About Cyberbullying: For Parents, Educators
Here's some clarification, food for thought, ideas for family discussion, and a recommended curriculum for schools.
Lisa's experience of "cyberbullying" is probably the most common - some anonymous person(s) who made up "random screennames" and sent her IMs saying "stupid things" like "you're stupid" or "you're fat," she told a reporter from the Digital Natives project at Harvard University's Berkman Center. Though it probably wasn't cyberbullying as defined by researchers, it certainly made her wonder: "Are my friends really my friends?" It was "kind of an uncomfortable ordeal because I never knew who it was in the end, but it wasn't as bad as being made fun of in real life could've been," Lisa, a University of Massachusetts, Amherst, student from New Jersey, said in an audio interview.
That last point gets at the distinction between online harassment and cyberbullying, which has a more hurtful connection to school life. In real life, Lisa says, "it's hurtful because it's direct and it's personal and you’re standing there and it hurts. If it's on the Internet, you can easily disregard it because it's not personal, they don't know who your are, and they can't offend you because they're not talking about you - they're just trying to give a comeback. So if it's on the Internet, it's kind of like you have more power, you're in much more control, it's kind of like a big shield."
There you have possible talking (or coaching) points for parents whose kids are being harassed online. As Lisa points out, these experiences are indeed a big deal when you're in the middle of them, and they do raise all kinds of unsettling questions about who your friends are, but if they're anonymous meanness, a parent might say: You can choose to make that same anonymity that they're hiding behind your "shield," as Lisa put it. They have no idea how their words affected you, so you're in control - you can choose to let the words roll off and not react. Because reaction is very likely exactly what the harasser wants, and you can decide whether s/he gets it." The uncertainty that goes with incidents like this is rarely unique to the incident; it's more like a constant of pre-adolescent life that spikes each time such an incident happens. As tweens learn social norms, figure out and create their school's social scene, and explore identity, they're also learning how to cope with the uncertainty and other challenges associated with the wider circle of relationships in adult life.
I hope parents will actually get the chance to have this conversation with their children, since kids so rarely report online harassment - only 10% of 12-to-17-year-olds tell parents or other adults, according to research from UCLA, which also found that the harassment Lisa described was the most frequently occurring kind among the young people in its survey. Harsher cyberbullying may call for outside professional help.
A much tougher story that does fit the emerging definition of cyberbullying was told in the Long Beach (Calif.) Herald this week. For details on the slightly one-sided telling of the story (because the alleged bully's family declined to comment), please read the article. But the outcomes so far indicate a lot of maturity on the part of the girl, "Mary" (15), who experienced the online abuse. After having to leave her school (she is still being home-schooled a year later), "Mary said the experience made her stronger, but only after a period of depression." She told the Herald that, even though people tell her bullying is "part of life," she feels that it is not and should not be. She also told the paper that she could handle having her experience told publicly if it could help somebody else.
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