If you ask most teens, they will tell you that their social lives are powered by texting and sharing photos on Snapchat and Instagram. But what they won’t tell you is that these same digital tools are sometimes used to bully other children. In most cases it isn’t one child bullying another child — with digital access, one bully can ultimately become a ringleader to a host of other children until it becomes a gang cyber bullying event. It isn’t until an alarm is sounded that an adult becomes aware of it.
Cyber bullying, by definition, is the use of digital-communication tools (such as the Internet and cell phones) to make another person feel angry, sad or scared — usually again and again. And it comes in various flavors.
The other day at school, I felt an unusual undercurrent of tension. After some investigation, I came to find out that a few days before a student was found to have made an unwise decision to post and selectively photo edit a picture of another student. The online crowd went wild with comments and posts, at the sacrifice of the student whose photo was posted; and the pokes continued in school days that followed. When it was finally brought to the attention of adults, the poor insight and lack of empathy of the perpetrator was culminated with only a modicum of remorse and regret from the family.
As many of us know, bullies typically need to feel a sense of power but at the root of it all, they are the ones who are less confident of themselves and thus seek power through the sacrifice of another. I often wonder where the parents of these thoughtless children are, what values they have instilled in them, and what their empathy rating is. But then again, some parents are bullies themselves. Some are socially exclusive and are constantly obsessed with other people’s perception of them. Some parents don’t even equate cyber activity with bullying — after all if no punches are thrown, there is no damage done. But words are more far reaching than a punch will ever be.
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With a 24/7 virtual theater, some of the kids who come upon a cyber bullying event simply observe from the sidelines, some of course feel the need to join the attack, while a few wise souls muster the strength to stand up for the child being bullied. According to Jim Steyer from Commonsense.org, standing up, referred to as being an UPstander (instead of Bystander) for another child is said to be the single most powerful way to halt cyber bullying. A child that has been shown respect and empathy knows the difference between right and wrong and can assume the role of Upstander. This is something to be admired. But how can you cultivate that intuition?
1. Show respect and teach respect. Respect is demonstrated on numerous levels and starts at home. Digital respect and responsibility can be equated with the respect and responsibility expected before getting behind the wheel of a car. Unfortunately, many immature teens are given full access to the digital world without being taught these valuable lessons. Since emailing and texting comes without facial expression or voice intonation, it is often challenging to decipher the tone of the message. A digital message should be clear. If something was sent that was disrespectful, then the sender should offer an immediate apology.
2. Teach and encourage empathy. Images and stories of people far less fortunate than we could ever imagine are all over the Internet but are rarely read about. Although movies make it easier to ingest, when suffering is real, we turn away because it is too painful for us to embrace. Without truly knowing what it means to suffer, combined with an entertainment industry that captivates and desensitizes children with violent games and scenarios, it is easier and easier for children (and adults) to make fun of others without feeling remorse. Share both sides of life. Life is NOT a Disney movie. Trust me, you wont traumatize them. In fact by showing them reality and teaching what it must feel like to suffer, you might cultivate an UPstander of your own.
3. Tell them it is OK to tell. Kids are petrified of being labeled a snitch. I hate the word snitch because it is creates an image of pettiness. In the business world they are called whistle blowers. We have many names for people in the world who see something being done wrong and want to report it. We should be thankful to them. Snitches and whistle blowers, if you will, have stopped corruption and have even saved lives. If your child doesn’t feel comfortable talking about it with you, you can lead them to someone who they might feel comfortable talking to — such as a teacher or a counselor or their coach.
4. Teach and model greatness. Although we see it on TV and in the movies, greatness is not fame, wealth, power or beauty. It is the ability to love and have an honest concern for others. When a parent is great, the home is a safe, peaceful and respectful place. Siblings are encouraged to support each other rather than compete with each other - and all are academically focused. In essence, the home is morally grounded.
So what do you do if it is your child that is being cyber bullied? Do you jump in? Ignore it? Tell your kid to man-up?
Coming to realize that your child has been bullied — either in real time or virtually, is very emotional. You feel as if part of you has been violated. Your instinct is to retaliate but in the long run it is suggested to first defuse the situation and begin making attempts to stop the event. Some immediate suggestions include:
▪ Reassuring your child that you love and support him/her. Many kids, in their attempt to be independent, may shrug this gesture off. But subconsciously they need to hear it.
▪ Help your child step away from the computer or device — take a digital break. The force of an action is minimized when there is less reaction to it.
▪ Consider talking having a conversation with the parents of the bully if this is a practical option.
▪ Consider contacting your child’s school. Since it is likely that the online bullying is happening offline too, it is important that your child’s educational team is aware of what is going on.
▪ Continue to empower your child.
And to all the bullies out there: It doesn’t matter if you can throw a wicked curve ball, if it’s being aimed at someone; it doesn’t matter if you’re the star quarterback, if you do it to show off and rule others. At some point choices overpower abilities. And if you made the wrong ones, then even your abilities will fall into oblivion because you were dumb enough to abuse them.
Laurie Futterman ARNP is a former Heart Transplant Coordinator at Jackson Memorial Medical Center. She now chairs the science department and teaches gifted middle school science at David Lawrence Jr. K-8 Center. She has three children and lives in North Miami.