Sarah is a 12-year-old student at a public school in Southern California. Like many of her peers, she uses Instagram and Snapchat on the new smartphone she received for her birthday. Sarah has always been a happy and confident student, but lately her parents notice that she has become increasingly quiet and withdrawn. She has trouble sleeping. Her grades have started to slip. The cause? Sarah has become the target of cyberbullying.
This story could be about any preteen or teenager. In fact, current research shows that one in three middle and high school students will be the target of cyberbullying at some point in their lifetimes.
Every October, schools and youth organizations across the U.S. observe National Bullying Prevention Month. While this annual event helps generate awareness about cyberbullying, I think parents can learn a lot more about this phenomenon by simply talking directly to their children about it. Just ask them to tell you about any online cruelty they may have experienced or observed. You might be surprised at what you learn.
This is what I do when I teach digital literacy to middle school students. During the weekly hour we spend together, I listen to them describe their digital lives, and oftentimes our conversations turn to the topic of “cyberbullying.” In fact, we spend six weeks covering this very topic because cyberbullying is complex and nuanced, and can’t be effectively addressed in a single lesson, a snappy video, or a colorful handout (which is the only time or attention many schools give it).
As with most social-emotional situations involving youth, adults help more by listening than by telling, especially when these situations happen in an environment that we, frankly, don’t know as much about ourselves, like the online world.
Here’s what I’ve learned about “cyberbullying” from my students:
Online Cruelty Comes in Many Shapes and Forms. While adults are sometimes quick to call all online cruelty “cyberbullying,” there’s a difference between actual cyberbullying (behavior that is online, intentional, and harassing), digital drama (“mean” online behavior that falls just short of harassing), and old-fashioned teasing. For example, think of a sleepover photo that lands on Instagram. To a child who wasn’t invited to the event, this image screams, “You got left out”! While this scenario might fall just short of the definition of “cyberbullying,” it can certainly feel just as hurtful to the left-out child as a full-blown incident of actual cyberbullying. But it might be unfair to call the child who posted the picture a “bully.” Still, it’s important to remember that every child is different and how he or she reacts to online cruelty is unique to them. Every reaction should be taken seriously.
Active Internet Users Get Bullied More Often. Kids love to tell stories about the “friends” they know who have thousands of followers on Instagram (not uncommon). These users typically have public accounts, post often, and feel completely comfortable sharing the soul-baring selfie (sometimes they bare other parts too), for better or for worse. So, it makes sense that the price of such “Insta-Fame” is often negative or hurtful comments. According to a 2007 Pew Research Center report on cyberbullying,
"Online teens who have created content for the internet - for instance, by authoring blogs, uploading photos, sharing artwork or helping others build websites - are more likely to report cyberbullying and harassment than their peers. Content creators are also more likely to use social networks - places to create and display and receive feedback on content creations, and social network users are also more likely to be cyberbullied."
Additionally, some social networks, like the suddenly popular Sarahah, allow users to post anonymously. Created by a computer scientist based in Saudi Arabia as a tool for employees to give anonymous feedback to bosses and colleagues, Sarahah has been rapidly embraced by tweens and teens in the U.S. (this app has garnered around 90 million registered users since its February launch). When kids use an anonymous site like Sarahah, they must understand that not every anonymous comment they’re going to receive will be a resounding affirmation of their looks and/or personality. That’s why it’s so important to open up dialogue with kids before they choose to use any app, so they can weigh the advantages and disadvantages of such public scrutiny. That way they can decide, as one wise middle schooler put it, “To stay out of the kitchen if they can’t take the heat.”
Young Users Are the Most Vulnerable. Recently I was complaining to my own kids about some foul language and inappropriate content I saw on a social media site. When I showed them these disturbing posts they told me, “Oh, those were posted by really young kids, you can just tell.” While nearly all social media sites require users to be at least 13 years of age, every parent knows (and sometimes even condones) the fact that millions of kids under 13 use Instagram, Snapchat, Musical.ly, Sarahah, and other sites like these. Which begs the question: Would incidents of cyberbullying decrease if kids waited until they’d gained the maturity and common sense to use social media wisely? I don’t think we need an expensive research study to answer this question for ourselves.
Kids Need and Want Strategies to Deal with Online Cruelty. Many students have told me that they don’t know what to do when they are treated cruelly online, or when they see others being treated cruelly. It is a rare school that sets time aside to equip and empower students with strategies to deal with the mean and uncomfortable online situations they are likely to encounter. I teach my own students a strategy called STOP-BLOCK-TALK. In other words, stop the communication immediately, block the user from contacting you again, and tell a trusted adult. I also let them determine what the consequences should be if someone in their class turns out to be the “bully.” They are surprisingly thorough and firm at this task, but also fair. For example, one class didn’t like the term “bully” because, as they put it, “everyone makes mistakes, especially online, and sometimes the perpetrator is hurting as much as the target.” They thought that while consequences were important, forgiveness and second chances were important too.
It Helps Kids to See Cyberbullying in a Larger Context. In our school we address cyberbullying after we’ve talked to students extensively about the importance of maintaining positive online reputations (which we call a “digital billboard” because anyone on the “information superhighway” might drive by and see it).
Students quickly grasp the importance of presenting their best selves online when they learn that future colleges, employers, and even parents of friends will judge them by what they see. This understanding gives them another reason to be sensible, appropriate, and kind online. Helping students link their online activities with membership to a global village of digital citizens who watch, and watch out for, one another other is key to curbing online cruelty.
Kids can be incredibly useful providers of information regarding cyberbullying and other online behaviors that befuddle adults. Just talk to one and find out for yourself.