Remember the muscle-bound, hulking Bluto, who bullied Popeye in those old cartoon strips? Well, physical bullies like him have been around forever. But for kids today, traditional types of bullying are compounded by a much newer form of abuse, called cyber bullying, which happens online.
Cyber bullying can be even harder for kids to deal with, experts say. Children can't avoid this kind of bullying by staying away from certain physical places, such as the playground or specific street corners. Cyber bullies can taunt, insult, and ridicule a kid from anywhere, even after the child has returned home from school. It's easy for a perpetrator to bully anonymously, and to gang up with others on the Internet.
Here are five tips on how parents can help to prevent their kids from joining in on the abuse, and from turning into victims.
1. CREATE A CLIMATE OF TRUST AT HOME
Adults need to be very proactive on the subject of cyber bullying, experts say. Kids who are being abused online might not want to tell their parents, often for fear of getting blamed. Children who know that others are being victimized might not want to open up, either, out of the belief that parents won't understand or might ban them from social media.
"The children...keep it on the down low unless there is open dialogue, and the dialogue has to be initiated by the adults," noted Alexis Moore, J.D., founder of the international nonprofit advocacy group Survivors In Action, to Techwalla.
In fact, many parents aren't aware of what their kids are doing online--or don't know the full extent of those activities, in any case. So speak with your children about which accounts they're using, and share some of your own social media experiences with them.
"It's important to ask your child questions and then pause and give them space to answer without jumping in to offer judgement or advice right away. Then, ask your child if they would like to hear your opinion or ideas. This allows for a back-and-forth exchange of information as opposed to an interrogation, and parents are much more likely to get the truth when kids feel heard and respected," suggested Stephanie O'Leary, Psy.D., a mother and two and clinical psycholologist.
A mom of four recommended initiating conversations about cyber bullying by talking through some actual examples of online bullying behavior. "Either kids can [show] examples from their feeds or the reverse--parents can search through their own Facebook feeds (because we're all too old for Instagram)...and find some real life instances of unkind behavior. (hint: it's almost always in the comments). It's amazing how much more impact a lesson has when it's pulled from real-life," said Robin Taylor, chief parenting officer for RAKKOON, an app aimed at giving parents insights into their kids' social media feeds.
2. LEARN YOUR KIDS' SOCIAL LANDSCAPES
GCFLearnFree, a free online provider of technology tutorials, provides parents and other adults with several examples of cyber bullying. These include posting derogratory messages on social networking sites; sharing embarrassing photos or videos; creating a fake profile so as to humiliate someone; and writing hurtful things through text messaging, instant messaging, and online games.
In its studies, Pew Research Center has found that teens often use the term "drama" to describe conflicts between peers, sometimes in place of "bullying." In a 2015 study by Pew, 68 percent of teens said they had witnessed people stirring up "drama" online. Social media sites Snapshot and Instagram are particular hotspots for drama.
Pew also discovered that many arguments that start at school carry over into social media, and vice versa. A lunchroom spat between two kids, which otherwise might quickly blow over, can seem to take on perpetual life in social media, where other classmates might be drawn in. When everyone goes back to school the next day, the conflict is worse.
3. 'BULLY-PROOF' YOUR KIDS
Never belittle your kids about getting bullied (or about anything else), experts agree.
Kids who feel confident are tough to bully, according to Taylor. Parents need to help children along by giving guidance about difficult social matters.
"One of the things that's most important for parents to realize is that kids aren't born knowing how to handle tricky social situations. And few schools offer real instruction when it comes to interpersonal relations," she observed.
Nasty comments can hurt, but they're not always intended in that way. Children need to learn to figure out the intent.
In a blog post, Taylor gives the example of a social media message that reads, "That shirt is my least favorite color of all time. So ugly!"
What should a mom or dad say to that, according Taylor? "Was he insulting you, or was he insulting your shirt? Or was he really just saying he doesn't like the color orange?”
Children might want to remain on a social media channel, despite being bullied, just to keep tabs on what other kids are saying.
As a parent, you might feel the urge to encourage your children to "stand up for
themselves" online, as they might at the playground. On social media, though, it can be wiser to simply ignore mean comments, because a kid can so easily get wat outnumbered out there in cyber space.
4. TEACH KINDNESS TO KIDS
Even kids who are "bully-proof" themselves are not immune to making thoughtless remarks. Kids also need to be taught empathy and kindness.
"If we want our kids to learn how to do the right thing—to stand up for the kid who can't stand up for himself, to befriend the kid who is different and struggling, to encourage their more powerful friends to think twice before hurting someone else—we have to teach them how," Taylor pointed out.
Ask your child something along the lines of, "You wouldn't want Kathy to say (or do) that to you, would you?" It's the age-old Golden Rule.
5. BUT LAY DOWN THE LAW
Online harassment and other forms of cyber bullying are becoming illegal in growing numbers of jurisdications. While you don't want to scare your children, you need to make sure your children realize this. You don't want them to get in trouble with the law.
"While having an open dialogue with children about the dangers of cyberbullying is a great start, it is important to [let] children know that there could be legal consequences as well," remarked Whitney Joy Smith, president of The Smith Investigation Agency.
"[Cyber bullying] is not as simple as hurting someone’s feelings; it could have serious repercussions beyond emotional trauma [to the victim]. There have been countless cases where police have had to get involved following a cyber bullying incident..The Internet is a monitored and regulated space, just as the rest of the surrounding world, [and children] must act responsibly."
Find some newspaper articles online about real cyber bullying legal cases, and bring those into the dialogue with your kids, too.