Kids can be cruel. Struggles for social power in and around the sandbox have played out for generations. Generally speaking, boys are prone to hash out their differences with physical altercations. Girls, while less likely to take a rough-and-tumble tack, can be equally destructive. Rather than blows, the “finer sex” resorts to psychological warfare:
“You’re so ugly.”
“You don’t fit in. No one likes you.”
“Why are you still alive?”
There’s nothing harmless about a mean girl. The September suicide of 12-year-old Rebecca Ann Sedwick of Florida forced parents everywhere to confront the rise of a disturbing social trend: cyberbullying. Just like most everything else from banking to bill paying and shopping, bullying has made the seemingly natural transition from the physical world to cyberspace. Using the Internet and social media outlets to bully isn’t new, but it’s becoming more common as the number of outlets increase. What started 15 years ago with instant messaging has since exploded: texting, Facebook, Instagram, Ask.fm and a slew of similar social networking sites make cyberbullying as accessible to teens and adolescents as technology itself.
Since Sedwick’s death, details of her years of struggling with cyberbulling have surfaced. What’s particularly revealing about Sedwick’s story, and of cyberbullying in general, is that the behavior was found to be more rampant among girls than boys. Why?
“It’s not always true but if you look at the broad scope of things, girl aggression is more likely to be indirect and social media is kind of perfect for indirect aggression,” says Lawrence J. Cohen, Ph.D., an author and licensed psychologist who specializes in children’s play and play therapy. Cohen says it’s normal for children to experiment with social power: How many children can I get to follow me to the swings or to play the game I want to play rather than the game those children want to play?
“Social media becomes a way to play with this social power,” Cohen says. “It’s sort of designed to keep score: How many people can I get to ‘like’ my Facebook post or to share my Instagram picture? And we all know that things that tend to be nasty tend to get shared more than things that are nice. It’s part of the nature of, not just social media, but human nature.”
The adage that even negative attention is still attention to a child who’s craving it is applicable here. Social power and getting “followers” and “likes” fuels the fire. It’s also easier for girls to hop on the bandwagon and to be passive-agressive – they may feel less like instigators by simply liking someone else’s comment. “I didn’t say it,” they might justify.
Confrontation is hard, but texting is one step removed from that human connectivity. It’s less confrontational to type “You’re such a loser” than it is to say it to someone’s face or even whisper it behind her back. Social media affords users a degree of anonymity they can’t get with other forms of interaction.
And Cohen notes cyberbullying is happening at an earlier age. “Stuff that we used to see starting at 13 and 14 is now starting at 10 and 11,” says Cohen, which is indicative of a generation that has never known what it was to be “unplugged.”
Do such written policies help? That’s the question, says Patterson, and based on the number of tweens on Facebook – kids “technically” have to be 13 to join – and other social networking sites, the answer would appear to be very little. “Their goal is business, not making kids safe,” notes Patterson.
Parents, of course, are key when it comes to staying on top of their children’s social networking activities, but even the most vigilant parents can miss things if they’re not technology hawks.
Patterson references the increasing popularity of free texting apps, such as Kik and Voxer. The apps work much like an iPhone’s iMessaging in that the messages transmit via Wi-Fi rather than the user’s messaging plan. Because of the way they work, parents would be in the dark unless they knew exactly what they were looking for. And, most often, parents simply don’t know. Such is the nature of the technological and digital beast: It’s constantly changing. The virtual world is the world in which most adolescents live; by the time parents hear about one app, their children have already moved on to the next.
So if kids are 10 steps ahead all the time, how can parents keep tabs on cyberbullying?
“I think we just keep talking about it,” says Cohen. “We keep talking about issues like inclusion, about being part of a group, and we work on developing cohesion.” Cohen says teachers of students in that age range play an important role in helping children develop a sense of group cohesion without an enemy.
Having the right types of conversations with kids is also important, he says. Because bullying is about power, Cohen believes conversations on power – who has it, why they have it and how it is gotten – are more effective than discussing morals in these types of situations. In addition, Cohen says it’s important for parents not to divide the world into bullies and victims because all children experiment with social power.
“We don’t like to imagine that our children will be victims, but we also really don’t like to imagine that our children will be perpetrators. All children are likely to do that,” says Cohen. The key is to teach children empathy and to instill it in them at an early age.
And while limiting and monitoring virtual socialization is important, Patterson says, it’s unrealistic for parents to expect they will be able to control all of their children’s online activities. “Kids are pretty good at getting around filters as they get older, so this discussion becomes important,” she says. “Kids are not going to stop using this technology. Taking phones away or computers away doesn’t make the problem go away for the target, it just produces more anxiety.”
The best way for parents to combat cyberbullying is for them to keep being parents. Know who your kids’ friends are. Know where they’re going. Ask questions, and set an example by the way you use social media.
“I think that preventing all this really has to be a community action, and it really starts young. If you’re starting when cyber-bullying starts, you’ve waited too long.”
Jennifer Steffy Swanson is a Rhode Island writer, editor and mother of two young girls.