When we think of cyber bullying we often think of hateful, hurtful, or threatening text messages, embarrassing stories or pictures being shared online without permission and with the intent to harm, and spreading nastiness about people on social media. It’s more than that and it can make a teenager feel very isolated.
The internet has made it very easy to target specific contacts and contact them quickly and discretely. Everything from e-mail to private events on Facebook to group personal messages allows teenagers to form tight, private groups that easily exclude those they wish to make fun of or isolate. Instead of standing up in front of the class and saying “Party at my place” or putting a poster up in the hallway, you can now make a private event and only invite the people you want.
Now you can talk about it, right in front of people, and they know they’re being excluded. They know there is a place online where other people are getting together where they are not allowed to be and often they know that they are being teased there where they cannot defend themselves.
Remember the Dalhousie University School of Dentistry? A group of young males created a closed group on Facebook and proceeded to post sexist, sexually derogatory, hateful, comments about women in their classes, women they saw on campus, or women they met at clubs. The women had no access to the group and had no idea what was being said about them.
Any teen can do this.
It takes two minutes to create a closed Facebook group. It takes a few minutes more to add the people who are in on the joke. It could take weeks or months or years for the target to find out that everyone in their class or school is making fun of them online.
Yeah, but kids have been excluded from parties for years. Teenagers have been gossiping over the telephone for decades. There’s always someone who will be left out. What’s the difference? Kids are still being bullied. Kids are still being excluded.
True. But now they can be teased, harassed, hurt, and excluded 24/7.
One of the symptoms of depression is the feeling of isolation. You may be surrounded by people and still feel alone. When a person is bombarded my texts containing threatening or hateful messages it emphasizes that everyone else thinks they are worthless. It reinforces their exclusion from the group.
So what do we do?
Telling a teenager to turn off their cell phone or stay off of social media isn’t the answer. Increasingly the digital world is becoming the WHOLE WORLD to these kids. Telling them to stay away from the internet is like saying “They all think you’re different so let’s make you more different.” It won’t work. And just because you close your eyes to the bullying doesn’t mean it goes away.
What we do is we teach compassion. We teach tolerance. We teach empathy. We practice what we preach. We lead by example. We treat everyone with dignity and respect, even if it’s JUST the kids taking our order at the fast food joint or pumping our gas. We do this by donating to charity and then talking to kids about why we donate to charity. We teach kids to see the value of unique and special, and to be tolerant of others who are different.
How? How do we teach these things?
Start young. Talk to your teens. Talk to your children. Talk to them about charity and tolerance. Tell them that all people have value. Provide them with opportunities to give of themselves. Build their self-worth so the world can’t knock them down.
What can you do if you are a victim? Tell someone. Show someone the messages. Report it. Get in touch with organizations like Kids Help Phone or The Canadian Red Cross and get involved in the Pink Shirt Day campaign. Organize talks about bullying, find guest speakers. Report it online at the Canadian Cyber Bullying Tip Center. Be nice to others. More and more we see victims responding to bullying with acts of kindness and maybe even teens can start to lead by example.
There is hope.