If there's one thing I've learned in months of reading about it, it's that bullying (and cyberbullying) is so commonplace, so widespread, and so pervasive—it's something all parents, everywhere, need to know about.
We as parents have incredible power to influence our kids. And each of our kids has the power to influence their friends. And that's exactly what it will take to get past all the hand-wringing about bullying behavior and actually do something to counter it.
This is a good place to start. We've collected all the best information we could find—about what bullying is and what it looks like on social media, about how to help a kid who's being bullied (as well as a kid who's behaving like a bully)—and combined it into this one post. The goal is to offer a set of practical, specific, and actionable things we can do as parents right now, to help our kids recognize, avoid, and survive bullying and cyberbullying.
(You can use the links below to skip around within this post!)
- Bullying–what it is and what it isn't
- Bullies, Victims & Bystanders—why we need to drop the labels and help all our kids develop good peer relationships
- Kindness Wins–how parents can tackle bullying behavior where it lives
- CYBERbullying—what is cyberbullying, and what does it really look like on popular social media sites like Instagram, Snapchat, and Ask.fm
- How to Bully-Proof Your Kid—some kids are less likely to be bullied than others. Why is that?
- Are You Raising a Bully?—what parents can do to encourage socially savvy kids to take the lead in preventing cyberbullying
Bullying—What is it?
In the last year, I’ve read a lot about bullying in general and cyberbullying in particular. One of the most important things I learned is that bullying isn’t a destination, it’s a continuum. It ranges from unintentional, isolated comments that are less than nice all the way to true bullying, which is repeated, intentionally hurtful comments and actions.
Level 1: Unkind
Kids don’t always think before they speak. So even “nice” kids sometimes say unkind things to one another. That’s Level 1: someone says something that causes hurt feelings without specifically intending to and without repeating it. For example, one kid leaves a comment on another kid’s Instagram post:
That shirt is my least favorite color of all time. So ugly!
That's probably not a comment you’d want your kid to leave on someone else’s photo… but we all make mistakes. And usually with unkind comments it’s easy to assign a different, more neutral, meaning. (“Was he insulting you, or was he insulting your shirt? Or was he really just saying he doesn’t like the color orange?”)
Level 2: Rude
Comments could be called rude when they defy social conventions or accepted etiquette.
Shut up! You’re a jerk for talking that way about the New England Patriots, and I don’t care what you think anyway!
Depending on the context, it may not be socially acceptable to tell someone to “Shut up!” and certainly not to call them names. We'd all rather our kids didn't do either—not in person, not on social media. But you can still help your kid find a way to see through the rude words to what the other kid might have been thinking. (“Do you think maybe Henry was feeling bad because another kid was insulting his favorite team? Maybe he was angry because his own feelings were hurt, so he said something, without thinking, to hit back.")
Rude comments are something we want to help our kids avoid—but a child who lashes out and says something rude isn’t necessarily a bully. That situation still lacks two important factors: intent and persistence.
Level 3: Mean
When a kid says something that qualifies as “mean,” it’s because there is a specific and conscious intent behind the hurtful comment.
You’re so stupid, I can’t believe you got a 35 on your spelling test. Looks like stupid runs in your family. It’s no wonder your dad drives that crappy old car.
It’s hard to imagine someone making the above comment without understanding that it would hurt. And it’s much harder to assign a neutral intention to a comment like that. But, even so, a mean comment doesn’t become bullying until it becomes part of a pattern of behavior.
Level 4: Bullying
Bullying is the result of intentional hurtful comments or actions made consistently and repeatedly over time. An unhealthy relationship has likely been developing for some time when you reach this stage. The risk here is that this kind of behavior can become a habit. And that’s part of what makes bullying such a tricky problem to solve.
It’s easier to step in with some parental help BEFORE your kid finds himself in a true bullying situation. Keep your eyes and ears open, look out for the classic signs of an unhappy kid, and be prepared to dig deeper if it becomes clear that there’s a conflict developing. Somewhere between mean comments and outright bullying, there's an opportunity to help your child deal with the situation (no matter which side of the equation he's on).
One of the hardest parts of tackling bullying as a parent is overcoming our built-in resistance to recognizing that our child is struggling. It's so much easier—and we're so much happier!—when we convince ourselves everything is just fine. Be prepared to open your eyes to something you might rather pretend is just "normal middle school" stuff. Then be ready to engage your child in conversation about it—even if you know that conversation will be uncomfortable.
