If you do much thinking on the topic of cyber bullying, it's probably about how to protect kids you know from getting victimized. In fact, though, statistics show that children and teens are far more likely simply to witness this type of bullying than to experience it personally. Still, watching someone else get harassed can be very unsettling to kids, regardless of where and how the abuse takes place.
In cyber bullying, one kid attacks another kid through social media, texting, instant messaging (IM), or other electronic communications. The bully uses derogatory and insulting language against the victim, tries to gain support from other kids, and in some cases makes physical threats.
Bullies often have emotional problems that cause them to crave the attention and sense of social power they can get from being mean.
Kids can be targeted because their physical appearance is viewed as "different" in some way, or because they suffer from physical disabilities or developmental delays. Frequently, however, bullies just go after people who seem too nice to get aggressive in return.
Cyber bullying shares much in common with various forms of real world bullying, but it can also be even tougher to handle. "Cyber bullying can be just as hurtful as other types of bullying, and in some ways it can actually be worse. Cyber bullying is not limited to the playground; it can occur anytime children are online, even if they're at home. Also, the bully can sometimes remain anonymous, which can make the bullying more difficult to stop," points out GCFLearnFree.org. For victims, the bullying can result in self-doubt, loneliness, fear, depression, and even suicide.
In about half of all instances, the victim knows the bully in the real world. The other half of the time, the reverse is true, according to Cyberbully411.org. And often, bullying incidents occurring at school during the daytime spill over into social media sites at night and escalate. Kids then bring the problem back with them to school the next day. In a way, though, it's easier for one kid to help another in the real world, where anonymity is less likely to happen.
Here are three approaches your kids might take if they are witnesses to cyber bullying, along with the pros and cons.
1. Reporting the bullying.
While this doesn't need to be the first step, many experts advise kids to report incidents to parents, teachers, or other trusted adults. With that said, your child's teachers haven't necessarily received any training in bullying prevention.
Kids can be reluctant to open up to mom or dad about bullying because they think parents won't understand and will simply take away their Internet privileges. Your kid might have even heard words from you or your spouse like, "Danny needs to learn to stand up for himself" or "Why not just let those two fight things out? It's not your problem."
So you might need to be the one to initiate new conversations about bullying. You might say something like, "I've been hearing and reading a lot about the effects of bullying lately, and I'm concerned. If any of that kind of thing is happening at school or on your social media sites, I'm here to help. You shouldn't have to deal with something like that by yourself."
Also, your kid might be reluctant to talk because he doesn't want to feel like a "rat." Impart the wisdom that "telling" is different than "tattling." a kid is reporting on another kid just to get the kid in trouble. In "telling," a kid is making a report in an effort to solve a problem that's having a bad impact on someone else.
Another reason you should get involved is that any online bullying involving physical threats or other illegal activities -- such as sexting or child porn -- must be reported to police.
2. Ignoring the problem.
Ignoring the bully's online behavior is the easiest way to go, and also the least risky. Kids can feel daunted by confronting a bully directly, out of fear that the bully will get back at them. Often, in fact, the bullying will stop if the bully isn't getting the attention he wants.
Sometimes, though, the bullying keeps going. The bully tries to get more and more other kids on her side. Then it's time to take action.
3. Being kind.
Your kid might not have the self-confidence and maturity to be able to stick up for a victim in the crowd. However, just about any kid can approach a victim when the other kid is alone and say, "I saw what happened online (or in gym class or wherever) yesterday. Are you okay?"
Your kid might also invite the other child to hang out sometimes after school -- or, at the very least, to exchange texts or instant messages. If things work out, your kid can ask the other child to join him with other friends at a lunch table, or in a library study group.
Your kid can also tell friends that she's tired of the abuse. Members of the group might agree that, the next time Biff starts to hassle Alan, they'll tell Biff to knock it off. Bullies want to be popular. If being nasty to Alan is no longer considered cool, why do it?
Bullies prey on a victim's social isolation. They're less likely to pick on kids who hang around with other people.
Remember, though, that your child doesn't have to become a martyr. If it turns out that your daughter really doesn't have much in common with Margie, don't try to force the two of them to be besties.
Although kids should never be cruel to other people, they should be given the right to choose their own friends. Also, respect your kids' needs for increasing autonomy and privacy as they grow older. Step in only as needed.