Understanding Bullying in the Digital Age
by Tisha Marina Bernard
Remember the telephone game? One person at the end of the line whispers a word or phrase into the ear of the person standing next to them. For example the word may be “banana.” The next person then whispers what they heard to the next person. This continues until the person at the end of the line says the word they heard out loud. The results are often a new word such as “bandana.” ” Educators often use this game to display how quickly rumors can spread.
There are new games that young people are playing these days that are similar, but it is through technology and sometimes they can be deadly. Students create mean or insulting rumors and spread it to as many people as possible. At the end, the rumor has been embellished and is most likely more cruel than when it started. This is a form of Cyberbullying, which is bullying or harassment online. It can happen in a text message, on an online game, or on a social networking site. It might involve rumors, comments, or images posted on someone’s profile or passed around for other people to see. Bullying used to start at the beginning of the school day and end at the final bell. It now it happens 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days of the year.
As an adult, imagine this scenario: you left work one day happy and friendly with all your co-workers. You return to work the next day only to discover no one speaking to you and shunning you wherever you go. You discover that a false and mean-spirited email was send about you and seen all over the office. No one will listen to you share your side of the story. From this day forward, no likes you or talks to you at work. As unrealistic as this scenario may sound to us, this is what some students experience every single day.
According to the Department of Education, Bureau of Justice Statistics and Cyberbullying Research Center:
Percent of students who reported being cyber bullied52%
Teens who have experienced cyber threats online33%
Teens who have been bullied repeatedly through their cell phones or the internet25%
Teens who do not tell their parents when cyber bullying occurs52%
Percent of teens who have had embarrassing or damaging pictures taken of themselves without their permission, often using cell phone cameras11%For the last eight years, I have traveled the nation as a Bully Prevention specialist and taught students and teachers ways to identify and stop bullying in their schools. In this time period, I have watched the problem grow bigger and bigger every year. To look into the eyes of students being targeted by bullying is heart-breaking. Their eyes are sad and vacant. Students all around me tell me they feel worthless and that they don’t belong on this planet. They are searching for reason to hang on. All this has been due to bullying.
The following cyberbullying stories are from youth and schools I have personally worked with in just the last six months.
Instagram: Instagram is a common app used among both youth and adults. It is a simple platform that appeals to everyone. But it can also be used to ruin someone’s life and reputation. In one case, a student stole pictures of their victim off her Facebook page. The student then photoshopped her head onto a naked woman’s body only to spread it all through school, to her family and friends. Due to the excessive bullying that occurred daily from this, she changed to another school. Problem was that students at the new school had already received the texts and she already had a reputation there as well. At age 14, not able to take it anymore, she committed suicide.
Yik Yak: Yik Yak is a free app for all smart phone owners. Users can create a handle (a name for themselves) yet they will remain anonymous. To sign up, you’re required to give permission to use your location so that you can see what people in a 5-mile radius are posting. Before you can begin, the app states that cyber-bullying is against the rules and the consequence for it is suspension. But since that the app is anonymous, cyber-bullies simply sign up again and continue posting insulting yaks (comments). Because there is no way to identify the source, posts are often cruel and hurtful. Posts can be commented on as well, so a mean comment can be backed up my many users agreeing to the content. Posts can also be spread like wild fire. One vicious comment about a student can be seen by hundreds of other students in seconds. An example of this is a middle school boy who was being threatened by hundreds of people that he is going to be beat up the next day at school. Terrified to go to school the next day, he still showed up only to be beaten by seven other students. He was hospitalized with two broken arms and an unrecognizable face. Other results from these yaks have also been school lock downs due to anonymous bomb and shooting threats to the school.
Burn Book: In the popular movie, Mean Girls, there is a journal called a Burn Book that is used to write gossip and insulting comments about people and send it around the school for others to read. Inspired by this, the app Burnbook has been created. It is basically the same thing, just online, and can anonymously be read by everyone and written by anyone.
An example of a burn book conversation can look like this:
Post 1: What do you guys think about the new girl at school?
