There is much debate about the value of social media. Cyberbullying has become an epidemic. There certainly is not a dearth of mean-spirited posts to people’s pictures and opinions. Social media lends itself to a forum for bullying as well as social isolation. Facebook, Instagram, snapchat… look how much fun everyone is having – why isn’t my life like that? We measure our value in comparison to others. My theory has always been that the more one spends time online, or the more friends one has on Facebook, the fewer they may have in “real” life. For a child, this is something to consider. Is your child spending more time on social media than with people? When with friends, is your child spending time on social media while together? Are they taking numerous selfies and posting? What are the messages being communicated? What are their values? What is their idea of quality time? How is friendship conceptualized?
Models of bullying behavior are prevalent through not only social media, but television/reality shows, movies, and video games. Pay attention; monitor. Abuse amongst peers has become our form of entertainment. As such, it makes bullying normative. On the other hand, social media allows individuals to connect with like-minded others; to find solace in those who have shared experiences. There are a multitude of videos posted on YouTube in an attempt to give those experiencing bullying a voice; the voice often suppressed by the experience of being bullied; and the lack of voice that often permits bullying to recur. One video which went viral eight years is that of Alye Pollack. She was a pioneer in bringing bullying awareness to social media, with almost one million views. At the time, Alye was an eighth grader whose video had background music playing while she held placards explaining “Words do Hurt” to capture her experience of bullying and perhaps without audible words, metaphorically capture the silence of so many victims of bullying. She pronounced that she spent more time in guidance than her classes, and had thoughts of self-harm. She pleaded with the public to think before speaking…”it could save lives”. She made a second video one year later and conveyed that she is in a much better place, as she has built community. She stated “it doesn’t matter how many friends you have, only that they are good and supportive and accepting”. We can learn a lot from Alye: Find your voice; build community; surround yourself with well-meaning people; quality over quantity. And of course, accept yourself. I know, easier said than done.
We are often told “Who cares what others think!” Can we really live by this ideal? Changing our cognitions - also referred to as our thought processes – requires self-tending and self-talk. It requires an active process of changing the familiar negative “voices” we know speak to ourselves and making them unfamiliar. Consider your inner voice. The bully has made your inner voice very unpleasant. The power we give to our peers in the midst of our identity development is powerful! All we want is to fit in; to be well-liked; to be respected by others. Those who have been bullied have a negative, demeaning, and unpleasant if not downright rude inner voice! Our thoughts often revolve around what we now tell ourselves; but what was based on those early observations made by our utmost important and molding peers. We no longer have to let them have that power! What we think, assume, or believe about ourselves are often based on misperceptions, misconceptions and now our own irrational thinking. The first step is to identify the irrational beliefs causing the uncomfortable feelings. Then you dispute those beliefs, and finally replace them with more rational beliefs. For example, if Lisa thinks she is dumb because that is the messaging she received from bullying, she could ask herself what evidence does she have that she is dumb, other than the perpetrator’s perception of her? Has she succeeded academically? Does she have solid values? Is she able to sustain conversations with others? Is she knowledgeable about a particular subject? The idea is, that one person’s perception does not an identity make. This does require practice, as it is not a natural thought process to UNDO our prior beliefs and challenge our self-confidence. Just as the parent or teacher should not deny the impact of an experience – it does hurt! – Neither should we. But now, the focus is on taking back the power over ourselves.
It’s not too late to heal. As an adult, to actually listen to what others say. HEAR the statements of appreciation. HEAR the compliments. SEE the way people look at you. On the one hand, we are told not to give others such power over us; that we have to build our confidence through believing in ourselves. This is not an easy task, particularly for the developing adolescent who is fraught with building an identity and to whom peer approval is everything. As mentioned earlier, we are often conditioned to dismiss the positive accolades: to undo compliments. Perhaps rather than striving NOT to care what others think; we should take in that which is affirming and learn to assess the critique given the source, and the basis for such feedback. Is it worthy of self-reflection? Should it be dismissible? Take in what is liked about you; your strengths; views and perceptions that contradict those victimizing perceptions from youth.