Bullies, Bystanders, and Victims
One of the first things I realized when I started looking into bullying is that it's not as straightforward as it might seem.
I wrote a whole blog post about why it's not just a bad idea, but also inaccurate, to classify kids as either bullies or victims. Sometimes kids play different roles in different social groups, and the social dynamics of middle school can get really complicated.
The truth is that virtually all kids will get caught up in some kind of drama (online or offline) at some point.
Previous research by Pew Research and others has noted that many teens use the term “drama” to describe conflict between peers, often in lieu of the term bullying. In this most recent study, 68% of teens who use social media have witnessed people stirring up drama on these platforms.
That means our kids—yours and mine—have probably already been involved in a situation that could be called bullying. But it wouldn't surprise me if you hadn't heard about it. Because that's what tends to happen.
Kids really are hesitant to tell anyone when cyberbullying occurs. There seems to be a common fear that if they tell their parents, for example, they'll lose their Internet access.
Part of what makes bullying such a difficult problem to tackle is that neither participant really wants to talk about it. The kid who's leading the charge against another kid is actively trying to evade the prying eyes of parents and teachers. And often the kid who is being hurt by the behavior is either scared of repercussions or convinced that no one could help even if he opened up about it.
Fear of disclosure outweighs desire to share, and that's a big problem. Kids are not likely to just initiate a conversation unless their environment is conducive to that. Kids know what parents want to hear and don't want to hear.
Who wants to imagine their child as a victim? No one wants to think their own child is a bully. It's ugly and unpleasant on both sides. So the first step to opening up communication is to ditch the labels. Instead of classifying kids as bullies or victims, try to see each child as an individual and to figure out what’s going on that's contributing to the situation. That helps the kid on the receiving end of the bullying not to get trapped in a victim role and instead to take an active role in standing up to the bullying. And it gives the aggressor more room to change his behavior instead of living up to the label that's been applied to him.
There are other people involved in most of these situations, and some anti-bullying campaigns have begun to focus on them—the bystanders. The idea is that if you can get the kids on the sidelines to step in at the first sign of bad online behavior, then the dynamics of the group can curtail the drama before it reaches a critical tipping point.
There are a growing number of resources that encourage kids to be upstanders, instead of bystanders, when they see other kids being mistreated online.
Standing up for others is what we tell our kids to do. We also tell them that people who stand by and do nothing when someone is bullied are as bad as the person doing the bullying. The exact same truth applies online.
Standing up for others is undoubtedly great advice. But let's acknowledge that sometimes kids don't have enough social capital themselves to be able to stand up for someone else. So it helps to offer kids other ways they can be a good friend to a kid in need. Talking with the hurt child, sitting with them, or offering to help seek the aid of an adult (even reporting the behavior on the victim's behalf) can make a difference without forcing a confrontation.
It's important to remember that kids aren't born knowing how to handle tricky social situations. And few schools offer real instruction when it comes to interpersonal relations. So 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.
Dr. Margaret Schlossberg, a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (who is also a friend), recommended I read a book called Kindness Wins. The book's focus is making the case for teaching kids online decency. And, yes, there's a lot of advice in there that we already understand to be true. But we often fail to apply those old lessons to new situations—and new technology.
Interestingly, author Galit Breen doesn't advocate for taking away kids' access to social media, even as she acknowledges that it can be easily used to hurt others. Her advice is more practical and, I think, more realistic:
Social media is one way kids are connecting with each other. And taking away an opportunity for connecting and relationship forming isn't our job as parents. Teaching our kids how to do this responsibly and kindly is.
She likens it to teaching kids to drive. You wouldn't give them one quick lesson and then toss them the keys. You'd let them practice, make mistakes, learn new lessons, and try again. (It's a comparison we made ourselves in a recent blog post.)
And the more we as parents know about how today's instant, connected, and increasingly public digital world will affect our kids' experience, the better prepared we'll be to help them navigate it.
When we were kids and someone did something unkind that bothered us at school, we had the time and space to process it at home. But there's little distance for today's kids between school and home. The online connection to their friends is always open.
Kids today have a phone tucked inside their thumb-holed sleeves, and if someone bothers them or they're in a bad mood or their feelings are hurt or their hormones are high, they can text, comment, or message their angst instantly without taking the time to cool down.
