All parents hope that their sons and daughters will be liked by their peers. You used to be able to tell if they were liked by the number of times the phone rang. Now the situation has changed dramatically. Parents no longer know who is calling, and they cannot overhear a conversation. Their child has entered into a hidden world, occupied solely by classmates with electronic devices.
These devices have led to a new form of bullying called cyber bullying. There still exists physical bullying (i.e the pushing of kids into the lockers), alienation bullying (the excluding of someone), intimidation bullying (verbal threats), indirect bullying (spreading rumors). Those kinds of bullying can happen at any time during the school day. But cyber bullying can carry over into the intimacy of a car, a kitchen, a bedroom. The persecutors can find the victim at all hours and put daggers into his or her soul.
"With all the social media these days, it is easy to cyber bully," Alex, a 14-year-old, told me. "It happens all the time." When he was in eighth grade, he felt confident enough in his friendships to write about bullying for an assignment, talking with experts and researching the Internet. He wrote the paper last spring, but it is very timely considering the recent suicides of a young Greenwich High School student and a 12-year-old girl from Florida whose story was featured recently on the front page of the New York Times.
One of the primary things Alex learned was how important it was for kids to tell other kids to stop bullying. But, he said, "If I say something to smaller kids who are bullying, they will back off but the bigger kids may not." Seniors, he said, are the most effective in stopping bullying. "Getting bullied can lead to emotional problems, physical scars, and terrorize a victim," he wrote. "Schools need to be more active and they should help both the victim and the bully for they both could have problems." A very wise statement.
Yes, schools have a major role in prevention and should be contacted immediately if there is evidence of bullying -- but parents, too, are on the front line. They must be aware of the signs of bullying, which are found on the government website Alex recommended (www.stopbullying.gov) unexplainable injuries; loss of clothes, books, electronics, or jewelry; frequent headaches or stomach aches; changes in eating habits; difficulty sleeping; declining grades or not wanting to go to school; sudden loss of friends and avoidance of social situations; feelings of helplessness; self-destructive behavior or talk of suicide.
Parents must catch these signs and then listen in a non-judgmental way about what is happening and not deny their son's or daughter's experiences by thinking they exaggerate. Parents also should have access to their children's Facebook, Google Plus and Twitter accounts and check them once in a while. Kids may feel ashamed by their harassment and don't want parents to know. Their child probably will need professional help to overcome their feelings of rejection.
Parents also should be attuned to the impact of texting on their children. Alex told me that kids can text message anonymously by pressing star 67 and the number. When I asked him what they text, he told me that a lot of it is "cussing." So the recipient may never know who the antagonist is. Who is an enemy and who is a friend? Who can they trust?
Greenwich High School students, administration, and faculty have united to fight bullying. I hope that message will be carried over to all levels of all the public and private schools. Then our children can learn in a truly student-friendly environment without fear. But parents must remain vigilant and be the first line of help for their children.
Ann Caron is an educational psychologist and has written books about parenting adolescents.