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A better approach to cyber-bullying

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Internet bullying has become an epidemic: according to the National Crime Prevention Council, more than 40 percent of all teenagers with Internet access are bullied online. Governments are passing laws to prevent and punish online harassment. President Obama has even convened a White House conference to address cyber-bullying.

All this attention makes parents feel as though they ought to DO something — until they try to talk to their kids. Then they discover that the cyber-bully label oversimplifies what’s actually happening.

“Technology is simply making what’s happening far more visible,” says Dannah Boyd, a fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society, who has interviewed teens about their online experiences. “If we want to combat bullying, we need to start by understanding the underlying dynamics.”

This is good news for parents because it means you can apply everything you know about human nature to what’s happening online. At the same time, parents need to acknowledge that this is uncharted territory. Kids don’t have all the answers about online aggression, but neither do adults. What young people need are parents who will talk them through difficult situations as they occur, and help them make nuanced decisions that foster and preserve positive relationships both online and off. Here are some suggestions:

• Figure out what’s actually going on: Cyber-bullying has become a useless catch-all term. To zero in on problematic behaviors, use the quiz at cyberbullying.org, which lists 19 activities ranging from mean comments on Facebook to hijacking accountants. The quiz can jump-start conversation with your child. Has he heard about people who do these things? Have any of them happened to him? Has he participated in them? Keep this conversation curious and non-judgmental, with a of convincing your child that you’re an ally when he encounters something he can’t handle.

• Respond instead of reacting: Adolescents are trying to figure out how to manage relationships independently. When things go wrong there’s a temptation to lash out. Instead, teach your child to take a deep breath, step back, and think about what’s happened. Who are the people involved? Do they understand what they’ve done? Has your child had a friendship with the person in the past? Does he want one in the future? The one exception is if your child — or another child — is physically threatened. Then, as the responsible adult, you need to alert authorities.

• Insist on respect: You taught your child not to hit when he was a toddler. Now, do the online equivalent. Some of the old rules are as relevant online as they are in real life: if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all!

• Recognize gender differences: Researchers have noted that boys and girls often have different styles when it comes to aggression. Often, boys take physical aggression seriously, but shrug off online attacks. Girls — who are typically more adept at verbal bullying — may be more vulnerable to online aggression. Some research confirms girls are more often targets of online harassment in part because a girl’s reputation can still be ruined by sexual slurs, while a boy’s reputation may be enhanced by it. For boys and girls, parents should send a strong message that X-rated communication is not acceptable. That means no sexting, no “slut lists,” and no explicit sexual content of any kind.

• Talk about vulnerability: Bullying is prominent in adolescence because young people are unsure of who they are. Insecurity can make them more sensitive to criticism; sometimes, it makes them deflect attention from themselves by being critical of others. In both cases, parents can help by reminding their children that people aren’t perfect. How we handle vulnerability — in ourselves and in others — is a real measure of the kind of people we are.

• Teach resilience: Resilience is the ability to transcend adverse circumstances. Parents who swoop in to solve an online problem may actually miss an opportunity to nurture this important quality in their children. When bad things happen, Edith Grotberg, of the International Resilience Project, encourages parents to talk to children about three things: I have (what resources can the child count on), I am (what personal qualities transcend the problem), I can (what actions can be taken to alleviate the problem). Children who learn to think through problems along these dimensions develop a set of skills that will have lifelong benefits.

Experts continue to debate the statistics about bullying, but parents need to stay focused on the actual experiences of the children they know. Turning a blind eye to online aggression is a disservice to young people, but so is hysterical hyperbole. Young people need what they’ve always needed — adults they can trust to stand by them as they learn to build constructive, rewarding relationships online and off.

Carolyn Jabs, MA, has been writing about families and the Internet for over 15 years. She is the mother of three computer-savvy kids. Other Growing Up Online columns appear on her website www.growing-up-online.com.

@ Copyright, 2011, Carolyn Jabs. All rights reserved.

Updated 11:55 am, December 12, 2016
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