Since 2006, PACER’s National Bullying Prevention Month has been a resounding success at getting people to talk about this pervasive social issue and start working on ways to fix it. Everything changes, though... and dare I say it? Yes. It might be time to start thinking about a Cyberbullying Prevention Month in addition to what we’re already doing.
See, a lot of adults are making a big mistake when it comes to the digital world - because it all happens on a screen, it often seems like it’s not “real,” and whatever problems occur there aren’t as important as the problems that occur offline. Unfortunately, the statistics have proven that we can no longer afford to think that way.
Today’s children are often referred to as “digital natives” because the electronic world has always been a
part of their lives. We’re getting to the point where the digital world isn’t just something they have in their pocket - it’s on their wrist, on their face, and likely going to be in every appliance they own.
In a practical sense, there’s no difference between the online and offline worlds for them - and while that’s good in some ways, it’s also caused a few problems. Chief among them is the fact that more than half of all teenagers have been bullied online.
That’s right, half of them. Now, most of this takes place among kids 12 years or older (which is the average age of getting a smartphone and more access to the Internet); basically, in middle school and high school. We’ve done well at reducing the rate of playground bullying, but these efforts have done very little to stop bullying from moving into the digital world, where pictures and messages can haunt people for years to come.
Some Practical Preventative Steps
Now that we’ve acknowledged the problem, let’s talk about what we can do to prevent it.
Schools need to focus on changing their culture, not simply explaining what cyberbullying is and telling students not to do it. The reason for this is that poorly-run bullying prevention programs can actually make things worse. Bullies are not stupid—if they hear about things like using false accounts to make themselves harder to track down, they might start doing just that.
In other words, “bullies are bad” may not be what we should teach children. “This is how you should talk to each other online, and here’s how you can block and report inappropriate communications if necessary” might be a more effective strategy—especially if coupled with support from adults.
Parents also need to get involved because much cyberbullying takes place from the home. The visual cues of bullying don’t exist in this format—a bully who’s writing up a nasty message looks basically identical to someone who’s just texting a friend.
Dealing with cyberbullying should be part of a holistic approach to the digital world, especially when a teen gets a smartphone—once you know how to protect your child, you can focus on teaching them the skills they need to protect themselves. Don’t give teenagers unlimited digital freedom until you’re sure they can handle it.
Cyberbullying is a real problem - in fact, it may be one of the most common problems today’s teenagers face. With the support of parents and teachers, though, we can make a real difference and help put a stop to cyberbullying.
Born and raised in Austin, TX, Hilary Smith is a free-lance journalist whose love of gadgets, technology and business has no bounds. After becoming a parent she now enjoys writing about family and parenting related topics.