Parents have always been worried about their kids being bullied in middle school, but new technologies have sparked a cyberbullying culture among teens that is more harmful than ever. Brittney's dad knew something was bothering his daughter, but was shocked to find out how serious it was.
Brittney sat at the dinner table, with her hair in her face, poking at her pasta. Her younger brother was talking on and on about the science guy who came to school with a massive snake that the kids could touch and hold. Her dad noticed that she was unusually quiet and hadn’t eaten a thing.
“Brittney, are you okay? You’ve been out of sorts for a couple of days.”
Without looking up, she said “I’m fine”.
“But this is your favorite meal? Why aren’t you eating?"
“I’m just not hungry. Can I go do my homework?”
“You can leave the table if you’re sure you feel okay.”
Brittney went to her room, and stared at her cell phone that was sitting on her desk. She was petrified to turn it on. But, she couldn’t keep it off forever- it’s how she and her friends communicated. But, if she turned it on, the horrible messages would appear….”everyone hates you”…”you have no friends”….”you’re stupid and ugly”… “everyone knows you’re a slut”…Brittney couldn’t imagine who would do this to her. She was quiet and kind of shy, did okay in school, had a small group of 8th grade girls who liked to get together on the weekends. She didn’t even talk to boys. Brittney felt ashamed and frightened. She didn’t want to tell her dad that she had been receiving these awful messages for days because he would only make it worse.
The American Psychological Association defines bullying as "aggressive behavior that is intended to cause harm or distress, occurs repeatedly over time, and occurs in a relationship in which there is an imbalance of power or strength". Technology has led to a new version of bullying that is both virulent and emotionally damaging. Online aggression, or cyber-bullying is an extremely harmful type of bullying that includes sending cruel text messages or photos, impersonating individuals on texts, IM or on the web, and posting hurtful information on social networking sites, such as Facebook and MySpace. It is especially destructive because the abuse can be very public, happen anywhere at anytime, and often the bullies remain anonymous. Kids are afraid to tell their parents, not only because of traditional fears of retribution by the bully, but also they are afraid parents will take away their cell phones and computer access.
So, what should parents do when they find out their child is being cyber-bullied? First of all, parents need to take this seriously and not brush it off as a rite of middle school passage. Barbara Coloroso , a leading expert on adolescent bullying behavior, offers some good advice in her book The Bully, the Bullied, and the Bystander, updated in 2008. A few of her suggestions:
- Tell your teen not to respond to the cyberbully. This just fuels the cyberbully on.
- Make copies of all messages, pictures, and social messaging pages. Save cell phone voice and text messages. This creates a record of the bullying behavior, helping to identify the bully, and provides evidence in the event that legal action is necessary.
- Set up a message block that allows only known contacts to come through.
- Insist that your child tell you about any additional cyberbullying.
Of course, the most important part of helping your teen when she or he is being cyberbullied, is to help her feel more empowered in this really frightening situation. Start by telling her you understand how much courage it took for her to tell you, and that you realize how scared she must be. Reassure her that you will not take away her cell phone or computer away, or do anything rash, but let her know that she's not alone, and something can be done. Together, there are things you can do. In addition to Ms. Coloroso's advice, we recommend that your teen share information about what is happening with her most trusted friends, and they form a circle of safety around her. Suggest that she talk to the school guidance counselor, and if this is too difficult, offer to go with her. You may also need to contact school administration and, if the bullying continues, it may be necessary to seek legal advice and contact law enforcement.