Back To Cyberbullying - I mean, Back to School

For many middle school and high school children, back to school time isn't just a time for new binders, pencils and clothes. It's a time for the summer break from bullying, both cyber and physical, to end. Your children may not tell you of their fears regarding bullying as you prep them for another school year. It's up to you to ask the right questions to uncover this problem and help guide them on the right path for a happier school experience.

Let's focus on cyber bullying, which can be so much worse than the physical type. Why? Because there are no visible marks so it may go undetected for far longer. And it continues, around the clock, everywhere the child has internet or cell phone access, meaning even the family home is no longer a sanctuary where the bullying ends.

First, it's of utmost importance that parents realize cyber bullying is a big problem. Let's not quibble as to the statistics, since some studies say 1/3 of children are victims of cyber bullying, while others peg it as a bigger problem still. Where I think many of us parents go wrong is in focusing on the victim to the exclusion of addressing the other two groups of children. You know that one of those groups is the bullies themselves. But we also need to do something about the silent observers, that same group in physical bullying who shows up to watch the fight, or chant "fight, fight" from safety on the sidelines. In cyber bullying, the silent observers are the children who see the mean Facebook comment, or receive a copy of the cruel email and do nothing in response.

If we fail to talk to all our children about their role as the silent observer, I think we miss out on the best chance to curtail this terrible problem. Every child who sees online cruelty should bear a responsibility to do something. The choice of action might include: reporting the bullying to an adult or the website host; contacting the victim to offer sympathy and friendship; or, if they feel strong enough, standing up to the bully or just refusing to participate. This last option has its own challenges since the bully may direct their attacks towards them in retaliation. Therefore I prefer and recommend we teach our children to both report cyber bullying and reach out to the victims. If we just said, "I saw that email and I have to say that was awful. I'm sorry they are being mean," it could mean a great deal to a child who believes they are friendless and isolated.

You might be shocked to discover how easily a victim of cyber bullying can become a bully themselves. Some of that is just due to the nature of the online world. One mean email is returned with an equally nasty message. Kids join together in out-insulting each other on a social network page. It can be difficult to know who the bully is and who the victim is.

You may be surprised to find out that your child is a cyber bully. It's not always the same kids who bully in the physical world. It can be more verbal, more subtle and more fleeting.  Read this article from Vanessa Van Petten describing how one parent uncovered their daughter's secret cyber bullying.(Hint, check those late night cell phone conversations!)  Tell your children now, before we go back to school, what the consequences will be in your home if they engage in cyber bullying. Remind them of the permanence of online and electronic communications.

Finally, as you prepare to bring your children back to the school, ask your PTA/PTO for information about the school's bullying policy. If it hasn't been updated to include on and off campus cyber bullying, suggest that it be changed. Offer to lead the effort and reach out to organizations such as the ADL for assistance on language. I suggest schools offer written anti-bullying pledges that are signed by student and parent, in the school office. This will prevent kids from ignoring or dismissing the policy if they are required to bring a parent into the school office where the act is witnessed by an administrator. If we are going to impress upon our school community the importance of stopping bullying, it will take some grand gestures to kick things off.