Guest post by Bruce Alan Kehr, M.D.
The long, hot days of summer are (nearly) behind us, grocery stores are beginning to display fall—even Halloween!—decorations (much to the chagrin of customers everywhere), and “Children Crossing” signs are flashing their yellow lights on your daily commute. In other words, school is back in session, which for many of us means slipping back into a seasonal routine of buying school supplies, packing lunches, nagging over homework. For our kids, this transition from the dog days of summer into the fixed pace of the school room was once similarly seasonal—on the plus side, back-to-school meant reuniting with friends, while on the negative it meant finding fresh ways to face down bullies.
Nowadays, however, things have changed. With the explosion of social media, our kids are able to maintain relationships with friends year-round—and school bullies are able to easily continue their destructive behavior no matter what the season or time of day. Once used to conjure images of kids being pushed into lockers, eating alone at the cafeteria, or being teased on the playground, the word “bully” now extends into cyberspace. Our kids can now be victimized anytime, anywhere, on any number of online platforms.
But the differences between then and now don’t stop there. Physical attacks have given way to emotional attacks, which arrive in their inbox or notification bars with a threatening immediacy and frequency. And unlike the hallways or cafeterias, many times these hostile words arrive when the victim is alone—leaving them particularly vulnerable. Worse yet, anonymity provides protection for the perpetrators. With no witnesses and no one person to blame, the emotional toll can add up fast.
Cyberbullying is a growing problem—and one every adult must come to terms with as they learn to adjust their parenting towards the Internet age. While we must be aware of this issue year-round, it’s worth it to take a moment at the beginning of this new school year to better understand what cyberbullying means and how adults can help.
What is Cyberbullying?
Cyberbullying comes in many forms. It ranges from sending mean messages or threats via cell phone or social networks, to breaking into another person’s account to cause rifts between them and others, to sharing embarrassing images of a person or inappropriate photos. Here are some of the types of cyberbullying:
Harassment: Continuously sending nasty or threatening messages, including sexually suggestive content
Outing: Unveiling private information that was shared in confidence
Exclusion: Purposefully leaving someone out of an event, game, or group online, to deliberately cause emotional pain
Masquerading: Acting as someone else and disclosing personal information, intending to damage reputations and relationships
Denigration: Sending put-downs or spreading hurtful rumors about someone.
Cyberstalking: Threatening harm and using intimidation
Many bullies unwittingly create lasting emotional damage for their victims, placing a strain on one’s ability to regulate and process emotions effectively. Victims may also display impaired social behavior. Of teens presenting to emergency rooms with PTSD, almost half have been victimized by cyberbullies.
The statistics surrounding cyberbullying are astonishing. Approximately 16% of students report being cyberbullied in one year, with a 43% likelihood of being cyberbullied during childhood; with one in four children experiencing multiple episodes. This has led to the immense popularity of songs such as “Skyscraper.” Sung by Demi Lovato, an ardent antibullying campaigner, the song is a heartfelt and poignant depiction of how a young person feels when faced with heartbreaking sadness and pain caused by someone who is trying to tear them down or break them. But while pop culture icons may play a small role in helping a child heal their hearts, parents, guardians, teachers, and medical professionals are the individuals who can truly work towards undoing some of the damage.
How can I help?
With that in mind, I’d like to share with you a step-by-step guide for helping the child in your life cope with and recover from their cyberbully experiences.
Step 1: Develop and strengthen open lines of communication with your child to build greater trust and resilience in your relationship. Research reveals that one in ten victims will inform a trusted adult when they are being bullied. Be willing to listen to songs with your child that address the after-effects of bullying, such as “Skyscraper,” which demonstrates your willingness to enter their world and empathize with what they are going through.
Step 2: If your child comes to you following their having been victimized by a cyberbully, share your pride in their willingness to open up to you, and be absolutely certain that you don’t “punish” them by removing the offending technology from their possession. This could give them the feeling that being honest with you was a terrible mistake, leading them to conceal future problems from your awareness It could make them feel as though they are in trouble, which is exactly the opposite of what will begin to help them recover.
Step 3: Be cognizant of warning signs. Victims of bullying are at a higher risk of skipping school or resist attending school, falling grades, use of alcohol or drugs, and suffering from lower levels of self-worth and self-esteem.
Step 4: Watch for increased levels of emotional distress (Depression, anxiety, irritability/agitation, sadness, and anger). Manifestations could present as poor sleep, poor appetite, emotional outbursts, increased isolation, and the like.
Step 5: Take action in advance of a crisis developing by insisting that your child receive treatment from a qualified mental health professional. If you notice self-harming behaviors (cutting, scratching, punching walls, self-medication with alcohol or drugs), increased isolation or other behaviors that cause concern, seek help as soon as possible. These early warning signs of distress in your child can quickly escalate, and suicidal thoughts and attempts may develop if you delay obtaining professional help.
Step 6: Develop an awareness of what your child’s online activities:
- Look for the sites they frequently visit and observe how they interact within those sights.
- Request permission to follow them on social networks or ask if another trusted adult could. By taking this step, you can monitor what others are posting about your child on social media. Ask for their passwords or invite them to show you texts, messages, and posts.
Step 7: Implement rules and regulations for appropriate use of technology:
- Establish rules about various websites that are “off limits.”
- Place time limits on how much time your child may devote each day to using their technological devices.
- Remind them to be mindful about what they are posting (statements, beliefs, pictures, etc.). Other people can see their profiles and so posting something that may have negative consequences for them in the future may need to be revised or removed.
- Encourage them to keep their passwords private, even with friends.
The traumatic after-effects of cyberbullying may persist over an extended period of time for many victims. Encourage your child to report any incidents of cyberbully attacks regardless of whether they or a friend have been victimized. When these attacks are detected, reported and emotional support is provided early-on, your child can begin to heal. Early intervention is the key to preventing life-threatening after-effects.
Bruce Alan Kehr, M.D. has served as Founder and President of Potomac Psychiatry since 1981. Washingtonian Magazine awarded him their “Top Doctor” designation from 2012 to 2017. He practices psychiatry and psychotherapy using “The Biopsychosocial Model” to treat the “Whole Person,” by understanding each individual’s unique genetic, biological, psychological, social, and life-stage characteristics. You can pre-order his new book, Becoming Whole: A Healing Companion to Ease Emotional Pain and Find Self-Love, by clicking here.
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