Recognizing this is key to helping kids deal with it. You can emphasize that it's important to take a deep breath before posting, that not every post requires a comment, that not every event needs to be documented. We also need to help them learn to apologize when they hurt someone else, and to recover from their mistakes.
Some of Breen's advice goes the other way—instead of encouraging parents to think in terms of the new digital sphere, she suggests that when it comes to cyberbullying, kids should try to picture good, old-fashioned face-to-face communication:
Teach your kids to imagine how every person involved in a post would feel when seeing it—who's tagged and who's not and why. Encourage them to post as if they're facing a person and posting at them.
Simple, right? But how big a difference it would make if every kid imagined looking someone in the eye as they posted.
Breen also suggests that every action has a reaction:
"...and every post is meant to incite a reaction. What's the purpose of yours? If it's not kind, don't post it."
So much of the advice in this book sounds deceptively simple. But it's easy to look at the trials and tribulations of middle school from our grown-up perspective, forgetting that we all had to learn even the simple lessons once. In the era of social media, when everyone is so much more aware of everyone else, it's important to remind kids that they don't always have to join in.
There are two important messages I want to send to my kids about their social media use. The first is that they never have to participate in anything online that they don't want to. And the second is that anything that might hurt someone's feelings should fall into the "don't want to" category.
Empowering a teen not to go with the flow, but instead to follow their own conscience has never been an easy lesson, and it never will be. But like so many lessons we have to work hard to instill in our kids—it's worth it.
What is CYBERbullying? And what does it look like?
There's a lot of overlap between traditional bullying behavior and cyberbullying. The biggest difference is that with cyberbullying all or most of the bad behavior happens online.
The tricky part of cyberbullying for parents (and teachers and school administrators) is that it's much harder to see. Taunting and teasing happens on Instagram or Snapchat—social media platforms that many parents don't understand or don't use. Insults thrown around online don't make any noise.
With technology also comes new and increasingly more damaging ways to take information and images that were shared in confidence and make them public. It's always been possible to trust someone with a secret only to have that person betray your trust and share it with others. But there's a distinct difference between the second-hand sharing of secrets and what tends to happen these days via messaging or social media. Now when someone betrays a trust, they can do it by sharing an actual text exchange, or a revealing selfie, or a screenshot of an online conversation. The level of betrayal in the latter case is an order of magnitude greater than what was possible before the advent of social media. And that's important to talk to with our kids about. Carelessness, callousness, or even outright ignorance are all reasons why someone might betray a trust—that's all just as it used to be. What's different is the digital permanence of information and the ease with which it can be shared via social media.
Not only that, but things that used to be shared between small groups of close friends are now publicly shared with hundreds. Imagine every grade school birthday party you weren't invited to when you were a kid... now imagine all those parties posted in living color the very next day on Instagram.
There's another complication, too. Raise your hand if you've ever sent a snap. No? I figured. This is part of the reason it's so tough for us parents to talk to our kids about cyberbullying behaviors in a meaningful way. We don't really get it because things look so different now than they did when we were in 7th Grade.
I can help with that part. While we were developing our social media monitoring app, RAKKOON, we had the um, privilege, of going through over half a million social media posts. That gave us some insight into how kids use social media—for good and for ill. We also spoke to Dr. Jessica Vitak, one of the academic researchers behind a University of Maryland study concerning cyberbullying by teens.
While social media platforms enable individuals to easily communicate and share experiences, they have also emerged as a tool for cyberbullying.
At the same time, attempts to mitigate or prevent cyberbullying from occurring in these networked spaces have largely failed because of the complexity and nuance with which young people bully others online.
Cyberbullying behaviors tend to happen in specific ways on different social media platforms. It helps to know what to watch for as you scroll through your kid's social media feeds. (You are doing that, right? Cause you can't possibly see what you're not looking at...)
For every popular social media app that exists, there seem to be some specific ways kids use it to create online drama. For instance, the uber-popular Instagram lends itself to exclusion and the creation of fake accounts that make cyberbullying easier.
Another, more explicit, form of exclusion happens when kids are tagging each other (attaching names to each image) in photos:
Kids also use fake Instagram accounts—"finstas"—to impersonate or torment other kids.