Person 1: She is a ugly b*t*h and nobody likes her
Person 2: She is a h* and f*c*e* every guy at this school
Person 3: She should kill herself
It is simply a wide-open forum that encourages others to say mean, spiteful and damaging insults. It glorifies rumors, gossip and defamation of others.
We have a generation of youth that have never known life without technology. It is readily available yet is does not come with instructions or guidelines. Young people are like sponges; they soak up the world around them for guidance on how to be and act in this world. When we create social media outlets that design and encourage platforms for mistreatment of others, we are teaching them that disrespect is the way to treat each others. Young people deserve to live in a world in which they feel safe, wanted, and unafraid. Let’s rise as a community and nation and model this world for them. Our children are counting on us.
How can I help prevent my child from being cyberbullied?
- Learn about the sites your children visit, what apps they have on their phone, as well as their online activities. Periodically, ask your children to show you their profile pages. Consider obtaining their passwords to these outlets.
- Remind them to never give out their personal information online, such as their phone number and address.
- There is a common misconception among teens that once they delete a picture or text, it is gone forever. Yet, in a short amount of time, someone else can take a picture or screen shot and now they have the picture forever. Help them to understand deleting something from the Internet doesn’t mean that it is truly gone.
Online resources for parents:
Consider parental control software, which permits you to monitor and identify if your child is being bullied or engaging in cyberbullying behavior. www.cyberbullyradar.com
Movie: Cyberbully: An ABC Family Original movie depicting the rapid effect cyberbullying has on a child when they become the victim of online bullying
Bullying: A Different Perspective & How We Can Be a Part of the Solution
by Tisha Marina Bernard
Somebody asked me the other day, “What is wrong with kids these days?” They had seen on the news a story about some kids relentlessly bullying another kid on the school bus. As an educator, I get asked this question a lot. I work with an organization called Safe School Ambassadors as a Bully Prevention Specialist and travel the nation teaching bully prevention to elementary, middle and high schools. I have seen it all. From verbal mistreatment to physical mistreatment. From suicide to homicide. When we imagine our students going to school everyday, it is important to know most of them are walking into a battlefield. It is plaguing students across the country on daily basis. In fact, bullying is now a national epidemic.
The most common current definition of bullying is unwanted, aggressive behavior among school-aged children that involves a real or perceived power imbalance. The behavior is repeated, or has the potential to be repeated, over time. It appears to me that we now have a definition for something that has existed for ages; we just have a name, an age group and a box to put it in. It is a behavior that is modeled by people of all ages; yet, the emphasis seems to be on the young. What about everybody else? Notice that even in the current definition of bullying it addresses school aged children only. Here is where I invite our society to take a different look at bullying.
These generations of young people are simply a reflection of our society and us. Young people are like sponges; they soak up all that is around them and use what they observe as guidance on how to navigate in this world. What if we really looked closely and took responsibility for who we are as a society? What are we really offering in terms of modeling empathy? Are we treating others with respect? Are we kind to one another? Instead of looking outward at who did what to whom, lets look inward at how we contribute to this epidemic.
We have become accustomed and desensitized to news full of violence and negative stories. Movies that make the most money at the box office are usually violent. Video games that are the most appealing involve killing people with guns for points. Politics is about making the other person look bad to show who has the most power. Reality T.V. shows are the most popular when they have drama, verbal fighting, disrespect and competition.
People will say to me, “It was not like this when I was growing up.” No it wasn’t. It was a different day and time and it is crucial that we take this into consideration. We cannot expect this current generation to be the same as us. We live in a society where we say kids should be kids yet we expect them to act like adults but we don’t give them the tools to do so. They simply need guidance.
“The children are the future” is a common cliché and I realize that even this article is a redundant conversation. If it is redundant that is because we know what the problem is but we don’t focus enough on the solutions. We need to truly recognize that this generation is literally our future. Do we want to continue to look the other way or do we want to be a part of the positive change? Therefore, what can we do on a daily basis to break this cycle of mistreatment?
