October is National Bullying Prevention Month

Bullying, whether physical or mental, happens every day, at every level and walk of life. The internet has changed the bullying landscape. What was once something done face-to-face, bullying has taken on a new form and challenged the way we deal with it. Cyberbullying has created an atmosphere in which simply walking away is no longer an easy solution. People can’t just leave the room or troubling environment. There’s a constant stream of notifications being delivered through a multitude of social media platforms creating new subsections of cyberbullying, including things like sextortion and public shaming. Kids in particular can face an ever growing onslaught of bullying online. But, there is hope.


Online cyberbullying becomes a concern in early Fall as search engines start seeing the search term “cyberbullying” soar at the start of each school year. As every new crop of smartphone-enabled children enter school, their parents momentarily worry about their child being the victim of cyberbullying. The concern is that this is a passing interest and fades as the school year moves on and the normal disconnect between parent and child widens throughout the year.


It’s not to say that parents today talked to their parents when they were teens, but rather that parents today weren’t faced with the same technological issues children have today. Children often don’t want to talk to their parents for fear of technology being removed from their hands. Whether they are being shamed through Snapchat, harassed on Facebook, or trolled on Twitter, kids are not quick to raise these issues with parents who are not connected to the same technology. There is a disconnect when it comes to technological awareness, which creates the void where bullies operate and are successful in.


If there is suspicion around kids being the victim of cyberbullying, what options are there? First, talk to them. A continuing dialogue about social media and its place in the world is recommended. If that dialogue doesn’t exist, it is never too late to start. The key is being informed, which means putting in a concerted effort to understand the social media networks being used as outlets for attack. Parents should try to help their kids understand what’s happening, as well as attempt to understand their kids’ online lives.


Sometimes though, parents need help. Cyberbullying.org has a lot of great resources for parents and kids alike.


There are individuals driven by the purpose of helping parents fight cyberbullying. Jessica Grossman, creator/founder of Findmykidsonline.com has used her own experiences as a cyberbullying victim to help parents find their teen online, literally. “I am someone who has had to deal with a lot of harassment, bullying, and threats online, even before Facebook or Twitter existed,” Grossman says via email. “I am also someone with teenage cousins who I fear will get taken advantage of. We’re in a weird space where the people with teenage kids haven’t had to deal with the internet growing up and aren’t as well-equipped to understand how it works and the dangers. They don’t have the skills to educate their kids in the proper safety techniques or red flags, other than ‘don’t talk to strangers’.


While that old adage might hold true, often it’s not strangers delivering the attacks. Many times the attacks come from schoolmates and friends. Bullies look for reactions. Online bullying results in immediate reactions in a school setting and is a perfect catalyst for the behavior. Most schools have cyberbullying policies in place for punishment. A precursor to that is being able to identify cyberbullying. Closing the gap between knowing how to deal with a bully and knowing how to deal with a cyberbully can be as simple as learning the technology.


Another important practice is to help children become self-aware of the technology they are using and how cyberbullies use that same technology to deliver their own agendas. Catherine Bradshaw, a psychologist and Associate Dean at the University of Virginia, writes about some of the most effective approaches to this. Those approaches include: training (as in how to identify bullying), behavior-modification guidelines (how to behave online), and systems for detailed data collection. This data collection (screenshots, chat logs) is often the key to taking down a cyberbully.    
In the end, the main factor in combating cyberbullying is communication. Parents should be using, or at the very least have a passing knowledge of the technology their children are engaging in daily. Parents should interject and discover how children communicate on social media and be vigilant for any changes in online behavior. Anxiety, depression, or children declaring they are quitting social media are good indicators of a problem. Cyberbullying is the same thing that has been plaguing humanity since the beginning of time, it’s just using a new set of tools. Parents, understand and know how to use those tools and get one step closer to defeating the cyberbully.

Photo credit: whatStefanSees via Foter.com / CC BY-ND


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