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How to REALLY Talk to Your Kids About Cyberbullying

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Lori Getz: "Cyberbullying" is the act of bullying online. The actual behavior isn't much different from traditional schoolyard bullying, but the different medium makes the consequences far more severe.

sad teen at computer

Cyberbullying consists of:

  • Sending mean, hurtful or threatening messages via electronic communication (e-mail, IM, text, posts to social networking sites).
  • Pretending to be someone you're not in order to embarrass or harass a person. (Pretending to be someone you're not in order to gain access to personal information is not only cyberbullying, it's identity theft!)
  • Posting pictures or video of another person in order to harass or embarrass that person.

The consequences of cyberbullying are more severe because:

  • The victim has no safe place! Usually, a child can retreat to his or her home to escape the bullying. But with cyberbullying, the harassment is always following them on their phones and computers.
  • The victim sees the messages over and over again! Victims of cyberbullying tend to continue to read the hurtful messages in order to try and figure out why the bully is sending them. This repetitive confusion and self-doubt has a severe effect on the child.
  • Cyberbullying is viral! Schoolyard bullying usually only involves a few individuals. With cyberbullying, however, the whole world is privy to the child's humiliation.

Talk to your children about what it means to be a bully. There are different types of bullies:

  • The Controlling Bully: This bully believes that in order to maintain relationships with peers, they must control them. We have all seen this bully -- the one who no one really likes, but who seems popular because no one wants to be his/her next target.
  • The Victim-Turned-Bully: In order to retaliate against a bully, the victim sometimes becomes the aggressor. This is VERY common in cyberbullying -- and why it's so important that we teach our children to "Stop, Block and Report." (See below.)
  • The "Mean Girl" (or Boy): This bully believes that putting down others is funny and will make others laugh -- thereby increasing their own popularity status.
  • The "I Didn't Mean To" Bully: This bully doesn't see himself/herself as a bully. They are often being careless and thoughtless and do not consider the impact of their actions. This bully will often feel remorse when confronted with how their actions affected others.
  • A Bully's Motivation: I remember my mother telling me that the reason my bully continued to harass me was because the bully was jealous and insecure. I didn't believe her! In my experience talking to bullies and victims, I have since learned that my mom was, in fact, wrong (it didn't happen often).

Bullies are not necessarily motivated by jealousy (although there are some cases of this). They are most often motivated by a severe dislike of an individual and/or the need for control

We must make sure that we explain this to our children, so we can give them the appropriate advice when dealing with a bully. If we teach our children to think they can fix the bully, we put them in situations where they will not win! You can't stop a bully from controlling others. You can't make a bully like his/her victim. Retaliating in kind won't work, either, because the victim will never be meaner than the bully. You can't even ignore a bully. None of this works. The only way to empower victims is to tell them the truth about why they're being bullied, and then help them take back control by rebuilding their own self-esteem, finding a safe group of friends and reporting the bullying to the appropriate agency (a parent, school, social-networking site or even law enforcement) to deal with.

Teach victims to "Stop, Block and Report":
"Stop": Tell your child, "Do not respond to cyberbullying." You don't want your child to inadvertently become a bully because they lash out in defense. Although bullies deserve to be dealt with (and as a former victim, I would like to see them all get their fair comeuppances), that task should not fall to the victim. It's also tempting as a parent to expend time and effort trying to "get the bully that hurt your child" -- especially when the cyberbullying happens anonymously. But how will exposing the culprit help your child? Now they'll just know who it is that hates them so much.

Although you may choose to handle the situation as you see fit behind-the-scenes, make sure you're also focusing on what will help your children rebuild their self-esteem and get past the situation.

"Block": Teach your children how to stop the cyberbully from sending any more messages. If the bullying is happening anonymously, then your child should shut down the application being used to transmit the messages. They may even want to shut down their e-mail, IM or social-networking accounts and start over again with a smaller group of friends they know they can trust.

"Report": Encourage your child to print out the entire conversation and tell someone! Hopefully, they'll tell you first -- although a 2008 study found that many teens didn't tell their parents about cyberbullying because they were afraid they'd take away the technology. Parents, please remember that cyberbullying is a behavior! Let's treat the behavior -- not the technology!

Most websites (including gaming and social-networking sites) have a way to report abuse. That should be the first reporting you and your child do together. Depending on the site and the degree of bullying, they may do everything from warning the culprit to shutting down an account to contacting law enforcement. Different states have different laws about cyberbullying. However, if your child is being harassed or threatened online, contact local law enforcement immediately!

Talk to your children about their role in a cyberbullying situation. There are typically one of four roles being played:

1) The Bully: The person directly involved in the malicious act (as described above).
2) The Victim: The person directly affected by the bullying.
3) The Bystander: The person who, while not directly involved, is aware of the situation and does nothing to stop it.
4) The Advocate: The person who, while not directly involved, chooses to stand up to the bully and attempt to stop the taunting, teasing or harassment.

Take time to role-play, allowing your children to experience all four roles so they can decide the best course of action when it comes to cyberbullying. Talk to them about what it means to be respectful -- both in the physical realm and online. Also, it's important that you model positive, respectful behavior in the home. (Bullies often learn aggressive behavior in the home, whether from a parent or a sibling.)

Your children should have a predefined plan for dealing with cyberbullying. That way, they'll have a mental path to follow should they ever find themselves in a cyberbullying situation. We don't want them trying to come up with a plan on the fly: Impulsive actions often lead to more harm than good. It's the well-thought-out plan that stops cyberbullying!

next: Single Moms Demand R.E.S.P.E.C.T.
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Marian Merritt April 22, 2010, 12:01 PM

Lori, great job, as always. I’d just like to remind your readers that cyberbullying begins earlier than teen years so parents should talk about online etiquette (“netiquette”) and consequences of bullying behavior from the moment the child begins using a mouse.

I commonly see password theft among kindergarten children so we can’t begin our education early enough.

I love your reminder to tell our kids we won’t take away the computer, internet, cell phone or other technology when behavior is the issue.

Lastly, and this is my own trick, when your child experiences a mean online message or text, tell them not only NOT to reply but to say, if anyone asks “did you see my email/text/comment?”, “My mom was using my computer/cellphone last night.” This uses the parent as scapegoat for any failure to reply and raises fear in the bully’s mind that a parent might have seen the message.

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