Take small steps. Perhaps volunteer at a school or community recreation center. Attend a school board meeting and learn what is going on at your local school. Pay attention to what laws are available in terms of school safety and help raise awareness to them. Learn about what the anti-bullying rules are at your child’s school. Review them with your family. Ask your children what bullying looks like at their school. Research what your state’s requires schools to do in the state’s anti-bullying law. Educate yourself about federal laws that require schools to address harassment based on race, color, national origin, sex, and disabilities and ways to report situations that have not been adequately addressed to the U.S. Departments of Education and Justice. (www.stopbullying.gov)
Most of all, don’t underestimate the power of one. When an individual chooses to walk in peace and compassion, they influence those around them to be peaceful and it becomes a ripple effect. Practice empathy and model mindfulness so your influence can support a healthier environment for children. “When you show deep empathy towards others, their defensive energy goes down, and positive energy replaces it. That’s when you can get more creative in solving problems.” Stephan Covey
Focus more attentively on what society is supplying to our youth. Next time you hear a story in the news about a child being a part of a violent crime, take a few seconds to consider what violence that child may have personally experienced and/or witnessed him or herself. If you hear of a child bullying another child, take time to wonder if that child comes from an abusive home and is repeating the cycle. Consider compassion and understanding to the challenges young people face on a daily basis.
So, back to the question, “What is wrong with kids these days?” My answer is, “What is wrong with our society these days?” It is time for us to recognize the negativity and violence we are exposing our children to. It is time for us to stop expecting them to not be violent amongst us. We have a responsibility to the youth of our society and we are letting them down. Let’s be the change we wish to see in the world for our young people. Let’s make kindness the social norm. Our kids are counting on us.
Take action now by signing the Help Stop Bullying: Pass the Safe Schools Improvement Act petition:
Strategies for Communicating Effectively With A Child That’s Being Bullied
By Tisha Marina Bernard
Rosie always had a great relationship with her daughter Sasha. They were always the best of friends and were now even closer as Sasha entered her teen-age years. They hung out together, laughed together, and had great communication. Sasha knew she could talk to her mother about anything and did. One day Rosie received a phone call from Sasha’s school saying that Sasha had been in a fight. Sasha was a peaceful, loving and shy young lady, so this call was completely out of the norm. Rushing down to the school, Rosie met with the principal and Sasha. It turned out Sasha was in a fight but she was not the instigator, she was the one being beat up. Both Rosie and the principal discovered that Sasha had been harassed on a daily basis by three girls since the start of the school year. They called her names, followed her around at school, started rumors about her and threatened they would beat her up. Today was the day the threat became real.
Shocked, Rosie and Sasha headed home. Rosie asked the question that had been on her mind the whole time. “Why didn’t you tell me? You always tell me everything.” Sasha’s answer was quick and simple. “I didn’t want you to worry Mom.” Sasha shared she had been concerned that her mom would worry if she told her and knew that her mom was having a hard time at work lately. Sasha was also scared that if her mom called the school to try to make it stop and the girls found out, they would only harass her more. She didn’t know what to do so she kept it all inside.
Sadly, this is a can be common position for kids these days. This story shows that telling a parent can be intimidating for a child regardless of how amazing the relationship is. It is not the necessarily the fault of the parent and not always to be taken personally.
A few reasons kids do not tell their parents when they are being bullied are:
Have thoughts that no one will believe.
If a kid has reported bullying to a teacher or parent and been told, “Get over it, toughen up or kids will be kids”, that may very well be the last time they report an incident. Kids themselves often don’t know that rumors and verbal mistreatment is a form of bullying. The repercussion of this can be that a child believes their problem is not really a problem and needs to just work it out on their own. As a result, they stay quiet since they feel that sharing wouldn’t do any good.
Kids are scared the bully will get revenge.
Kids often believe that exposing their bully won’t change anything and no one can do anything about it. In fact, the worry is that the bully will only bully them even more.
