It’s a real and potentially serious problem, so use these tips to engage your children and teach them how to be responsible netizens.
Megan Meier was a selfconscious 13-year-old who had long struggled with ADHD (Attention Deficit Disorder) and body issues. When a 16-year-old stranger named Josh contacted her on MySpace requesting to be her friend, she gladly accepted. For the next five weeks, Josh “befriended” Megan telling her how pretty she was and acting like a friend.
However, after telling Megan he no longer wanted to be friends, Josh’s messages became increasingly cruel. Other teens joined in the bullying, sending hurtful messages. Megan hung herself just before her 14th birthday. Her mother later learned that Josh was a fake online identity created by a neighbour for the purpose of harassing Megan. Charges were eventually pressed against the neighbour, but she was not convicted.
This may be an extreme case, but cyberbullying may be more common than you think. According to Dr Vanessa von Auer, Clinical Psychologist at the VA Psychology Center (www.vapc.sg), about one in four teenagers have reported to being cyberbullied, while about one in six teens have admitted to cyberbullying someone through social networks.
A 2012 Microsoft study found that Singapore ranks second in cyberbullying after the US, with one in three students having been victims here. Read on to find out ways to protect your child…
What Is Cyberbullying?
In the simplest terms, cyberbullying is any form of harassment that occurs through the use of technology and causes distress or harm. While adults are certainly not immune, cyberbullying occurs between children, adolescents and teenagers. (If adults are involved in this type of harassment, it is considered cyberstalking or cyberharassment). Examples include the circulation of embarrassing pictures, rumours or malicious statements spread via text, instant messaging or on websites. It can include the use of fake profiles, websites or videos or even involve threatening to expose potentially embarrassing material online.
Cyberbullying can come from strangers, such as random friend requests or from a “friend” posing as a stranger, or from “friends” who may not believe what they are doing is serious.
What Does It Look Like?
Webcams. Twitter. Instant messages. No one over the age of 30 had to deal with this type of bullying growing up. Cyberbullying allows the bully to come right into the home and to encourage others to join in, whether on a phone, iPad, or computer. Psychotherapist Laura Timms, of SACAC Counselling, explains, “So much of our lives and relationships are enacted online… for someone being bullied, it can feel like there is no escape and no hiding place.”
Childhood has always been about acceptance and fitting in, and cyberbullies prey on these sentiments. Laura says, “Bullies can be psychologically insightful and will try to pick on what will hurt their victims.” While some of the bullying does happen in isolation, there are usually several bullies involved. Some children want to seem “cool” or to be accepted by the “in crowd”, so, behind the safety of a computer screen, join in the harassment.
What Are The Effects?
Cyberbullying is so dangerous because it can happen 24 hours a day, start almost unnoticeably and then escalate quickly. Bullying can cause low self-esteem and a variety of emotional and physical responses including anger, sadness, shame, frustration, depression, or change in appetite, sleep, use of drugs, and in extreme cases, suicide.
Counsellor Kasia Ciszewski, counsellor at The Counselling Place, notes, “Cyberbullying is very hard to escape from, with rumours and content spreading widely and quickly. The child may feel trapped with no way out and can’t trust anyone.” Many kids who are cyberbullied will become withdrawn and skip school. Relationships within the family and close friends will deteriorate.
SACAC’s Laura also cautions that each child and each case varies so if you notice any change from your child’s normal behaviours or routines, but that don’t exactly align with “typical” symptoms of bullying, it’s worth exploring further.
What Can Parents Do?
First, listen. “Try not to show your own anger or shock as your being upset may stop your child from talking about the situation. Offer comfort and support, and normalise their experience by telling them that bullying happens to a lot of children,” says VA Psychology’s Vanessa. Then, report the bully to the appropriate authority. This can vary case to case with the appropriate authority. This could be the other parent, a school administrator, the social network administrators and/or the police. Most cases are resolved once parents and/or the school are brought in.
To build your child’s trust and allow him some control over the situation, Kasia says, “Before you do anything, discuss it with your child and try to make him as comfortable as possible with your next steps.” Work to build an open and strong foundation with your kids by respecting their privacy but also discussing with them the need of you having access to some of their social networks. Be clear about your rules and expectations. The earlier you start this with them, the better.
What to Do if Your Child is the Bully
While no one wants to see their child become the victim of bullying, education expert Matt Harris, Ed.D. notes, if your child is the bully, this can be of greater concern. Superficially, bullying is one child hurting another but there is something deeper happening with the child who is doing the bullying. Dr Harris says, “As a parent, you need to ask yourself, why your child is bullying.” Your child is likely dealing with negative emotions and feelings and does not know how to process them. He notes that whether your child is the victim or the bully, there are plenty of resources for parents to take advantage of. “Just as you want to encourage your children they are not alone in this and they need to reach out for help, so should parents heed this advice.” For help, visit Common Sense Media.
Develop a plan for how you will deal with this issue should it become a problem.
- Create an age-appropriate contract with your children about how, when and where they will access social media. (Start this now, if you haven’t already.)
- Speak to your child’s school about its policies regarding cyberbullying.
- Talk to your kids about cyberbullying – from both the victim and the bully’s perspective. This will help your child understand that bullies hurt others to feel better about themselves (so it’s not really about the victim).
- Work to empower them with the tools they need to recognise any material they are exposed to, that makes them uncomfortable, can be harassment.
- Be clear that your kids should never give out personal details, never connect with people (followers, friends) they have never met in person, and never send intimate photos to ANYONE (even people they trust).
- Connect with your kids on their social networks – become “friends” and “follow” them but understand that this does not ensure you know everything that is going on online. Much of cyberbullying happens in Instant Messaging, direct messaging and texting which you may not have access to.
Bullying on the schoolbus? We can help with that too.
By Kathleen Siddell, The Finder, September 2015