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What can you do about cyberbullying? Here are some concrete recommendations

Most teenagers don’t want to admit they’re being bullied, so finding a solution can be difficult

PORTLAND, Maine — Rich Brooks of Flyte New Media joined us on 207 to talk about cyberbullying: what it is, why it can be so harmful--especially to teenagers--and what can be done about it. Here are the basic points that Rich provided.

What ground are we covering when we say "cyberbullying?"

The short version is that it's repeated, willful bullying that takes place over digital devices...smartphones, computers, tablets, and so on. It happens on social media sites, in video game chats, or through texting. Now that people are using VR and AR devices it's happening there as well.

Sometimes it's about spreading rumors, or ostracizing others, right up to threats of physical attacks or worse. What makes it difficult is that it can be done anonymously, allowing bullies to hide their identities.

 How prevalent is this?

The stats seem to be all over the place, and that could be because a lot of it is self-reported, and people don't always like to admit they're the victim. It's definitely on the rise as more of our lives are being lived online, especially during the pandemic, and it appears to be hitting teens the hardest, and girls report 3 times more harassment than boys. The most common reports are of girls cyberbullying other girls.

A 2018 Pew survey found that 59% of teens experienced some form of abusive online behavior, with 90% of teens saying that cyberbullying is a problem affecting their generation, with 63% saying it's a major one. It results in anxiety, depression, self-harm, and even suicide.

 You mentioned social media sites...are the sites doing anything to protect people from cyberbullying?

Some are, although it's hard to know how much impact it's actually having.

Instagram offers a feature called Restrict, which allows you to block people without them knowing it, with the idea that young people may be fearful of reporting or blocking their peers.

Twitter offers an enhanced "prompts" feature that suggests thinking twice about sending that mean tweet, giving you the opportunity of sending it, editing it, or just deleting it.

If they really wanted to slow this down, they should also turn on your front-facing camera and show you a mirror image of yourself, as studies have shown that people are more honest when they can see themselves. Maybe it might make them more empathetic as well.

What should parents do?

It's difficult because most teens don't want to admit to their parents they are being bullied. Cyberbullying.org is a great website with a lot of resources, including scripts that parents can use to talk to their kids.

It starts with being understanding and empathetic. Listening to your kids and what they want. Letting them know that you're on their side. Even if your kid is willing to talk with you, it's not always easy to find a solution. Most kids won't want their parents to contact the school, with the fear that this will make it worse. Or talking to the parents of the bully, for the same reason.

An important idea here is resilience; not to sweep in and fix the problem, but help them hone their own ability to deal with the post or what people are saying.

 What to do if you realize your child is the bully?

The first step is to acknowledge the issue. Anyone can be cruel to others, sometimes not realizing the hurt they're causing. The goal is to stop the bullying, and that may take some investigation, some conversation, and trying to build empathy within your child for their peers.

You may need to set up stricter parental controls, checking on their online activity, or even taking away their electronic devices.

 Is there a role for schools?

Schools had been hands-off for a while, saying these things occurred off-campus so it wasn't really under their purview. Maybe because of remote learning, or maybe because of broader cyberbullying laws being passed, however, they have been stepping up their game.

Cyberbullying now can result in suspension or expulsion.

On the prevention front, many school districts are "beefing up" social-emotional learning curriculum, teaching kids how to better share and express their feelings, which might head off some bullying.

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