A: Preteens and teenagers are facing a tougher world than you or I did when it comes to being made fun of, teased or outright bullied. My father taught me to simply chant, “Sticks or stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me” and then walk away from the bully like I could care less. But truth be told, those “names” can break hearts and a teen’s fragile spirit.
In our day, bullies had a rather small circle of influence: the school playground or cafeteria, a small neighborhood or a summer camp. But today a bully has the world at their fingertips — literally. And that kind of power can destroy young lives.
Internet safety experts at the nonprofit organization “i-SAFE,” reveal troubling findings:
- Fifty-eight percent of teens report that someone has said mean or hurtful things to them online.
- More than 40 percent of these teens say it has happened to them more than once.
- Fifty-three percent of teens admit to having been mean or hurtful to another person online.
Overall, according to i-Safe, “More than half of U.S. teenagers, struggling to make sense of adolescence and their own identities, have fielded false rumors and humiliating comments about their looks, habits, social lives, or sex lives, via the Internet.”
So just what is cyberbullying? It’s harmful harassment that takes place during and via online communication in four basic ways:
- “Flaming” or Harassment. Sending repeated intimidating, angry, offensive or crude messages to an individual via e-mail, instant messaging, text messages or to an online group such as a chat room.
- Denigration. Sending or posting harmful and false assertions about a person to other people through social networking sites like Facebook or even creating a website to spread rumors and mock a person.
- Impersonation. In this instance, the bully pretends to be someone else or they create a false identity and send or post material that makes their target look bad in order to embarrass or harass them.
You’ve already identified one of the telltale signs that saysyour granddaughter could be a victim: She appears sullen and upset whenever she’s been on the computer. You might also see this if she can receive text messages or has access to the Internet on her cellphone.
Other signs are: coming up with excuses to not go to school, dropping out of sports and after-school activities, not going out with friends or to the mall, inventing illnesses to get out of social events, complaints of headaches, stomach aches, lack of sleep, feeling sad or suddenly no longer going online.
So what can you do?
1. Ask your granddaughter to show you how the Internet works — email, texting, instant messaging, how to join a chat room — and teach you about Facebook. Chances are you’ll learn just how savvy and involved she is with social networking and how exposed she is to cyberbullying. Chances also are good that she’ll enjoy showing you how works. This will create an opening for you to gently approach her.
2. Ask if she has any friends who have been a victim. Ask her how this sort of thing happens. Talking about a friend might be easier than asking her directly. Wait for an opening to explore whether or not this has happened to her.
3. Share positive ways that you dealt with bullying when you were a kid. Be honest about how it hurt your feelings. Explain how you overcame it (please don’t tell her you sucker-punched the bully). Teach her how to handle hurt feelings, how to remain true to oneself and reinforce how much you love and respect her, citing her positive traits.
4. Ask if she’s told her parents and, if not, gently urge her to do so. If you think it’s serious enough for her teachers to know what’s going on,let her know of your concerns and ell her you’d like to sit down as a family and discuss what to do. Don’t go behind her back.
Whatever you do, don’t downplay it as “kids being kids.” Bullying on the Internet is far worse than what you likely experienced in your day. Her entire class and circle of friends will know what’s been said about her, she’ll think that everyone around her has seen it and is laughing at her (this could be real or imagined), and whatever has been posted has a life of its own. It won’t end with an apology or a handshake.