Most of us are familiar with the problems that bullies create during childhood and adolescence. We even have a mental picture of what a bully looks like. The bully we imagine is big, rough, mean and aggressive. However, that is not always true and, in fact, on the Internet today, there is a new type of bully. This modern bully is intelligent, female, pretty and probably in honors classes in school.
As a result of social network web sites such as Facebook and others, youngsters are able to write about one another in complete internet anonymity. To make things worse, they can post comments twenty four hours a day and use their smart phones to do so. It is not the fact that these social networks are available that poses the problem for teens, but the way they are used to single out classmates and attack them. This is what is now referred to as cyberbullying.
Anyone who has been a Middle or High School teacher can attest to the ways that girls mistreat one another. For reason that is apparent to anyone, a girl is pinpointed out as a target for rejection by the other girls in a group of friends. Observers such as teachers, can spot the non verbal attacks that go on during class. There are those hostile glares, quietly muttered snide comments and "dirty Looks." Now, the same type of hostility is happening Online.
Tragically, this has resulted in the shocking suicide of some of the victims of this type of behavior. In a way, these suicides prove the wrongness of the old childhood chant that, "sticks and stones can break my bones but names can never hurt me." Names hurt as much or worse than sticks and stones.
What can parents do?
Psychological studies of family structure and interaction has identified those types of environment best suited for children to grow up with a strong sense of self. It is the type of family in which parents are able to provide warmth, guidance and structure to the lives of their children. These are parents who listen sympathetically to what their kids have to say. They also provide guidance and warmth so that parents and children trust one another. These parents know the families of their children's friends and know where the kids are when not at home. They are also aware of what their kids are doing on the Internet. This type of structure allows kids to gain a strong sense of right and wrong, and self control.
Involved parents are aware of those times when things are not going well for their children. They are able to intercede with their kids by discussing the problems that may be troubling them. Support, warmth, guidance and willingness to listen helps kids gain the strength and resilience to withstand and get past these types of bullying when and if they occur.
By the way, the same type of family involvement helps prevent young people from engaging in these types of destructive behaviors.
Of course, we probably cannot prevent cyberbullying but we, as parents, can do a lot to help kids deal with this and other types of problems.
The problem for parents of teenagers is basically the same though all potential adolescent issues: be aware and involved and loving.
Parents of sons, they are not exempt. Boys are not immune to committing and being the victims of cyberbullying.
Your comments and questions are strongly encouraged.
Allan N. Schwartz, PhD