Cyberbullies: is your child safe?
My morning started as usual: a cup of coffee, rundown of the news headlines and emails, and a quick scan of Facebook.
“Lynn is a B*@&#! I HATE her!” screams a 12-year-old girl from my Facebook newsfeed. I see that a couple of other children have jumped in, gossiping about why they should no longer be friends with Lynn.
This wasn’t the only time I’d come across Facebook bullying. The first was on an 11-year-old’s profile when I discovered that, unbeknownst to him, several homoprejudiced postings were made on his wall, teasing him and outlining sexual activities between him and another boy.
While conventional bullying has always been with us, popular social networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace have brought bullying from the playground into the home. A child’s sense of safety and acceptance can now be threatened by a few keystrokes.
For some children, cyberbullying has taken its ultimate toll. The foreign media has reported on a number of Facebook-related suicides amongst children in recent years. One of the most prominent cases was that of 13-year-old Megan Meier who killed herself following hurtful comments on the social network site MySpace in 2006.
These suicides led to anti-bullying legislation in 44 states in America. A few families have successfully sued schools for failing to protect their children from cyberbullies, and it is no longer uncommon for parents to take legal action against the bullies themselves. A few years ago, a New York teenager sued Facebook and some of its users and their parents because of a Facebook chat group where she says she was ridiculed and disgraced.
In South Africa, a 12-year-old Johannesburg boy attempted suicide by taking an overdose and slitting his wrists as a result of Facebook bullying last year. The boy had been the victim of bullying for most of his school career. The family lived abroad for a while and when they returned to the country, the boy’s former class mates invited him onto Facebook. It turned out that they were using the site as a platform to spread rumours and to degrade him. Now people who weren’t aware of the bullying in the past were privy to the rumours via the internet. The boy later told his therapist that it was the exposure and humiliation that he felt he couldn’t live with.
Not always one happy family
Facebook stipulates a minimum age of 13 years, but it is impossible to estimate how many younger children sign up illegally because they simply adjust their birth year in order to register.
Facebook, with its games such as Treasure Isle, PetVille and FarmVille, is highly appealing for younger users who send mystery gifts, chat in real time and post pictures. But this online paradise has a shadier aspect that presents a danger to children who are not well enough informed about the ins and outs of social networking.
Karin Gross, Austin community director of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) in America, commented: “Most young people today consider e-mailing, text messaging, chatting and blogging a vital means of self-expression and a central part of their social lives. But an increasing number of youth are misusing online technology to bully, harass and even incite violence against others. Today cyberbullying affects almost half of all U.S. teens”.
Most parents may be unaware of the extent of cyberbullying and therefore don’t supervise their children’s Facebook activities. Parents may be under the impression that their children only access games, or be unaware that they are on the social network site because their accounts are accessed at school or at friends.
From school yard to Facebook Wall
Cyberbullying, described by the ADL as “intentional harm inflicted through electronic media”, is an extension of conventional bullying and the two bleed into one another - bullying and harassment that happen on the playground now gets perpetuated online and vice versa.
Shamos says that children who are bullied today live in fear both at home and at school. The bully doesn’t have to beat the child in the school grounds anymore; he just has to give him a knowing glance as a warning that something is waiting for him on Facebook at home.
A teen interviewed on the youth radio programme YO! TV in America described cyberbullying as “exhausting” because it is “almost impossible to get away from”. He said that before cyberbullying, he could retreat to his home where he could be safe “to recharge my batteries” until the next day. Now there is no end, no reprieve: the abuse is relentless.
Facebook bullying can happen in several ways, including:
- Facebook mail which works similar to usual email
- making comments on a child’s Wall or status update
- “liking” hurtful comments made by others
- starting a hate group about a person (these groups may be open or closed)
- inviting friends but disinviting an unwanted child
In addition, powerful multimedia capabilities made available through Web 2.0 such as video clips add a whole new dimension to bullying
“The cyber world opens up the playing field for the bully. It also makes it possible for more kinds of people to bully. A male bully for example no longer has to be physically stronger than his victim,” says Janine Shamos, a self-esteem and resilient coach.
“By setting up a fake profile, a bully can remain anonymous and adopt another persona, thereby bullying without the fear of repercussions and without taking responsibility for his or her actions. Whether operating anonymously or not, cyberbullies are somewhat more protected because parents or teachers are not always around at the time.”
“In cyber communication, misunderstanding is rife because the recipient does not have access to all social cues which are required to ascertain the meaning of the message,” says Stuart Levey of the IT Department at Herschel Girls School in Cape Town, South Africa.
“Messages that are therefore not always meant to be vindictive can escalate into arguments. Young children under 13 need even more concrete, unambiguous messages in order to rule out misunderstanding.”
Cyberbullying can be far more public on Facebook depending on where comments are posted and how privacy settings are selected.