Sometimes the very point of creating a finsta is to fool parents. Following their teen’s real Instagram account may make parents feel like they’re in the know. Meanwhile, teens are posting photos of parties where drugs or alcohol are present, or other risky teen behaviors, to the secret finsta account. In this way, even attentive parents are kept in the dark about the places where actual danger and poor decision-making lurk.
We've also heard of instances where a teen creates a finsta account for the purpose of trolling or teasing other people. An account that puts photos of various boys and girls into "couples," for example, in order to spur gossip.
(You can read about finstas in greater detail, here.)
Lots of parents I know are worried about their teens using Snapchat—but maybe not for the reasons they ought to be worried. Because Snapchat’s image-centric messages are set to disappear after they’ve been read, parents worry that kids will use the app to send more inappropriate images or text than they would on other, more permanent, social media apps. Snapchat-sexting is the big parental worry. And while I’m sure there’s some of that going on (because if there’s a way for teenagers to exploit something risky, some of them will always do it!), a larger problem seems to be kids “flaming” other kids on the app.
Flaming 1. To engage in an online argument usually involving unfounded personal attacks by one or more parties.
Snapchat makes it easy for users to send image-based messages to others, fast. Teens looking to stir up trouble take advantage of this by sending hundreds of snaps a day to a target, piling message after ugly message onto the victim. Here's a fictional example pulled straight from that University of Maryland study:
It’s easy to block another user on Snapchat. So why don’t victims simply block their tormenters? Sometimes it's because the kids all know that blocking is a possibility—so the dominant teen threatens even worse taunting if a target blocks them. Sometimes it's because the person being harassed decides that knowing exactly what's being said about them is better than wondering why other kids are sniggering as they pass in the hall.
I dare you to find a teen who doesn’t access YouTube on a daily basis. Can't find one? That’s because it’s the most ubiquitous social media platform there is. Most parents don’t even think of YouTube as a social media outlet. But if you ask your teen, they’ll quickly fill you in on how cyberbullying on YouTube works:
Ask.fm is still a moderately popular question and answer app with teens. This site made headlines in 2013, after it was linked to a string of teen suicides.
The University of Maryland study cites a fictional example of how the site might be used for cyberstalking or harassment:
After the site changed hands in 2014, the new owners (a group that also owns ASK.com and Vimeo) promised to crack down on people who were using the question & answer site to harass vulnerable users. They even went so far as to promise to shut the site down if they couldn’t find a way to keep members from using it to bully others. The jury is still out on whether they’ve been successful.
These platforms aren’t going anywhere, and we won’t get anywhere by trying to fight them or say they are bad. We need to be aware of how they’re operating for us and to build more agency around how we interact with them. That’s the best we can hope for.
The bottom line is that it's not realistic to expect everyone will behave well in the real world, and even less plausible to expect people will behave well online, where they can hide behind anonymity and throw darts at others from a distance. So if we can't stop cyberbullying altogether, what can we do?
Here are some additional strategies you can try:
- To use their words. It's helpful to encourage kids to come up with some responses they can use, if they find themselves facing a tough situation.
[Help] kids come up with wording that will be easy for them to say when they have the opportunity to stand up against this kind of behavior. And the best way to do that is to start a direct conversation with them about it.
Kids need words that sound like them: That's mean. Not touching that. Not cool.
Once we've practiced these kinds of responses with them, they'll be available to our kids and ready to use. They'll be on the tip of their fast-typing fingers, exactly where we want them to be.
NOT to share anything online (via text, email, or social media) that they'd be uncomfortable having plastered on the wall of the cafeteria. I know, I know—this is probably the one rule that every parent in the country has shared with their kids. And those kids still have expletive-laced arguments via text and engage in sexting. All I can say is that it's never a bad idea to remind them of this rule, whether they ultimately choose to follow it or not.
Don't compare your blooper reel with someone else's highlight reel. The images kids post on their Instagram feeds represent the best parts of themselves and their lives—their personal highlight reel. It's easy for kids to see someone else's highlights as being that friend's "normal," even while their own life feels like a blooper reel by comparison.
By (repeatedly!) bringing up the truths that everyone has highlight reels and blooper reels, you can explain that Greener Grass Perception is just that, a perception. They'll need to sit with some of their jealousy and sadness and then they'll need to practice the habit of moving forward.Filed under: teens, cyberbullying, social media, digitalparenting, Instagram, bullying, parenting, life lessons