Facing the Facts About Cyberbullying

Dear Dr. Dave,
One of the students at my daughter’s school posted an awful picture of another student online. Talking to my daughter, it sounds like cyberbullying and other mean stuff online is not unusual. She told me it wasn’t a “big deal” and not to overreact. What do you think? How do you prevent cyber bullying?

Anne, Vermont

Dear Anne,

Young people today are wrestling with the same questions that Baby Boomers and Gen-Xers alike did when they were teenagers. Questions like, “Who am I?” and “Who do I want to be?” They are also riding the same emotional roller coasters trying to sort out friendships and identity. They are at times amazingly caring, kind, and thoughtful; at other times they can be cruel and impulsive.

The difference today is that the exhilarating and sometimes intense journey of adolescence is on display for the entire world to see. Young people today leave they do online leaves a permanent mark. Many have taken charge of their digital footprints, using the online world as an engaging canvas for creative expression and a powerful tool for communication, learning and advocacy--a space to show off an evolving online ethic and their best selves to family, friends and others.

Unfortunately, other young people are using these tools to tease, bully, and harass their peers. While bullying in schools has long been an unfortunate element of adolescence the barriers today are lower than ever and the stakes are higher. With one click and a student can send a nasty message about someone to the entire school. With another, an inappropriate photo can be in the hands of everyone on the soccer team. Not only does this have a devastating impact on the bully’s target, but the bully’s digital footprint is marred as well.

Parents should know the facts about cyberbullying:

  • 42% of kids have been bullied while online;
  • 53% of kids have admitted to saying something mean or hurtful online;
  • 58% of kids have not told their parents or an adult about something mean or hurtful that happened to them online. (www.isafe.org)

What is cyberbullying?

While mean behavior is not acceptable, it isn't necessarily the same thing as bullying. In general, cyberbullying is defined as the use of technology to support aggressive, deliberate, and hostile behavior intended to hurt others. Often there is a power imbalance between the bully and the victim, making it difficult for the victim to defend him or herself. 

Cyberbullying also does not exist in a vacuum. While going online may reduce some of the barriers to bullying, it is generally deeply entangled with offline behaviors. In other words, getting rid of the Internet does not solve the underlying challenges for youth experiencing bullying in all of its forms. 

The brain and cyberbullying

That said, there are some differences between face-to-face and online bullying. The social cues that govern our interactions are changing as we use more and more digital tools. Without seeing the pain they cause on the victim’s face and absent the threat of adults’ overhearing, kids may not hesitate when they text, post, upload, and blog mean things. According to the author, Daniel Goleman, research at the University of California, Davis has shown that people act differently when sending an email or a text message than they do in person.  And their brains work differently too. When we’re face-to-face with people a part of our brain called the orbitofrontal cortex constantly reassesses “emotional signs and social cues” that help us interact appropriately.  But when we’re looking at words on screens instead of real, moving faces, we don’t get the benefit of our orbitofrontal cortex and we act with less attention to the emotional consequences of our words and actions.  That’s because the orbitofrontal cortex helps to control the amygdala, a part of the brain associated with impulsive behavior and commonly referred to as the “anger center.”

All this helps explain why cyber bullying has become more common.  Especially in social situations, we might need the tiny clues others’ facial expressions give us in order to manage our impulses. It is clear that we need to make sure that young people understand that there are consequences for online or face-to-face cruelty.

Digital citizenship   

The great thing is that young people are working to change the norms of online behavior as well. Youth are uploading videos to www.thatsnotcool.com to share their own stories of standing up against cyberbullying. I spent last week with 6th graders at a Minneapolis public school and this is what they committed to as young digital citizens:

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Meeting the challenge of cyberbullying 

We aren't going to banish cyberbullying with a single solution. We can start by making sure that kids have clear expectations and consequences around responsible online behavior. Setting parental controls can also keep you cued in to your kids online activities.

This is just the beginning though. We need to follow up with a collective conversation among teachers, social workers, law enforcement, counselors and parents about how to best support young people and teach conflict resolution and communication. We need to support programs that guarantee that both bullies and the bullied get the help they need.

Let's also not forget to include young people in the conversation about what it means to be a good community member and a thoughtful digital citizen – the quality of their footprints and their relationships depend on them figuring it out.

Here are some cyberbullying tips to get you started.

Thanks, Erin Walsh