We do have the power to shift our perceptions of ourselves – and it may take external validation. It may be challenging to integrate your sense of self with how others positively perceive and receive you, but work on it. We are a society that judges each other based on immediate (often physical) impressions.
This takes time, and it takes making yourself vulnerable: vulnerable to new situations; vulnerable to experiences that have potential to raise insecurities. Vulnerability is an uncomfortable feeling. And we expend a lot of energy protecting ourselves from it. When we feel vulnerable, we also tend to judge others to mask our own shame. We may point out people’s flaws, or shame others (“look what she/he’s doing; “look how ridiculous he/she looks”). Interestingly, vulnerability is the last thing we want others to see in us, but the first thing we look for in others. If we accept that there is no way to control the perception others have of us, no matter how much time and energy we spend trying, perhaps we can put that energy into the idea that “I am enough!” We are much more complex than first impressions. Give others the same openness with which you wish to be received. As an adult, model for our youth; as a former victim of bullying, remember that every individual who judges is masking his/her own insecurity: you won’t see my vulnerability if I shame you – and likewise, if I shame myself first there is hope that you won’t have to.
Now that we have some “theoretical” understanding around the dynamics of bullying and how to cultivate character in a child, we can now turn to concrete practices that parents, teachers, administrators, etc. can utilize towards an effort in preventing and addressing bullying:
1. Don’t overlook bullying as a typical experience, or as normal. Although it may be tempting to absolve a child through rationalizing their behavior, it is important that both the child – and the parent – take responsibility. On the other hand, blaming a child – or yourself – will not serve anyone.
2. Communicate. The ability of parents to communicate with their child is key. Communication needs to be established early in the parent-child relationship. Always ask how your child is doing in school – and not only in the realm of academics. Get to know their friends and the quality of these friendships. It may be unrealistic to expect that a parent will have a strong effect on a child with whom there has not been open communication. Therefore, insure that as a parent, you have set a precedent of communication.
3. Help your child develop empathy. Children who bully tend to be less empathic. Help to develop your child’s emotional intelligence through modeling, communication, and sensitivity.
4. Discipline with judgment, not emotions. Studies have found that parents of bullies tend to have an authoritarian parenting style. When a child is in need of discipline, parents should match the punishment with the crime. In other words, make sure that a child is not overly penalized. Through an overly harsh and punitive approach a child learns through modeling that bullying is an acceptable manner of relating – and communicating.
5. Limit-set. Parents of bullies may be overly permissive. It is important to create structure, create boundaries, and let your child know your limits.
6. Monitor your child’s Facebook site and internet use. Cyberbullying is on the rise. Know your child’s activity.
7. Build community: Create an atmosphere people want to be in. Build your social capital.
8. It takes a village. Get involved in your child’s school. Parents can work with the administrators of their children's school to enhance the social and emotional functioning of children in the school climate. Schools must not allow bullying to occur. They have a moral responsibility (and in some states a legal responsibility) to effectively respond to, and prevent its occurrence.
-Inform yourself: Bullying thrives in schools where faculty and staff do not address bullying, where there is no policy against bullying, and where there is little supervision of students – especially during lunch, bathroom breaks, and recess. What is your child’s social life like at school? What goes on during time spent outside of the classroom? Ask! Social interactions are as, if not more, important than academic experiences.
-Meet with school leaders; ask about the school’s approach to bullying and civility
-Expect and demand adequate school action
-Consider changing schools – as a last resort
9. Know that there are long-term implications for children who bully. Seek psychotherapy: getting help early will prevent future problems. A psychotherapist can help your child manage his/her behavior and help you learn how to communicate with, and soothe, your child.
Bullying should be considered an act of violence; an assault on our soul. Be an upstander, not a bystander. Measures can and should be taken to protect our children, and our community from such emotional devastation. Whether you are a child, teenager, adult, parent, teacher, administrator – a human citizen - we can all pool our efforts to create safe spaces, one person at a time; one home at a time; one school at a time.