It’s hard to describe the problem of cyberbullying with numbers. Because the definition has a little elasticity to it, because the events probably are underreported significantly, because the offense evolves as fast as technology and because it can be pretty close to anonymous, we can’t say for sure if it’s one in three children who are victims or three in four.
But we know there’s a lot of it out there and we know it’s damaging good kids.
The good news is that we can stop it — or rather, our children can stop it.
Cyberbullying is using electronic technology — usually a phone or computer — to harass, threaten, embarrass or target another person, according to StopBullying.gov. By definition it involves minors. When adults perform similar acts they may be guilty of cyberstalking or cyber-harassment.
It can include everything from mean or harsh statements on someone’s Facebook page (“I hate you. Everybody hates you.”) to hacking someone’s social media accounts or creating fake accounts in someone else’s name. It can include posting someone else’s personal information or photos or videos to hurt or embarrass someone. It can be setting up a website to invite people to vote for the ugliest kid in school.
A sarcastic comment or a mean joke might or might not be cyberbullying: It can be hard to recognize someone’s tone in a text message. But a pattern of cruelty is not accidental.
What makes cyberbullying so insidious is that it can take place 24 hours a day, seven days a week. A girl alone in her bedroom at midnight can be a victim of cyberbullying; there is no respite.
Students who are victims of cyberbullying are at increased risk for anxiety, depression and other stress-related disorders. They are more likely to use alcohol or drugs, to skip school, to have low self-esteem, to get poor grades. They have more health problems, and they may try suicide, according to StopCyberbullying.org.
Cyberbullies like the notoriety and the power they get from the people they bully, but they get even more from the people who watch without intervening and from those who join in.
That’s why it’s so important that we teach our children they can stop bullies.
For peers, the most potent way to stop a cyberbully — or any bully — is to stand up for the intended victim. That takes power away from the bully.
Not everybody may be ready for that giant step the first time they observe bullying. We know that peer pressure is a mighty force with young people.
So there are other strategies that can help. Observers can talk to the victim later and offer to help that person speak to a trusted adult. Or a group of people can stand together to tell a bully to back down. At the very least, telling a sympathetic adult what happened can make a difference.
We also need to make sure our children know when it’s time to involve the police.
Authorities should be alerted any time bullying includes threats of violence; pornography or sexually explicit messages or photos; photos or videos of a person taken in a place where privacy is expected; stalking or hate crimes.
Children who experience cyberbullying can take action to protect themselves. They should learn the three-point rule of cyber safety when they encounter bullying: Stop, block and tell.
When they first see something offensive, they should stop and calm down before acting. They should never respond and never forward anything offensive.
Then they should use social media safety centers to block the bully. Sometimes that’s pretty easy, but sometimes they are going to need help from their trusted adults.
Children and the adults who love them should keep evidence of cyberbullying attacks. Before deleting anything, record the time and date, then take screenshots of the offensive material. Incidents can be reported to web hosts and cell phone providers.
A quote attributed to Martin Luther King Jr. reminds us, “In the end we will remember not the words of our enemies but the silence of our friends.”
We need to teach our children from the first time they pick up a smart phone or sit down in front of a computer that they should never be silent about cyberbullying.
They have within their power the ability to stop bullying. By refusing to forward a mean email, by refusing to go to a cyberbullying website, by refusing to laugh or go along with a “joke,” they can take the power and the fun right out of the bully.
We should teach our children that they have the power to stop cyberbullying by refusing to tolerate it. Showing support for the victim, showing concern for the feelings of others, and refusing to contribute to the mean games: These choices are theirs. It’s not always easy to stand up to a bully, but when they do they not only empower the victim, they empower themselves.
No bully can top that.