By Jane Parent
Kids have been bullying each other for generations. With the introduction of technology, however, the current generation of teenagers has the ability to expand the reach and extent of their harm. This phenomenon is being called cyberbullying, which has been defined as willful and repeated harm inflicted through the use of communication technologies including text messages, instant messaging, social media, video uploading sites, and even video games. As with traditional bullying, parents and educators are now faced with a new and pressing issue: how to prevent cyberbullying and teach kids to be kind to each other online instead.
According to the Cyberbullying Research Center, 25 percent of teens admit that they have been cyberbullied at some point in their lifetimes. About 17 percent admitted to cyberbullying others. As for middle-school students, 12 percent admitted they had been cyberbullied, while 4 percent said they had cyberbullied others within the previous 30 days.
Cyberbullying manifests itself as teens using technology to “to hurt, harm, and humiliate” their peers, says Julie Hertzog, director of the National Bullying Prevention Center in Bloomington, MN. “In some ways,” says Hertzog, “online bullying can be even more devastating than traditional bullying, as an aggressor is able to access an audience 24/7 instead of being confined to the schoolyard, and the kid being bullied can’t escape the bullying.”
And the hurt can be worse, as “the person being bullied can read and re-read a hurtful text or comment on social media, and experience the hurt over and over again,” Hertzog states.
So why is cyberbullying a growing problem? First, more teens have access to the internet than ever. According to a 2015 Pew Research Center study, 92% of American teens report going online daily, and 74% access the web on their mobile devices. Second, kids are getting cellphones at increasingly younger ages. According to the research firm Influence Central, the average age when children get their first smartphone is now 10, and for some children, as young as seven.
Even if parents think their child is not on social media, children are using their phones to connect through social means with group texting and instant messaging. Kids are using gaming consoles such as Xbox Live that have an interactive aspect, as opponents can message each other or talk live through headsets.
“These interactions can be anonymous,” says Hertzog, and “kids at younger and younger ages are being exposed to behavior that parents don’t necessarily anticipate or fully understand.”
How to Prevent Cyberbullying
So how to prevent cyberbullying? Nancy Willard, the Director of EmbraceCivility.org in Eugene, Oregon, has developed strategies to help educators empower students to embrace civility and learn to be kind online. As kids approach the age of puberty, she advises parents to instill two key attributes in their kids. First, mindfulness. “This means hands off the keyboard until you are calm,” says Willard. “Do not post or press ‘send’ when you are upset or emotional. Every kid needs to understand the very high likelihood that actions taken when they are angry or upset will either backfire or have significant negative consequences.”
Second, encourage problem-solving, so your teen can think through a situation and strategize solutions.
“You want your son or daughter to feel empowered not only to think through what outcome they would like,” advises Willard, “but also to make sure that those solutions are in line with your family’s values.”
If you learn that something bad has happened online to your son or daughter, what should parents do? “Your message to your teen should be ‘You don’t deserve this; we support you; and we’re here to help you,’” says Hertzog.
Willard recommends three rules for online activity: (1) You will only interact online when you are calm; (2) You cannot control the behavior of other people, you can only control how you respond; and (3) Hold yourself tall. “Your posture and bearing affect how you feel about yourself,” says Willard, “and send a message to others. Stay calm, put your shoulders back, and stand tall while you think through a situation.”
And above all, if you’re wondering how to prevent cyberbullying, remember the Golden Rule: do unto others as you would have them do unto you—even online.
Jane Parent is senior editor of Your Teen.