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The Pervasive Threat of Cyberbullying

By Lindsey Getz

After more than a year of being bullied online, 12-year-old Rebecca Sedwick of Florida jumped to her death from atop a silo in an abandoned cement factory. That is just one of numerous stories in the news about the sometimes dire consequences of what’s been called cyberbullying—that is, any form of bullying (name calling, threats, intimidation) done through electronic communication. This form of bullying is becoming increasingly common in today’s digital society, particularly among adolescents.

Cyberbullying is different from face-to-face bullying and can often be more severe since it’s nearly impossible to escape. With smartphones and tablets, the Internet is everywhere and youths may not even feel safe from bullying when they’re in their own home. While this is a new and difficult battle of the 21st century, Hollie Sobel, PhD, a clinician from the Family Institute at Northwestern University in Chicago, says there are skills and prevention strategies, some of which will be presented in this article, that are proving effective against cyberbullying.

As with traditional, face-to-face bullying, there are varying levels of severity when it comes to cyberbullying. Sobel says that anonymous cyberbullying, when threats or insults are made by nameless bullies, tends to be worse because those doing the bullying often become more vicious when hidden by anonymity. Those on the receiving end also feel more powerless because they don’t know who is making the comments and cannot confront the individual. The victims also don’t know if it’s an individual they considered a friend who is doing the bullying. This can increase fear and frustration, Sobel says. It’s also notable that when photos or videos are involved, the effects of cyberbullying tend to be even more detrimental.

The public nature of cyberbullying is also a prime concern. When face-to-face bullying would happen in a school bathroom or during gym class, those incidents would typically be isolated to whoever was physically present when the bullying occurred. Those spaces and people could be physically avoided. For instance, if a particular bully tended to hang out in a certain bathroom, youths knew to avoid it. But with the Internet, bullying can be happening anywhere at any time—and everyone can see it. It gives a sense of no escape. The public humiliation factor makes cyberbullying an even more severe threat.

A Dangerous Secret
There are a few issues that make the issue of cyberbullying difficult to address. For one, adolescents can be very private and may not share much with their parents. As a result, they may choose not to tell their parents that they’re being bullied. Even if they do communicate well with their parents, they may believe it’s pointless to involve them in a battle that’s difficult to stop.

“Unless they have some sophisticated Internet skills, the parent can’t go in and actually delete those hurtful comments or even stop the bullying from happening if it’s being done anonymously with no individual to address,” Sobel says. “Kids may feel there’s nothing their parents can do, so they may choose not to tell them. Instead they’ll often turn to their friends for help and unfortunately, at a young age, they don’t recognize that their friends are not qualified to assist.”

Some adolescents may also fear their parents will turn to the school and make the issue an even bigger ordeal. Victims may fear that involving authorities will make the bullying worse for them, Sobel adds. That’s another common reason they may choose to keep quiet about what’s happening.

“Some kids may also be scared they’ll have their Internet privileges revoked if they admit they’re being bullied online,” Sobel says. “Even though they don’t like what they’re seeing online, they don’t want those privileges taken away so they keep the bullying hidden.”

With cyberbullying happening in secret from parents and other authorities, the best defense may be engagement. If their kids aren’t going to be forthcoming with information, parents may need to look for red flags that indicate a problem. There are some signs that may indicate a child is a bullying victim, Sobel says. These would include aspects such as change in behavior or mood, withdrawal from everyday activities, or even aggression. Of course these could also be signs of another issue that’s causing distress or even depression. But once parents recognize there is a problem, they should include cyberbullying as a possible cause to explore.

It’s also effective for parents to be involved with their child’s Internet usage. In adolescents, online behavior needs to be monitored. 

“It’s not just cyberbullying that parents need to be concerned about,” Sobel says. “There is sexting [sending sexually explicit photos or messages via cellphone] and other engagement in risky online behavior that can occur among adolescents. The bottom line is that parents need to be monitoring Internet use. It’s important to stay engaged.”

Since adolescents may be ashamed or reluctant to admit the bullying is happening, it’s an area where parents need to tread cautiously, focusing on creating a feeling of safety and security in discussing the issue and how it can be handled.

Prevention Strategies
Of course, being proactive is the best approach. Many schools are teaching coping skills so that adolescents can combat the negative feelings that bullying elicits. In fact, some schools even report using resiliency training, which is also used by the military to fight PTSD. This set of skills helps compartmentalize events and develops resiliency in order to minimize the negative effects of bullying.

While learning coping skills is important, schools, counselors, and clinicians should place the emphasis on preventing bullying. Prevention is the most effective way to fight cyberbullying.

“Schoolwide prevention programs are really important,” Sobel says. “Studies have shown that having these programs led by both students and teachers is most effective. Teaching components of antibullying within the general curriculum is also effective. It should become a regular and ongoing conversation for students.”

Sobel says that it’s also important to teach students to stand up and get involved when they witness bullying happening. 
“From social psychology we know that when a lot of people are around, they tend to pass the buck,” Sobel says. “The assumption is always that someone else will help. But one of the effective strategies to deal with bullying is to get bystanders involved. That’s true of traditional bullying and of cyberbullying, too. Kids need to be taught to support the victim.”

Sobel says this means so much more than just teaching kids not to contribute to bullying. They really need to be taught not to ignore it when they see it happening. That is perhaps the best way to stop this problem in its tracks. If other students stand up for the victim, the bully loses power.

Cyberbullying is new territory to navigate, Sobel says. But with a focus on preventive strategies, it’s an issue that can be tamed. If schools, parents, and clinicians take a more proactive approach, they may be able to prevent some of these concerns.

— Lindsey Getz is a freelance writer based in Royersford, PA, and a frequent contributor to Social Work Today.