Bullying in the Internet age

Last week I attended an author talk at the Denver JCC by Emily Bazelon (@emilybazelon) of Slate and Yale Law School. She has researched and written about bullying extensively, including her book Sticks & Stones: Defeating the Culture of Bullying and Rediscovering the Power of Character and Empathy. Some more of my thoughts on her research:

Bullying has taken on an ugly new visage in an age where many children and adolescents are tethered to the internet. Many parents face the difficult decision of giving their children a phone and online access. Parents then have to figure out how to help their children navigate the responsibility and risks that come with it.

It can be a major stress-reducer, a logistics and scheduling boon, and an undeniable security measure to equip children with a phone (smart or not). Giving children access to a smartphone, and the internet, can open a potentially dangerous can of worms though. What parent would ever have time to supervise and monitor all of the interactions their children have or observe online? That’s just not realistic.

At the same time, it is realistic, and some argue the responsibility of the parents, to shepherd their children through their early experiences online to become smart, effective cyber-citizens. This can happen through open conversations about the use and purpose of online access, boundaries and expectations, and limited online privacy. Remember, limited online privacy is no different than the limited privacy at home it’s appropriate for children to have: children need some privacy while knowing their parents have a responsibility to monitor their privacy judiciously to ensure their safety and well-being. When this is made explicit with children, they understand and appreciate the boundaries and expectations. The same can be achieved with online privacy: up front expectations and guidelines for online life, and check-ins and monitoring. When this includes strategies, support, partnering together in online life, it can build pro-social behaviors and resilience.

Here are some great resources from Edutopia on Digital Citizenry and safety.

When children are literally left to their own devices, they will replicate the social gauntlet of their offline experiences online. Often times, they will do so with less inhibition because ‘online’ seems to offer some level of anonymity and shielding. There is no challenge to stand face to face with someone. It appeals to the impulsivity inherent in children and adolescents.

However, bullying online can be particularly pernicious and dangerous. When something is posted on social media, it is enduring. It cannot be processed, forgotten or easily let go of in the company of a friend’s empathic hug, as spoken words might “roll off the back” for a resilient child on the playground. Bullying, taunting and harassment online is permanent. It’s not going anywhere. It gets seen by the masses. Certainly it gets seen, and commented on, and re-hashed by more kids than would hear it in a classroom, on the playground or in the hallway.

Bullying online also pervades life well beyond the school day and the after-school activity. The internet is there 24/7, so one online ‘incident’ can be dragged into many over days. It leads to a vicious cycle. The victim is likely to re-visit it over and over, look at it again and again, see who else has ganged up against them and if anyone has stood up to defend them or offer a word of support. They can get lost in this cycle of despair and hopelessness, unwilling to ask for support or intervention for fear of looking weak or shameful.

This is where the ongoing relationship between parents and children collaborating to navigate the online world can be so important. And, parents can partner with their children to sign off, put the phones down, go for a walk and re-connect. Car time can be conversation time. Play a game or read a book instead of watching TV while texting. It takes energy, but it can be done.

These are the moments in which your child’s resilience is bolstered and is better prepared to face the gauntlet with more effective, pro-social behaviors next time. When you’ve got this connected relationship in person, you’ll be suited to have difficult conversations about bullying in your child’s life (as the victim or the one bullying). You can then partner together to address it effectively and move past it.

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