How to tackle the scourge of cyber bullying

The ever-evolving ways of digital bullying mean we need to teach children how to make the right decisions to keep themselves safe online, says Richard Hogan.

How to tackle the scourge of cyber bullying

“Jumping off the GW Bridge, Sorry.” So read the final status update posted on Facebook by Rutgers student Tyler Clementi before he threw himself off the George Washington Bridge in 2011. His tragic story, which garnered international attention, put a human face on the consequences of cyberbullying. And brought this ever-increasing issue into the public discourse.

What was traditionally confined to the school environment has now, with the proliferation of electronic media, become a potentially ubiquitous occurrence for children and teenagers alike. Cyberbullying is defined as “any behaviour performed through electronic or digital media by individuals or groups that repeatedly communicates hostile or aggressive messages intended to inflict harm or discomfort on others”

(Tokunaga, 2010).

This can include harassment via text or picture/video messages, in online games, on websites and social networking sites, in chatrooms, email, Twitter, posting abusive comments in blogs, or harassment in virtual environments, to mention but a few. What makes this type of bullying so dangerous to the wellbeing of our children is the fact that the victims of cyberbullying are never beyond the reach of their harassers.

Research highlights that the majority of cyberbullying occurs between the ages of 10 and 14. Because of the extreme importance of peer relations and social acceptance in this age group, cyberbullying can be a particularly devastating experience for a child. Unlike face-to-face bullying, which typically happens within the school milieu and is generally witnessed by others and carried out by a perpetrator that is known or seen by the victim, messages posted online can be spread globally, can exist in perpetuity, and the perpetrator can conceal his/her identity by using an avatar.

The trouble with developing a school policy that adequately deals with this serious issue is the fact these virtual forums are constantly changing. So, when an issue arises, what parents find is that the school policy that was drafted to solve a previous case, is no longer fit for purpose. Furthermore, such policies in schools have focused primarily on punishing the cyberbully, rather than on developing holistic solutions that cultivate more respectful online exchanges and build a more empathetic culture within our schools. What we need to do as parents and teachers is to teach our children how to make the right decisions that keep them safe online when we are not watching.

The rapid advancement of mobile phones and internet technologies has opened up new vistas and infinite spaces that young people can explore with fewer restrictions. Not all of this new virtual landscape is negative — on the contrary, there are myriad educational benefits to these new and exciting avenues of learning. However, the reality remains that our children are navigating these worlds with very little parental supervision.

Anyone working in the Irish school system last year would have been struck by the sheer magnitude of cyberbullying which was taking place through gaming. It can be a hotbed of subtle, covert cyberbullying. And it proved very difficult for both parents and schools to manage. In my practice, I met a young teenager who had contemplated suicide because he believed he had no way out of the situation he found himself in. The most troubling aspect of his story was the fact that while his parents believed he was safe in his room studying, he was in fact being tormented by a group of his peers online. Feelings of isolation and nowhere to turn led him to contemplate taking his own life: ‘I felt I had no choice but to kill myself.’

These words are a chilling reminder of the feelings experienced by our children when they are being targeted online. While traditional bullying and cyberbullying have many commonalities, the main difference is that cyberbullying means no space in the teenager’s world is safe from the reach of negative feedback.

What can I do if my child is being bullied online?

  • Your reaction is very important. While it can be very distressing to think of your child being tormented by an unknown group or person online, if you become angry you are telling your child that they should be very worried. This will only further increase the levels of anxiety your child is experiencing.
  • Also you must not ban your child from their devices. If you do this, the chances are they will never confide in you again. And you will further increase their sense of alienation.
  • Calmly listen to your child and be supportive while they describe their experience.
  • Thank them for coming to you and acknowledge that it takes a lot of courage for them to talk about an issue like this.
  • Make sure they do not respond to the message or comment. While your first reaction may be to send a message back, this only feeds the problem. The worst thing that can happen to a troll or cyberbully is silence.
  • Record the message if it is possible.
  • Contact the school and explain your child’s experience calmly and work with the school.
  • If it persists, contact the gardaí. It is illegal to disseminate hateful content online.

In spite of the challenges that parents face in monitoring their adolescents’ online experiences, research clearly shows that parents who are supportive and monitor their child’s Internet usage significantly decrease the chances of their child becoming a victim or perpetrator of cyberbullying.

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