Witnessing cyberbullying: Teaching kids how to respond to make things better (not worse)

Andrea TomkinsParenting is a tough gig. We know it’s going to be hard going into it, but no one really explains how it’s going to all work when we finally get there. There is no manual, but most parents-to-be read every scrap of information they can find about pregnancy, childbirth, and child development. We read about surviving sleepless nights, feeding, first steps, toilet training, and a hundred more issues.

Even though I often felt like I was parenting by the seat of my pants, we were armed with solid knowledge when our kids were young – and dare I say, had “A Plan”. If there’s a fight over a toy in the sand box, we could negotiate the peace or give a toddler a time out. We usually had the power to step in, kiss a boo-boo, and make it all better.

Although I now like to think of myself as an adept parent of teenagers, The Plan has totally changed or fallen apart because life got a lot more complicated as they got older, especially given the rise of social media and the frequency with which they are connected. And that argument in the sandbox? How can a parent deal with a sandbox that has become wider than the world and deeper than the ocean?

It’s much harder to stay on top of what’s going on in a teenager’s life, not to mention what’s going on inside their minds and hearts – they can be very good at keeping things to themselves. I find myself dealing with unprecedented teen drama. Basically, we’re so far out of the playground I need a road map. Besides, what’s going on now is never as cut and dry as those old sandbox arguments. Sometimes it’s hard to tell who’s at fault, never mind whether or not the behavior can be chalked up to someone being rude or mean, or whether we’re teetering on the cusp of some life-altering bullying.

I think it’s important to help our kids distinguish the difference between bullying, being mean, and being rude. Not all bad behavior on the playground or in the high school hallway is bullying.  

When people are rude, they are inadvertently saying or doing something hurtful to another person. Call it bad manners.

When people are mean, they are saying or doing something that is intentionally hurtful and it might happen once or twice. This is something I once found myself explaining to my teary third-grader when some boys ripped the head off her Barbie and buried the corpse in the school playground.

Bullying is defined as intentionally aggressive behavior, repeated over time, which often involves an imbalance of power.

Cyberbullying - or electronic bullying - is a term that refers to repeated harm inflicted on a person through the use of electronic devices and technology.

My teens are quick to point out that bullying in their world doesn’t look anything like is portrayed on TV and in movies. They are not wrong about this. The bully is never a large, overweight boy wearing a sneer and a jean jacket. The victim is never a scrawny kid with glasses and an inhaler who’s stuffed in a school locker. Bullying today can involve creating fake Facebook personas and pages, sharing gossip and spreading lies, and worse. One only needs to recall the tragic story of Amanda Todd to know how bad it can get.

What might help is to arm yourself with some hard facts. In 2015, MediaSmarts partnered with PREVNet and TELUS to survey 800 youth ages 12–18 to learn more about their attitudes and experiences as witnesses to electronic bullying. And the findings are worth sharing.

First, the bad news. Electronic bullying happens more often than many parents probably think. In the four weeks prior to the survey, 42 percent of youth said they were bullied online, and 60 percent said they had witnessed others being cyberbullied. The better news is that most young people aren’t just letting it happen. Seventy-one percent of youth who witnessed cyberbullying said they did something to intervene at least once. And most said that they’d intervene more often if they had better support from the adults around them.

In response to the survey, a helpful tip sheet was developed for parents, teachers, and caregivers called First Do No Harm: How to be an active witness to cyberbullying.

I asked my own teens to take a look at the tip sheet and tell me – honestly – what they thought about it. They both said they feel “overloaded” with information about bullying through their school (I guess that’s good news, but are they tuning it out?), but they did actually appreciate the less commonly talked about points about what not to do or say that are covered in the tip sheet.

As it turns out, telling our kids to stand up to bullies in every occasion isn’t the best advice. There are a lot of things kids can do if they see someone being bullied, but some things can actually make the situation worse so they need skills to assess the situation to respond appropriately.

In teenage terms, you can lay it out this way: if you see someone taking a stand against bullying – whether by reaching out to the person who's being bullied to make them feel better, or standing up to the bully if it's safe and you’re sure it won't make things worse –let that person know that you noticed, and that you approve.

Kids, especially teenagers, are very sensitive to what their community and peers see as important: three-quarters of Canadian kids say that they would be more likely to do something about bullying if they thought others would respect them for doing it. This tells me it is more important than ever to help our kids recognize and support others who are taking a stand.

To see the full report go to: http://mediasmarts.ca/sites/mediasmarts/files/publication-report/full/young-canadians-electronic-bullying.pdf