A recent study issued by the Pew Research Center reports that a majority of teenagers (59 percent) have experienced some kind of cyberbullying. The most common forms of harassment cited are name-calling and rumor-spreading.
Other examples of cyberbullying against teens are: receiving explicit messages they didn’t ask for; continuous asking about their whereabouts, what they are doing and who they are with by someone other than a parent; physical threats; and having explicit images of them shared without their permission.
The surveys were completed in 2018 by 743 teens and 1,058 parents living in the U.S. An equal number of boys and girls reported that they were harassed online. The vast majority of teens surveyed believe that online harassment is a problem and do not believe that tech companies, teachers and, least of all, politicians are capable of adequately addressing the problem.
Although New York State has put legal muscle into the fight against bullying in schools with the Dignity for All Students Act, it is not enough to tackle this social problem. No amount of legislation and no penalties for intimidating schoolyard behavior, no matter how severe, can guarantee that children will be safe at all times in, or outside of, school. In fact, the majority of cases that we see at North Shore Child & Family Guidance Center involve anxiety and depression, and of those, a large number of kids and teens report that they are being cyberbullied.
It is no wonder that the teens who responded to the survey rate lawmakers as the least helpful in combating cyberbullying. On May 7, 2018, First Lady Melania Trump launched her “Be Best” campaign to address online behavior and support children’s emotional well-being. Although this is a noble cause that she has chosen to champion, politically-motivated bipartisan cyberbullying among adults has been flooding social media at a frenzied pace. Some incite violence.
For example, most recently, a political consultant who was indicted by a grand jury on a number of charges, including obstructing a congressional investigation, posted a threatening photo on Instagram of the federal judge assigned to his case. The image was of the judge’s face with a rifle scope’s crosshair just above her head.
At the same time teenagers have little faith in adults’ ability to address the problem, they expressed more confidence in parents’ ability to tackle cyberbullying. According to pediatrician Larissa Hirsch, “If you discover that your child is being cyberbullied, offer comfort and support. Talking about any bullying experiences you had in your childhood might help your child feel less alone.” Dr. Hirsch continues by suggesting you should make sure your child understands that he or she is not at fault, and that it reveals more about the bully’s nature than their own.
If you decide to report a case of cyberbullying to your child’s school, be sure to tell your child in advance and develop a plan that is comfortable for both of you. Save or take screenshots of any messages that are threatening as evidence and advise your child not to retaliate as that could lead to an escalation of the situation.
If your child is the bully, Dr. Hirsch recommends, “Talk to your child firmly about his or her actions and explain the negative impact it has on others. Joking and teasing might seem harmless to one person, but it can be hurtful to another.”
Finally, be a good role model by demonstrating positive online habits yourself.
Andrew Malekoff is the Executive Director of North Shore Child & Family Guidance Center, which provides comprehensive mental health services for children from birth through 24 and their families. Visit www.northshorechildguidance.org or call 516-626-1971.