What can be more painful to a parent than losing a child to suicide? The problem of cyberbullying was brought to national attention several years ago by the passing of 13-year-old Megan Meier, who committed suicide subsequent to cyberbullying by Lori Drew, the mother of another girl. Despite years of public campaigns and passage of laws against cyberbullying, the phenomenon is becoming increasingly common and children continue to suffer, with too may of them tragically taking their own lives.
What can you do to protect your children from the ravages of cyberbullying? The advice we usually get from experts is that adults need to increase their supervision of children, to inform the school and the legal authorities when cyberbullying is discovered, and to fight for increasingly tough anti-bullying laws.
While such efforts may be helpful and are sometimes necessary, if you are depending upon them as the ultimate solution for your children, you are likely to be disappointed. It would be wonderful if we could solve social problems simply by passing laws against them, but bullying has been an escalating problem despite passage of intensive anti-bullying laws.
Getting the authorities involved against other people’s children usually escalates hostilities, as their parents are likely to take their own kids’ sides against yours, and the kids will hate your child for trying to get them in trouble. Many bullied children who have taken their own lives did so after the authorities got involved.
And as much as you may wish to, you can never fully supervise your children’s use of cell phones and computers or you’ll have no time for anything else. Furthermore, if you try to deprive them of all privacy, they are likely resent you. If you truly wish to help your children avoid the pain of cyberbullying, it helps to take a different attitude towards the problem.
Would you give your children a car and let them drive it without having learned how to use it properly and how to avoid the dangers of the road? Would you expect the police to be able to protect kids while they are driving so they don’t crash? Of course not! Yet that is exactly what we are doing with electronic communication. We give our children cell phones and Internet access without any training, and expect the adult authorities to protect them from each other!
Therefore, if you truly want to help your children, you may consider the following suggestions.
1. Don’t provide your children with cell phones or Internet access unless they have learned to use them responsibly and to handle the potential dangers on their own. Otherwise, you should consider yourself partially responsible if anything bad happens to them.
2. Explain to your children that if they are going to play with fire, they can get burned. Electronic communication is incredibly wonderful, but it also can be used against them. It is almost certain that at some point, nasty stuff will be said or posted about them, and they need to accept that reality. Forewarned is forearmed.
3. The gravest danger of all is from adult predators who use the Internet to entrap minors. This is serious criminal behaviour. Instruct your children not to respond to anyone who wants to meet them. If you discover it is happening to your child, you MUST get the authorities involved.
4. Explain to your children that people have freedom of speech in democracies. They are permitted by the Constitution to say negative things as long as their words don’t cause objective harm to people’s bodies, property or liberty. Furthermore, freedom of speech is the solution to verbal bullying. If you try to stop people from saying nasty things about you, they want to do it even more. If you let them say it, they quickly stop.
5. Many children believe that they must respond to everything written to them or about them. Often the best thing is not to respond to negative posts. It is no fun to write nasty things about people if they don’t respond. Ultimately the postings will fizzle away as the kids look for other, more exciting things to pay attention to.
6. If your child does want to respond to something nasty, it is best done with humor, and the safest way to do that is to make a joke about themselves. For example, if there is a posting, “Your mother is a ho!” your child can respond with, “If you think my mother is a ho, you should see my goldfish!”
7. Many kids believe that they must keep their cell phones on at all times. They will even interrupt family dinners in restaurants to respond to any call or text message. Explain to your children that no one will arrest them if they shut their cell phones or ignore unwanted calls or messages.
8. It is very tempting to defend oneself when people say or write negative things about us. But it is a trap. The defensive position is the losing one, so people are likely to keep on attacking. Ask your child,
“Do you believe all the nasty stuff that kids post online? Of course not. So don’t feel you have to prove that what is posted about you is wrong. Most people won’t believe it anyway.”
9. If a kid informs your child that they read or heard a nasty rumor about them, the best way for your child to respond is with the question: “Do you believe it?” This puts the other child on the defensive. If the child answers, “Yes,” your child should say, “You can believe it if you want.” If the child says, “No,” your child can say, “Good.” Either way, your child wins and the rumor-bringer drops the matter.
10. Sometimes the humiliating postings are about something that is true, and other kids know that it’s true, or it is easily verifiable. Your child’s natural reaction is to get angry and defensive, and even to want to stop going to school — or worse! — to avoid the humiliation. However, no-one is going to respect your child more for reacting this way, nor will they stop believing the posting.
Other kids will respect your child much more if he/she acknowledges the truth of the posting maturely, saying things like, “Yes, what I did/what happened to me was terrible,” or “I can’t believe I was so stupid. What was I thinking?” They may even feel empathy for your child. Eventually, kids will stop talking about the humiliating matter when they find new titillating stories to talk about.
11. There’s an old saying, “Bad publicity is better than no publicity.” Ask your children if they have ever noticed the magazines at the supermarket checkout counters or the TV shows about celebrities. They are full of juicy, humiliating tidbits! And they are often true! How can the celebrities stand it? It’s because the nasty stuff keeps them famous. So tell your kids that they are getting free publicity. And remind them that other kids are not going to believe all the nasty stuff about them just because it is posted in cyberspace. It’s not as though it were in The New York Times.
12. If kids are cyberbullying your child, there is a good chance it’s because they feel your child victimised them in some way, so they are getting revenge. In fact, if the kids are angry with your child, it is a definite indication that they feel victimised. So your child can ask them, “Are you mad at me?” or “Did I upset you?” If they answer, “Yes,” your child can discuss the matter and try to resolve it with them, apologising if necessary. If they answer, “No,” they may realise they have no good reason to be mean and will stop. And if they still don’t stop, just let them continue and eventually they will stop.
13. Finally, your children need to realise that if they want other kids to be nice to them, they need to be nice. If they go around saying or writing bad stuff about other kids, even if it’s in response to others’ nastiness, they cannot expect the kids to be nice back to them. But if your kids are always nice, it will be the best insurance against others being abusive to them.
Teach your kids these rules and you will be helping them for a lifetime, not only in cyberspace but also in all of their interpersonal relationships.
Israel “Izzy” Kalman is Director of Bullies to Buddies, a program that teaches the practical application of the Golden Rule to reduce bullying and aggression and solve relationship problems.