The irony wasn’t lost on many when FLOTUS announced during the presidential campaign last fall that she would take up cyberbullying to protect our most vulnerable citizens. She said, “Technology has changed our universe. But, like anything that is powerful, it can have a bad side. We have seen this already. As adults, many of us are able to handle mean words—even lies. Children and teenagers can be fragile. They hurt when they are made fun of, or are made to feel less in looks or intelligence. This makes their life hard and forces them to hide and retreat. Our culture has gotten too mean and too rough especially to children and to teenagers.” Her husband, Bully-in-Chief, has, with his army of trolls, taken to cyberbullying with as much unmitigated glee as his in-person bullying.
Last September, addressing the UN, was the first (and last) we have heard from Melania Trump on the topic of cyberbullying since her campaign promise to address the topic last year. Her speech came no fewer than three days after her husband retweeted an edited GIF of himself swinging a golf club and the resulting ball knocking Hillary Clinton down. In her address she said, in characteristic vagueness, “I hope to reach out to each one of you here today to call upon you for your support and guidance, and look forward to joining you in collaboration to support and educate our next generation. I’m asking leaders on social media whose target market for their products and platforms is children, as well as community and educational leaders, to join me in this fight for the hopes and dreams of our children.”
If you can overlook the unaddressed irony and forgive the First Lady her complacency with her husband and her complete inaction on cyberbullying one year into her tenure, then look upon her vague promises “to follow up” on the topic with the highest possible degree of optimism, you must agree with her basic sentiment; cyberbullying is heinous and puts children at grave risk. Children, in particular, teens, are the most vulnerable to this form of bullying, and finding ways to mitigate the danger is imperative for their future. A concerted, intentional effort must be made to address cyberbullying—at home, at school, in Silicon Valley, and hopefully someday in D.C.
According to the NCES data for 2015, 21% of children report being bullied (cyber or in person) at school; 23% of these reports come from girls, and 19% come from boys. Couple this with statistics out of the CDC that suicide has now become the second leading cause of death in teens (the first being unintentional injury and the third is homicide) accounting for 17.4% of teenage deaths, and the effect is chilling.
2012 research regarding social media and suicide found that victims of cyberbullying are twice as likely to attempt suicide than their non-bullied counterparts. Interestingly enough, the same research shows that those who bully are 1.5 times as likely to attempt suicide themselves. The authors concluded, “Although cyberbullying cannot be identified as a sole predictor of suicide in adolescents and young adults, it can increase risk of suicide by amplifying feelings of isolation, instability, and hopelessness for those with preexisting emotional, psychological, or environmental stressors.”
Cyberbullying presents an overwhelming challenge to school administrators, teachers, parents, and children. There does not yet exist a uniform strategy in schools on how to deal with cyberbullying, and despite recent rhetoric, the Trump administration has not yet made it a serious priority. Social media outlets have come under criticism in recent years in many unimaginably tragic stories for their part in aiding bullying. On their websites Facebook, Snapchat, and Instagram all address bullying (Instagram’s page being, by far, the least impressive and least exhaustive), but these pages are only available online and not via the apps.
Parents cannot rely on tech giants, an empty-handed Melania, or teachers and school administrators to singly tackle the issue of cyberbullying. It is at home that the best defenses can be built. Parents must be involved in and aware of their children’s social media use.
We collated a handful of guidelines from a few thoughtful sources on how to talk to your children about their social media use and cyberbullying. Facebook has an excellent guide on the matter that is highly recommended for all parents of social media-aged children.
Start the conversation, even if you don’t see any signs of trouble:
- Talk to your children. Constant communication with your kids about their social (media) life is imperative. Keep the lines open; talk to them about news reports on cyber bullying. You can start with abstract stories, without immediately diving into their personal experience.
- Create clear rules around computer and phone use. For younger teens, computers can be kept in common areas. Allow kids to help you make said rules, too. Give them some control.
- Become familiar with the sites your children use, know their screen-names, and ask transparently to be their “friend” or “follower” with their permission.
If there are signs of bullying:
- Take your child seriously. Don’t downplay their feelings or make them feel any blame.
- Show your child unconditional support and empathy.
- Get the full story. Take it slow and calm, but get as much out of your child (and as many full names) as possible. If feasible, print out any of the offending comments, threads, or photos.
- Make a plan of action with your child to empower them. Decide who the best authorities are to report to—school management, law enforcement (for serious threats)—and use all social media reporting tools.
- Make sure your child feels safe in returning to school.
- Check in routinely with your child. Don’t assume that since an incident has been reported, the trauma of the incident has also passed.
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