What to Do About Bullies

In the past year, many communities and schools report an increase in the number of incidents in which children are harassed because of gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation or political point of view. According to Stopbullying.gov, 49% of children in grades 4 to 12 have experienced bullying, and 30% admitted to bullying others.  

Parents are understandably worried about how all this impacts their children. In the National Poll on Children’s Health conducted by C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital, 61% named bullying and cyberbullying as a“big problem” for children and teens.  Kids are worried too. A second survey conducted by Reportlinker found that among young people, 13-24, 71% were concerned about cyberbullying.

Like old-fashioned bullying, cyberbullying involves a willful, repeated effort to humiliate, harrass or threaten another person. Unlike traditional bullying, cyber attacks use technology like text messages, social media, apps or even the chat option on video games. If you can get your child to talk openly, he or she has probably witnessed or been involved in episodes in which kids sent or posted vicious messages or compromising photos. In some cases, kids create groups that mock other people or participate in polls that label someone the ugliest, fattest or dumbest.

Some children can shake off this kind of badgering; a few may even laugh at it. But cyberbullying is different from traditional bullying in two ways. First, there’s no escape. Technology follows kids home and even to another school. As soon as a child logs on, insults, slurs and hate become vivid again. Second, as everyone now knows, nothing disappears online. Taunts that would have been forgotten at the end of the day can resurface at any time. Young people can be truly traumatized if their most embarrassing moments go viral.

Now more than ever, parents need to stand firmly on the side of decency and kindness. By setting clear household rules—and following them yourself—you can help your child develop the self-control that keeps them from making someone’s life miserable just because they can.  Here are some other ideas about how to combat bullying online:

Delay. Middle school students are especially vulnerable to bullying because they are trying to figure out where they fit socially. Often they form very strong ties to a particular peer group, and they can be insensitive, intolerant or even cruel to people outside that group. Keeping kids away from social media until they have better social skills makes sense, though it isn’t easy if “everyone” has a cellphone. ‘Wait Until 8th’ is an effort to create support for parents who don’t think smartphones are necessary in middle school. Started by a mom in Austin, Texas, the program encourages parents to band together so teens don’t feel like the only one without a phone. For more information, visit waituntil8th.org

Avoid anonymous apps. Being anonymous seems to encourage cruelty. The most recent example is an app called Sarahah, a word which translates as “honesty” in Arabic. Originally intended as a way for employees to provide constructive anonymous feedback to employees, the app has degenerated into a place where people feel free to say all the horrible things they would never say face-to-face. An adult might be able to ignore the comments, though that’s difficult when they involve threats. For teens and pre-teens who haven’t yet developed thick skins, the feedback can be devastating. Anonymous apps are cowardly. Make them off limits.

Enlist AI. The survey by Reportlinker found cyberbullying was most likely to occur in text messages and social media accounts like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Snapchat. Supervising these environments isn’t easy, unless parents turn to software like Bark. This new app uses artificial intelligence to scan communications for slang and other clues that reveal bullying, grooming or harassment. Just as important, the app gives parents advice about how to intervene constructively. Bark offers a 30-day trial free and then charges $9 per month. Google offers similar monitoring through Family Link, though it’s available only for Android. A good list of other parental controls is available at Be Web Smart (tinyurl.com/controlapps)

No roasting. Are insults funny or, well, insulting? That’s the question you have to ask about a new fad called roasting. Kids voluntarily post a photo or video with the hashtag #roast me. Sometimes what they get is good-natured joshing. And sometimes they get ripped to shreds. A child who asks to be roasted is hungry for attention and probably needs better outlets. Kids who participate in roasting need to know the difference between constructive criticism and gratuitous cruelty. Since even adults can have trouble with this distinction, kids should avoid roasting or being roasted.

Discuss real world consequences. Sometimes kids—and adults—use the concept of free speech as a justification for speech that denigrates or disparages other people. Although free discussion of ideas and opinions is at the heart of democracy, it should always be done with respect. Children need to understand the difference between healthy, even heated, debate and attacks on people for who they are or how they look. People can—and often do—change their minds when they are exposed to better ideas. They can’t change ethnic origin, skin color, family history, disability and many other characteristics so it is simply wrong to mock them for these things. Young people should also understand that, even though the Constitution guarantees freedom of speech, what they say has consequences. Because of hateful posts, young people have lost jobs, scholarships, college acceptances and athletic opportunities, not to mention friendships with people who find such views offensive.

Perhaps the most important thing parents can do to counter bullying of all kinds is to raise children strong enough to be compassionate, curious, constructive and courageous instead of critical, condescending, cowardly and cruel. To do that, all of us have to aspire to be models of what we hope our children will become.

Carolyn Jabs, M.A., has been writing about families and technology for over twenty years. She is also the author of Cooperative Wisdom: Bringing People Together When Things Fall Apart, a book that describes a highly effective way to address conflict in families, schools and communities. Available at Amazon and cooperativewisdom.org.    

@ Copyright, 2017, Carolyn Jabs.  All rights reserved.