Teaching Social Integrity Regardless of the Medium

In spite of the fact that nearly half of teens have been victims of some form of cyberbullying and 88% have witnessed online cruelty toward others, only 15% of parents even know it’s a problem.

Today’s teens have grown up in a world where technology has always existed. They have been called digital natives. Interacting digitally comes naturally to them and they easily pick up new technologies. Adults are at a slight disadvantage. Most likely, you will never be as adept as your teens, but as parents and educators, you do need to be aware of what technology they are using and how they are using it. It is our responsibility to teach how to use all interactive tools responsibly regardless of how much they may have upgraded in the last decade.

Teens expect to be able to get away with more online and through their smart phones because the adults in their lives are less familiar with how to use them. They feel confident in their ability to hide things from their parents. This lack of accountability leads to poor decisions that could impact them for the rest of their lives.

You may not be as familiar with technology as they are, but there are certainly proactive ways you can help protect your teen and others by staying informed about online trends and risks and teaching that basic social skills apply in every medium, not just in person. Ultimately, your teens will have to be the ones to make the change in the cyberbullying epidemic. The solution lies with them.

What is Cyberbullying?

The most basic definition of cyberbullying is any kind of bullying that occurs through an electronic device. Cyberbullying happens through texting, phone calls, instant messages, whatever social media outlet is in vogue at the moment, message boards, multi-player video games, and pictures and videos posted on sites like YouTube, Instagram, and Flickr. Any place there is the possibility of interaction, there is also the potential for cyberbullying. Cyberbullies may also hack the victim’s social media account and post embarrassing or mean things using the victim’s name.

Brush up on the definition of bullying.

Cyberbullies use these media to harass, insult, intimidate, threaten, and socially isolate victims. They choose victims of online bullying the same way they choose victims of in-person bullying. Because it is essentially the same problem, a large part of the solution is also the same. Your teens can make themselves less attractive targets online the same way they would in person.

Sexting often leads to cyberbullying. Sexting is when a teen takes a nude or semi-nude picture of themselves and sends it to someone via text or other digital means. The sext is usually intended for only on person, but these pictures rarely ever stay just between the picture taker and receiver. Sexts often get passed around, sometimes school-wide inciting slurs, insults, and pressure for more revealing shots from people the victim never intended to see the picture in the first place. Once the picture has been sent, the sender has no control of who will see it. Sexts can haunt teens long after they send them. Sometimes teens will send old sexts around to others as an act of revenge after a breakup.

Anything uploaded online or sent or received through a smart phone has a very long shelf life. Sexts or bullying posts can torment teens years after they thought the event was over.

How big of a problem is it really?

Not only do bullying posts last indefinitely online, but the potential audience is equally vast. The bullying spreads much quicker and more widely than in-person bullying ever could. An entire student body can witness a bullying post and respond with their own degrading comments that same day.

When bullying happens in person, the bystander base is relatively small. There may be a small group around to witness the attack, but this kind of bullying usually happens in the shadow and remains limited to the people physically present. Cyberbullying is available for the whole world to see. It transcends school buildings or cities and can follow a victim even after they have moved and become enrolled in a new school. Cyberbullying has no physical boundaries.

The torment of cyberbullying doesn’t stay at school. With in-person bullying, the victim gets a reprieve from the cruelty at home or away from school. They get a recovery time before returning to the location where the bullying occurs. Cyberbullying follows victims wherever they are. They don’t get a break from the attacks which can occur at any time of the day or night. Even if the victim is unaware of what peers are saying online, it will catch up with them at school the next day, so restricting a victim’s access to technology does not solve the problem.

Growing numbers of teens are taking their own lives due to cyberbullying in the U.S. and around the world. Tragically, these victims feel that they can’t escape and that suicide is the only way to make the bullying stop. New laws are being put in place to curb this epidemic, but legal action alone is not an effective enough deterrent to bullying.

Why is it such a problem?

There is no simple answer to this question. Otherwise there may be a simple solution. But there is a complex web of reasons that all act together to contribute to the proliferation of digital cruelty.

One thread is the pervasiveness of technology. Teens live a growing portion of their lives in the virtual world. Their digital identity and the interactions they have are just as much a part of their social lives as in-person interactions. This gives a bullying another avenue in which to seek out and attack victims. It is an extension of what they do in person. It simply provides a bully with more tools with which to do what they’re already doing.

But the screen also provides an illusion of anonymity. Teens may feel that their online identity shields them from the consequence in the real world. Even students who may not bully in person may be more tempted to bully online because they cannot see the immediate effects of their words. When they cannot physically see the face of the person they are tormenting, they are more likely to say mean and derogatory things. The separation can cause a decrease in empathy. It may seem like it doesn’t count when they say things online instead of in person. They may think of it as a joke because they can’t see the target’s reaction. This is where we need to teach all of our teens that the same rules that apply to in-person interactions also apply online. Tell your teens that if they wouldn’t say something to a person’s face, they shouldn’t say it online or over text.

This can be hard for students to grasp because the cause and effect center of their brains are not fully developed. The human brain does not finish developing until age 25. For teens who already have more difficulty processing cause and effect, further distancing that effect through online interaction can lead to very poor decisions on what they say to other people This is where adults must come in and keep students accountable for their actions. They may not be able to self-regulate what constitutes as cyberbullying. Create clear rules at home and in the classroom about what is and what is not appropriate to say online.

What can I do about it?

The most important thing you can do is talk to your teens. Ask them if they have seen cyberbullying and have them give an example. Ask them if they have ever cyberbullied anyone and why. Ask if they have been cyberbullied. You may have to assure your teen that if they are being cyberbullied, you won’t take away access to their devices, but that you will work with them to make the bullying stop.

Deal with cyberbullying the same way you deal with in-person bullying. Most important, make sure you document the bullying. Teach teens how to take screen shots whenever they see bullying online. If they have an iPhone, all they have to do is press the home and power buttons at the same time to take screen shots of bullying texts or photos.

Get a reminder of the full list of Dos and Don’ts.

Regardless of whether your teen has been involved in cyberbullying in the past, make sure they know what it means to be good digital citizens. Just as you taught them how to behave in the physical world when they were young, you must also teach them how to behave in the digital world. The same social interaction rules apply. Teach them empathy in all avenues of life, including their online interactions. Along with this, it is essential that you model good online behavior. Don’t contribute to the negative online diatribe. Teens learn cyberbullying behaviors from what they see adults post online. Instead, post, tweet, and text constructively.

Once they have mastered being good digital citizens, take the challenge a step further. Encourage them to be digital superheroes. They have the power to reduce cyberbullying when they see it. They can be defenders of the defenseless. Encourage them to stand up for others–all the time, every time. Teens taking a stand against bullying online are much more effective deterrents and laws or threats of consequences (remember, that portion of their brain is still forming). Bullies are much more likely to back off their attacks when their peers stand up for the target. Ultimately, their peers are the ones they are trying to impress with their cruelty. When those peer stop being impressed and instead express disapproval, they take away the bully’s power and motivation. Your teen could be the hero who saves a life.


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