They feel shame and humiliation.
Bullying feels personal to the victim and is about power and control. As a consequence, it can make the victim feel weak and/or powerless. If the victims are being bullied because of something they already feel vulnerable about, the victim may even start to believe the negative things they are being bullied for. They may even begin to believe they deserve the mistreatment.
Fear of being branded a snitch.
When it comes to bullying, there is an unspoken school wide culture of silence among the students. The secret code is to not “tattle tale” or “snitch” if they are being bullied. There is a peer pressure to accept the mistreatment in order to belong. Often, they are more afraid of these labels and the reputation that comes with them than the actual bullying itself. It is important as a parent or guardian to discuss the power of these words and what they really mean.
Worried adults will restrict access to social media.
When it comes to the digital age, kids often wont admit they are being bullied as they are worried their parents will no longer allow them to use their cell phones or other devices. If a child reports cyber-bullying and their access to electronic devices is taken away, they will conclude it is not worth it to tell an adult. They may also feel as if they are being punished which can send a mixed message. It is better to come up with guidelines and strategies to the cyber bullying versus what can feel like punishment to the child.
Remember as a parent to not take it personal if your child doesn’t share immediately with you what is going on. Remember there may be a list of other reasons regardless of how open and communicative your relationship may be. Be gentle and patient. Do your best to regulate your own emotions. When you hear that your child is being harassed at school, the parental animal instinct to protect will arise. Hold on to that; yet hear what your child needs to share before taking immediate action. Define what bullying is to your family. Perhaps make anti-bully guidelines for your own home. Research what the anti-bully rules are for your child’s’ school. Most of all help your child to stay confident, loved and worthy. They are key ingredients to getting through these hard times.
Guidelines on how to effectively respond when your child tells you they are being bullied.
1. Check in:
“Sasha, I would like to connect and talk with you about something.”
2. State information:
“I am noticing that you no longer want to stay after school for some of your favorite activities. I also remember you sharing me that you were being teased and bullied at school. Are these related?”
3. Ask for facts:
“Can you please share with me what is going on? I am not mad or upset, I just want to help you.”
4. Demonstrate empathy and compassion:
“That has got to be really hard to deal with everyday. Thank you for being so brave to share this with me. I know that was probably hard as well. I see why you are struggling and I would probably feel the same way you do in this situation.”
5. Reflect and paraphrase the issue:
“I am hearing that there are three girls who tease and bully you everyday. You are tired of it and don’t want to participate in your after school activities anymore. I completely understand. At the same time, we need to come up with a solution, as I need to have you somewhere safe until I can pick you up after work.”
6. Collective problem solving:
“Sasha, do you have any solutions you can think of? We need to come up with one and I want you to have a say in it. As your parent, I will need to take some action, yet I want you to know you have a voice in your own life.”
7. Offer ways to support:
“Would you like some help talking to the principal/and or the teachers? Do you need support in finding ways to stand up to the teasing? What other activities can we get you involved in to maybe avoid the girls all together?”
It is very important as a parent that if you choose to seek help to end bullying from the school and/or other parents involved that you communicate that action with your child first. If your child shows up at school and discovers unexpectedly that the information had been reported, this can break the lines of trust. This may put the children in a position to deal with the repercussions on their own without preparation. Sometimes the child just wants to be heard. You as the parent will always know the best time to step in and intervene.
To hear from the youth themselves, I recently asked a range of Elementary to High School kids the following question:
“If you could tell parents advice about how to respond if their child is being bullied, what would you tell them?”
“Home school them if you can.” Nicki, 10
“Tell your kid that they can talk to you anytime about bullying. Then call the principal and tell them so they can help you at school.” Reyanna, 11
“Try to teach your kids how to stand up for themselves.” Abbey, 11
“Don’t just tell them to stand up for themselves or get over it. Help them.” Casey, 13
“Don’t just call the parents of the bully without telling you. It makes it worse.” Marcus, 13
“If you can, move your child to a different school” Elina, 15