Cyberbullying is a topic that I became interested in back in 2011 as a pediatric resident. Reports of suicides by children due to online bullying were starting to pop up in the media with increasing frequency, yet no one was sure how to respond. Our society was again being confronted with the harsh reality that sometimes the most amazing technology could be used to cause devastating harm. Over the years though, society rallied and addressed this issue in some remarkable ways. By using both knowledge and a proactive approach, healthcare providers can make a meaningful difference in cyberbullying.
Cyberbullying is defined as when a child or adolescent is tormented, threatened, harassed, humiliated, embarrassed or otherwise targeted by another child or adolescent using the Internet, other digital technologies and/or mobile phones. It is very important to note that these interactions are occurring between two minors. If a person over the age of 18 years is involved, this persecution is now called "cyberharassment” or "cyberstalking” which is illegal. Offenders can be punished by law in every state. As the legal system has growing exposure to cyberbullying, the new trend is to allow the victim to define when harassment is occurring. If someone feels threatened or tormented then bullying is occurring, regardless of the other child’s intent.
Historically adults responded to cyberbullying much the same way we advise a child to handle school yard bullying. "If you just ignore them, they will go away”. Sadly this was terrible counsel. Unlike a school yard encounter, when one is using digital media there are no non-verbal cues to help us understand the intent of the words being hurdled at us. All of us have had a misunderstood text message: "was that meant to be playful, sarcastic, or just plain rude?” For children who are learning socialization skills this task is even more overwhelming. Additionally, today’s children are expected to be competent digital citizens in their personal, and eventually, professional lives. Ignoring slanderous comments that will live forever on the internet is not an appropriate option.
Foremost, children should be taught how to use digital media in a safe and courteous manner from their first interactions. While we encourage children to never post personal information about themselves online, we should also explain their words and actions now could affect future opportunities. When they load that post or photo, what will their grandmother think? What about their pastor, or future employer? Is the post even necessary if it is unkind or shaming of others? (This goes for frustrated parents as well.)
Parents should be encouraged to "snoop”. Just as children are not allowed to have secret friends, go on play-dates unsupervised or to watch adult-rated content alone, they should not be allowed to have secret online lives. I encourage the use of "digital media agreements” as a kind of contract between parent and child. This way children know exactly what kind of behavior is expected while they are online or using a cellphone. Children will also know when to get their parents involved if they are being cyberbullied. These media agreements can be found online at commonsensemedia.org. This site also helpfully rates movies, video games, TV shows, web pages, etc.
When cyberbullying is discovered, it is crucial to not respond in kind- whether one is a child or an adult. Saving the conversation is important. Screenshots are the best evidence, but even recording the date/time of and an explanation of the encounter can be helpful to authorities. If the bullying is still relatively mild it is acceptable to call out the poor behavior, though one should never attack the person. It is appropriate to say, "This post is mean and hurtful. Please remove it.” It is inappropriate to say, "I think you’re an annoying jerk.” The internet is rife with conversations that have dissolved into hate-filled rants of personal attacks. This trollish behavior should be named for what it is and not be tolerated by adults.
We should be role models to children in our own actions while online. Children should be encouraged to report cyberbullying immediately to an adult, even if they are only witnessing it. Parents should also note that only 9% of children are purely a victim. Cyberbullies are often victims and vice versa, therefore parents should see if their own child’s actions triggered the current situations. If the bullying is persistent or even begins to escalate families can contact webservers and internet service providers promptly. Many social media sites and internet service providers have ‘contact us’ options for emailing or calling. Some sites allow you to block the offending person from being active within your account. Facebook, for example, has introduced options so individual posts can be reported.
If the online behavior becomes threats of harm, violence, or extortion families should immediately contact the police. If your child ever receives pictures of another nude minor this should also be immediately reported as these images are considered child pornography and possession is a crime. Children should be warned to never post nude photos of themselves, as distribution of child pornography is also a severe crime. In many cases families can also reach out to schools for help when their child is being cyberbullied. Each school district will have a unique policy though and parents should take the time be aware of their local policy in advance.
As medical providers one of the best ways to make an impact is to seek out and identify when cyberbullying occurs. Many children and teens will attempt to hide the fact that they are being bullied as they fear adult involvement will make the situation worse, or that their online privileges will be revoked. Children should be specifically asked if someone has said mean or hurtful things about them online, sent nasty text messages, or even threatened them. Many children also express doubts of the competency of adults online. Having an active, professional web presence, especially through social media, can demonstrate to your patients your proficiency in the digital world. Review with families the rules of how to respond to ugly online behavior, what kinds of records to keep, how to stop their child from suddenly becoming the bully themselves, and when to contact the authorities.
Dr. Amy Seery is a native of Wichita who attended Kansas State University and KU Medical School. She completed her residency training at The Barbara Bush Children’s Hospital at Maine Medical Center in Portland, Maine. During her residency training she became a passionate obesity advocate as well as a local physician expert on bed bugs and cyberbullying. She returned to Wichita in 2011 to join the Via Christi Family Medicine Residency program as faculty. She is also currently the chair for the Pediatric Section at Via Christi Hospitals in Wichita.