Cyber Bullying

My son came to me a while back about a kid at his school. He was distressed about the fact that this kid was posting stuff on his Facebook wall. The majority of it was through an app on Facebook that asks certain questions about different Facebook friends, and the person answering has the option of answering “yes” or “no”. On his wall, it says “Little Johnny has answered a question about you. Click here to unlock”. So there is no way for many people to see what the question or the answer is. But from what the Taz told me, the questions were along the lines of “Do you think the Taz is ugly?” or “Is the Taz smart” or “Do you think the Taz picks his nose”. Of course, this kid thought it was funny to answer every question with a negative answer, and the Taz was naturally getting more and more agitated by it. I told him that if it really bothered him to just delete that friend or block the app this kid was using. But I didn’t take it too seriously because this was a common app that kids were using to answer questions about each other on Facebook. 

But then this kid became ultra focused on the friendship that the Taz shared with a girl in his class. He actually found me on Facebook and wrote me a message to inform me that the Taz had a girlfriend, an attempt to get the Taz in trouble. Upon further investigation I found that he had also posted on the Taz’s wall about the relationship. 

Little did this kid know that what he was participating in was called cyber bullying, from beginning to end. And what he was doing was not uncommon from what any other kid might be doing online. 

So what is cyber bullying? It’s any kind of harassment that takes place online. It can be as harsh as posting vicious things in a forum chat room, social network, or through email. Or it can be as light as to purposely make someone feel bad online. And the truth is any kid is capable of being a cyber bully, even those we wouldn’t deem as bullies in person. My kid is capable of it. Your kid is capable of it. All it takes is to not think things through before hitting the “send” or “post” button. 

President Obama tackled the issue of cyber bullying this morning, followed by a live chat at the White House through Facebook that was hosted by Kalpen Modi, associate director for the White House Office of Public Engagement.  The live chat was about 45 minutes long, and covered what the panel knew about cyber bullying, as well as answering questions emailed to them about the issue. And they made a lot of points that are worth taking into account. 

First of all, it’s rare for bullies to feel like they’re bullying. Instead, their frame of mind is that they are justified. This is where we parents should be stepping in with our kids. Teach them the Golden Rule – to treat others as they would like to be treated. The most important point that was brought up repeatedly throughout the chat was the question we should be teaching our kids to ask themselves: “Am I treating this person with dignity?” More importantly, is dignity being used when it’s hard? It’s not hard to treat someone with dignity when it’s easy. But when there is anger or a disagreement in ideas involved, dignity is hard to come by. There’s a thin line between what is right and what is wrong in regards to bullying online. Because something is said through text, it’s hard to distinguish the true meaning behind what could just be teasing, and what can be classified as harassment. This makes it ultra important for us to teach our kids to think before they post or send something online. 

On the dignity point, there are words that are used casually by many of our youth, but also target a group of people in a negative way - words like “retarded”, “fag”, “gay”. If your teen believes that everyone should be treated with dignity and yet they’re using language like this, it’s important that we teach them the hypocritical behavior they’re taking part in. When they use words like “fag” or “gay”, they are part of the group that is degrading. Ask your child, “Do you believe it’s ok to degrade others? Because that is what you are doing when you use those kinds of words in negative ways.” 

Many parents are either unaware of any cyber bullying their child is taking part in, or are simply in denial when it is brought to their attention. “Not my kid,” is a common misconception. And this is to the frustration of many teachers who are very aware of bullying done either in the classroom or online. But how do teachers bring this to a parent’s attention? The first is to set up a time with the parent to discuss the situation in person. Start out this meeting by mentioning something positive about the child first. And then go directly into the situation at hand. Stress your responsibility to the classroom, how it’s your job to ensure the safety of every child, the child in discussion as well as the rest of the class. “I really like your child, and that is why I’d love to work together on this with you to make this a positive experience for everyone in the class.” 

And how do we, as parents, tackle cyber bullying without invading our children’s privacy? How involved we get depends on the child. Do we demand their password or insist they chat with us whenever they’re online? It really depends on your relationship with your child and what is most comfortable with you. While it’s true a child can create more than one Facebook account (or limit your access to them), it’s not a bad idea to be “friends” with your kid on Facebook. In fact, 86% of parents online are “friends” with their child. 

Do I believe this kid that was harassing my son online is a bad kid? No. I also don’t believe that either of my children is incapable of cyber bullying, or that cyber bullies are only bad kids. Any child can be guilty of this kind of behavior. And it is our job as adults to a) model the behavior we wish for them to emulate and b) keep the dialogue of online behavior a constant point of discussion with our kids who use the Internet. 

Have you experienced a form of cyber bullying? Do you have concerns about it, or tips on how to tackle it? Share your thoughts in the comments.

Want more? Check out my blog at Wine Country Mom.

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