion.
Often, cyber bullying is an extension of school bullying. When kids get home they usually check their emails and the bullying continues. “It hits so deep,” says van Delden. “Then they’re faced with going back to school the next day and there’s no safe place for them. Cyber bullying can be equally as damaging as school bullying because seeing the words in front of you can be devastating.”
Kids Help Phone began offering web counselling about 10 years ago. Counsellors say cyber bullying is among the dominant issues raised by kids. “They find it deeply embarrassing and hard to talk about,” says van Delden, so they usually prefer to email counsellors instead of phoning them.
Cyber bullying is far from rare
A 2008 poll by the Canadian Teachers’ Federation (CTF) found that 34 percent of Canadians surveyed knew of students in their community who had been targeted by cyber bullying. That same year, in a University of Toronto poll, 29 percent of grade 6 and 7 students admitted they had cyber bullied others and 20 percent had been cyber bullied.
As a result, the CTF teamed up with the RCMP to develop an anti-cyber bullying curriculum. In April 2009, Vancouver MP Hedy Fry introduced a bill to amend the Criminal Code to specify cyber bullying as an offence. (The bill died when Parliament was prorogued in late 2009, but she plans on re-introducing it.)
Van Delden offers these tips for parents for dealing with cyber bullying:
- Be aware of your child’s emotions. To adults, most cyber bullying emails are mere words, but to kids they are virtual weapons. Your child may be ashamed and scared, unsure how you will react, or may be afraid you’ll take away computer privileges.
- Build a relationship that encourages your child to come to you. Check in regularly even if it’s just for short chats and to ask how things are going. This may not yield the most open discussions but shows your child that you are available.
- Encourage your child NOT to respond to an email or post from a cyber bully. Similarly, resist the urge to get involved yourself and DO NOT contact the parents of the other child unless there is serious physical danger. Use your discretion. A physical threat from a nine-year-old may not have as much weight as one from a 12-year-old.
- If the cyber bullying includes physical threats, print them out and start a file in the event a harassment case needs to be made. Contact the police if warranted.
- If the bullying exists at school as well, have a meeting with the teacher and principal.
- Keep the computer in an open place. Even though you’re not going to be looking over your child’s shoulder the whole time, you are more likely to be able to monitor your child’s reactions if you’re in the same room.
- Acknowledge the pain your child is suffering, but don’t allow him or her to stay home from school more than one day unless you feel they are in physical danger. Keeping routines is important.
- Emphasize that this is a problem to solve, rather than a problem with your child. Ask your child what’s the worst thing that can happen if he or she goes to school. Usually kids will say that their feelings will be hurt, so remind them how they’ve coped with hurt feelings in the past. Helping children find ways to deal with a problem shows them that you believe in their problem-solving ability.
Originally published in ParentsCanada magazine, May 2010.