As the father of five children, I have encountered my share of student bullying. Oddly enough, the fundamentals of bullying have not changed over the years. The goal of bullies is still the same – gain attention and dominate others. And while the mechanics of bullying still include tormenting, threatening, harassing, humiliating, embarrassing or targeting others, the ability to do all of this behind the false protection of an electronic device (i.e. cyberbullying) is raising the spread of bullying among students to new heights. Enter coronavirus and the required isolation, and we have an entirely new epidemic within the pandemic.
To further understand the impact quarantining and working and learning from home have on bullying, consider why some kids become bullies in the first place. According to Stomp Out Bullying(TM), one of the primary reasons is because the child lacks attention from a parent at home and lashes out at others for attention. Kids may receive inadequate or inappropriate attention at home due to neglect or parents under the regular influence of drugs or alcohol. Older siblings are often a source of bullying and yes, so are adults, including teachers, parents, coaches and other role models. Being confined in such unpleasant circumstances can rapidly and intensely fuel this need to lash out, gain control and seek attention.
It is quite a shock to many when I share this consequence of our current situation. As if there is not enough to manage. The awareness that, yes, my kid or my niece or my grandchild does not escape the bully just because there is no school, is half the battle. The other half comes in understanding how you can recognize the signs and help the child.
Signs a child may be a victim of cyberbullying:
- Becomes sad, angry and/or frustrated, and seems to worry a lot
- Has frequent headaches and stomachaches
- Gets tense and stressed out when receiving e-mail, text or instant message
- Becomes obsessed with or has a complete, sudden disinterest in devices
- Avoids talking about their change in behavior towards devices
- Shows changes in their eating and/or sleeping habits
- Grades decline
- Withdraws from family and friends
If you are concerned a family member may be a victim, there are many ways to help. Creating a safe environment for conversation is key. Reassure the child it’s not their fault and they are not alone. Be supportive and avoid encouraging them to “toughen up.” Cyberbullying can harm a child easily and have long-lasting effects, including loss of self-esteem, depression, drug/alcohol use, self-harm and even suicidal thoughts and actions. Even though school may not be occurring in the building, alert administrators and guidance counselors. The bully may be exerting other concerning behaviors and school staff are trained to connect the dots. Also consider contacting your local law enforcement if you have any knowledge that personal contact information has been posted online or any threats have been made to the child.
Let’s Flatten this Curve, Too
Parenting is hard. Parenting during a pandemic while quarantined, working from home and caring for others is ridiculously difficult. The good news is some of the ways to prevent cyberbullying can have added positive effects on our kids. We can start by limiting screen time and paying close attention to the apps they have on their devices. Limiting screen time improves sleep quality and mental well-being which, as we know, affects overall health. Many parents create technology contracts outlining appropriate and inappropriate online behaviors as well as consequences for misuse. This is akin to teaching our kids manners in an online world.
It’s difficult to stay on top of all the latest apps, social sites and technology. However, there are a few good, foundational practices that can help create safer digital environments for kids (and adults) including, making sure personal information is not available on social media, keeping social media accounts private and not “friending” people you do not know. Additionally, some of the most popular apps like Instagram, Twitter and Facebook are incorporating proactive measures through settings that filter out hateful comments and automatically detect when language is offensive or defamatory and hide such comments.
We are seeing how technology can enable bullies to prey on kids 24/7 and that social distancing and isolation are worsening the cycle of cyberbullying. Yet, technology can also contribute to part of the solution. Navigate360 develops technology and education to help schools track and report concerning behaviors, including the ones listed above. We are also educating schools on ways to create holistic programs to prevent bullying of all types. Getting access to these materials can make a world of difference to your child and your community.
Setting the example and modeling good behavior is an essential part of the solution. Our kids are always watching us, even when we think they don’t want anything to do with us – like from ages 12 to 18. Demonstrating how to have constructive conversations online and creating safe environments to communicate will go a long way.
Awareness of cyberbullying and understanding the signs can go a long way, too. We want our families and our communities to thrive now and on the other side of the pandemic. That means careful attention to behaviors and strong support for our children. Let’s do our best to be role models of kindness and understanding. Our kids are watching.
Be purposeful. Be passionate. Be kind.