“Younger Facebook users are often unaware that privacy settings can be adjusted and what the implications are thereof,” says Levey. “They also don’t always realise that when they press ‘send’, their message goes to someone real.”
Information is easily distributed via social networks such as Facebook and MySpace. Your friends have friends that are not necessarily your friends, and each of those have friends that are not necessarily shared. A rumour or photograph can, through tagging and sharing, be distributed to a large number of people you do not know, and may even be used without your knowledge.
“Bullying is a form of control via humiliation. Public forums such as Facebook are very accessible and effective if trying to humiliate,” says Neil McGibbon, a child psychologist.
“It is, however, incorrect to assume that this makes cyberbullying more harmful than other forms of bullying. For some, the bullying happening in cyberspace can feel more manageable than being surrounded physically by a group of people at school.”
Why children bully
While the majority of child social networkers play safely and pleasantly, why do a few turn into cyberbullies?
“Kids need to feel in control and powerful,” noticed Shamos. “Children who bully have chronic low self-esteem. They are projecting and lashing out at others because they are insecure and unhappy.”
“The typical victim stands out in some way – they are the loners and are introverted and awkward. Victims tend to be more passive and softer and care about what their peers think about them and will take it to heart.”
What are the clues that something might be wrong? “If a child’s demeanour changes to how a parent normally experiences them, this is something to be observed and acted upon. If suddenly your child does not want to go to school or see friends socially, these are also clues to problems such as bullying within their peer group. You may also notice changes in sleep patterns and appetite,” says McGibbon.
“If your child is being bullied, start by speaking to your child about how she would like you to handle the situation as she may fear things getting worse if you become involved. However, such a position needs to be monitored closely to ensure that the bullying does stop. A good first intervention is to speak to a school counsellor, as it may be possible for monitoring to happen at school before confronting the bullies with hard evidence.”
Protecting your child
“Technology and the internet are now an integral part of life, more so for children as this is not something new for them and is considered the norm. Therefore an acceptance of its presence is needed but within boundaries that parents are comfortable with,” says McGibbon.
“As a parent, you have a right to know what is going on in your child’s life. The boundaries of this obviously change as the child grows older, where more privacy is part of healthy development. However, in young children, parents should have access to anything they are doing online or on their cell phones to ensure their safety.”
“Unsupervised you have no idea what is either happening to your child, or who they are talking to. Most of the time children are genuinely only talking to family and friends online, but it is important for parents to be sure of this.”
Supervision can range from being your child’s Facebook friend, which gives you access to the child’s profile and photo albums, to having access to a child’s password and therefore being able to view all features including mail.
A mother who allows her 10-year-old on Facebook set the condition from the outset that she must have her child’s password and that she would check her profile and mail twice a day.
“I allowed her to join, even though she is underage, because all her friends are on Facebook - but that was my condition. My child was unfortunately bullied for a short while at school, but I picked it up when it spilt over into Facebook. The bullying was resolved quite quickly and easily. In the end it gave me an excellent opportunity to coach her through this and teach her important life skills. It has also been an eye-opener to see how some of her peers behave.”
Some of the children the author interviewed said they welcome it if their parents checked. One pointed out that this could give parents clues if something is bothering a child at school; another said that she feels protected and knows no-one will post anything nasty when she’s not online.
Crossing the technology divide
Levey runs workshops for parents at school in an attempt to narrow the gap between parents and children with regard to technology such as social networking.
“Social networking media is neutral, it isn’t evil,” he says. “Today’s youth grow up with this technology and it’s natural and normal. They are the so-called ‘digital natives’ and adults the ‘digital immigrants’. Parents must develop a trusting and open relationship with children with respect to technology. They must learn the lingo and understand the medium.
“We know that you cannot prevent bullying but you can put in certain controls and limit its effects. If you are aware of what it’s about, you can engage the child and the child can feel more comfortable coming to the parent if they’re in trouble.”
Blow the whistle
Children who are being bullied can report it to Facebook, which opposes any form of misuse and bullying. They can also request that a bully be blocked from viewing their posts and comments.
Facebook has also launched a “panic button” application for children and teenagers to report suspicious behaviour and get help, advice and support about staying safe online.
Young people can call the Kid's Helpline 24 hours a day, 7 days a week on 1800 55 1800 or contact them via their email or web counselling services.
Pers comm (June-August 2010) Informal interviews with several children, teachers and parents
Pers comm. (August 2010) Janine Shamos, self-esteem and resilience coach
Pers comm. (August 2010) Karen Gross, Austin community director of the Anti-Defamation League
Pers comm. (August 2010) Liesl Muller, social media consultant
Pers comm. (July 2010) Dr Neil McGibbon, clinical psychologist
Pers comm. (August 2010) Stuart Levey, Herschel Girls School
Cyberbullying from the street to the tweet, New America Media, April, 2010
Online bullies pull schools into the fray, the New York Times, 27 June 2010
The Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (CEOP)
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