Once upon a time — as in, 20 or 30 years ago — parents worried about bullies who might call their kids names or physically intimidate them. Moms and dads still do. Added to the long list of parental concerns today, however, is social media, where bullying often takes place beyond the schoolyard — and beyond the jurisdiction of school officials.
October is National Bullying Awareness Month, a time to educate young people about bullying prevention. Decades ago, bullying wasn’t always seen as a bad thing. Some parents and school officials thought of it as a way to toughen up so-called “weaker” kids. The advice was often, if a bully hits you, you hit back. Stand up for yourself. We now know, however, that there is no upside to bullying.
It does not make kids stronger. It only beats them down, leading to poor grades, lost friendships, anxiety, even depression, not to mention the deleterious, long-term effects that it can have on self-esteem. Children who have been bullied regularly tend to have poor self-images compared with those who have not.
Statistics show that more than half of adolescents have been bullied online, and about the same number of young people have engaged in cyber-bullying. In addition, only 52 percent of students who experience cyber-bullying report the incidents to a parent or another adult, according to www.nassaucountyny.gov. Some of the most common forms of cyber-bullying include:
• Repeated tormenting online.
• Sending insulting emails, texts or messages.
• Starting a website or blog to embarrass, insult or threaten someone.
• Creating a fake profile to harm or ruin someone’s reputation.
• Impersonating someone with the intent to cause harm.
• Sharing defamatory information.
• Threatening to share someone’s personal information if he or she does not comply with a demand.
In the worst of cases, bullies have taken locker room photos of students changing clothes or showering, and shared them via social media. In the past, bullies didn’t carry around cameras — and if they did, they would have quickly attracted the attention of those around them, including, most important, their teachers. Now, though, every bully carries a camera in the form of a phone. It’s often impossible to say what bullies are doing with their phones until it’s too late.
What’s a parent to do?
For starters, make sure that your children’s school has a zero-tolerance policy for bullying — and that it’s enforced. Some schools speak of no-tolerance policies, but don’t follow up often enough to ensure that bullies are, in fact, kept in check. Hence, parental vigilance is needed.
Help children understand bullying. To children, it might be difficult to interpret what is and is not bullying. Define it for them, and let them know that it is always unacceptable. Encourage children to speak to a trusted adult if they are bullied or see others being bullied. Adults can provide comfort and support, even if they can’t solve the problem right away.
Monitor social media accounts. Take a look at your children’s social media pages on occasion. Make sure the content and dialogue that is shared with them is positive.
Keep the lines of communication open. It doesn’t take much to spark a conversation with children about their daily lives and feelings — perhaps just sitting down with them for 10 or 15 minutes a day just to talk. The more you have these conversations, the more you can reassure them that they can turn to their parents or other trusted adults if they have a problem.
Encourage children to find a passion. It’s healthy for them to put their phones down and unplug from the internet every so often. Help them take part in activities or hobbies that they enjoy. From playing a sport to joining a youth group or a school club, there are countless activities for children to engage in. They offer an escape from social media and help kids build healthy relationships with people who have common interests. At the same time, they help build self-esteem.
Lead by example. Children pay close attention to adults and how they manage stress and conflict. By treating others with kindness and respect, adults show the children in their lives that there is no place for bullying.
When October ends, the battle against bullying should not. Be mindful of your child’s habits — and keep the dialogue open.