While bullying has been around forever, there was no such thing as cyberbullying until about 20 years ago when people discovered the ability to use technology to display their mean, cruel, annoying and generally negative side. And since the late 1990s we’ve seen lots of stories about the “epidemic” of cyberbullying among young people. But as my ConnectSafely.org co-director Anne Collier and I explain in our new booklet, A Parents’ Guide to Cyberbullying, it’s a serious problem that deserves our attention but it’s far from an epidemic and not just limited to young people.
For the most part, cyberbullying is pretty similar to in-person bullying, but there are some differences between in-person and online communications that can change (not necessarily worsen) its nature and impact. As bullying expert Elizabeth Englander pointed out in a recent post on Harvard Education Letter, communicating online takes on different dimensions from in-person relationships including the fact that “Talking digitally can make you feel uninhibited and lead you to say things you might not say anywhere else” and “Texting or posting back and forth about a feeling can cause that feeling to escalate and can make the situation worse.”
Other differences between in-person and online is that a negative online comment can stick around for a long time and be seen by a lot of people. And, unlike a physical confrontation or verbal abuse at school, bullying via text message, email or social networking can follow children home and haunt them after school on weekends and during school breaks. Depending a lot on individual factors including the nature of the incident and the child’s resilience and psychological state-of-mind, the impact of cyberbullying can range from mildly annoying to devastating. It’s impossible to generalize and — even when something tragic follows an episode of cyberbullying, it’s not always possible to assign a single cause for what happened.
Not all unpleasant online interactions are cyberbulling
Having an online argument isn’t necessarily cyberbullying. In fact, the U.S. government’s StopBullying.gov website’s definition of youth bullying (endorsed by most experts) is “unwanted, aggressive behavior among school-aged children that involves a real or perceived power imbalance. The behavior is repeated, or has the potential to be repeated, over time.” A single mean, rude or insensitive comment in an email or on a social networking site — however hurtful it might be — doesn’t, by itself, constitute bullying. If it did, the cyberbullying rate among both kids and adults would probably be close to 100%.
Tips for parents and teens
ConnectSafely.org’s new cyberbullying booklet answers parents’ top five questions and provides tips for both parents and young people. Tips for parents (which are greatly expanded and explained in the guide) include:
- Know that you’re lucky if your child asks for help
- Respond thoughtfully, not fast
- Kids who have been bullied need to be listened to
- The ultimate goal is restored self-respect
Children and teens are advised to:
- Remember that “it’s not your fault”
- Save the evidence
- Not respond or retaliate
- Reach out for help
- Use available tech tools to block he person
- Take action if someone you know is being bullied
This post first appeared on Forbes.com