August 15, 2012

Cyberbullying: What Parents Can Do To Help Teenagers and Children

Teenagers live a lot of their life online.  Texting is the preferred mode of conversation, exceeding talking on the phone for today’s teens.  While parents may feel frustrated by the amount of time their kids spend on computers and texting on mobile devices,  it can help to remember that they were probably harassed by their own parents for spending too much time talking on the phone.  Being social is a very appropriate and normal part of adolescence.  In today’s world socializing often takes place in the digital world.   The technology of modern life is not inherently good or bad it is simply a tool that can be used  in ways that can be  positive or negative, it is merely different from the means of communication most parents encountered as they were growing up.  For example, it can be beneficial for shy or socially awkward teenagers.  The anonymity of the computer can allow a  socially anxious person an opportunity to interact in ways that would be too distressing in person and can help them gain confidence.

Bullying in general has attracted a significant amount of media attention and I believe this is greatly beneficial.  In the past this type of behavior was seen as just a normal part of growing up. Now it is accurately perceived as dangerous and destructive behavior that can be highly psychologically damaging to a developing adolescent.  Parents, schools and even our laws have changed in an effort to tackle this behavior at a social level.  Cyberbullying is  another form of this very common behavior and one that can be particularly frightening to parents because it feels more hidden.

In fact, most bullying has always been hidden.  Bullying is a form of everyday terrorism designed to humiliate and damage someone else.  At times it is done to seek revenge on a perceived insult but often the bullier chooses a target who looks vulnerable where there is no real relationship.  This is often true of cyberbullies, sadistically inclined people who enjoy the anonymity of the internet as  way to express their anger and frustration without being known.  Personal cyberbullying is also used to spread rumors, make insulting or demeaning remarks to a known acquaintance.  It may take less courage to post an angry criticism on Facebook then to make a remark in person in the school cafeteria.

Recent research says cyberbullying is NOT a high prevalence behavior.  The annual convention of the American Psychological Association recently concluded this month in Orlando, Florida.  Dan Olweus, PhD of the University of Bergen, Norway is one of the leading researchers on bullying.  He is also the founder of a well respected Bullying Prevention Program that is used in schools throughout the United States.  He presented new research at the Orlando convention that was a study of over 450,000 students in over 1300 schools during the period from 2007 to 2010 and found the rate of cyberbullying was only about 4.5% of students reporting this experience.  This should be reassuring to parents.

So what can parents do?  Communication and a good relationship with your child is always the most critical factor.  I always try to instruct parents to be aware that as their children became teenagers their direct control diminishes over what their children do.  Rewards and punishment still have a role but maintaining a close and trusting relationship is the greatest power parents have to influence their teenagers.  Talk about all forms of bullying-what it is ,how to recognize it.  Help your teenager understand that their feelings matter and how they can stand up and defend themselves respectfully.  Model assertive behavior at home.  Does your teenager see you being pushed around by your spouse, your friends.  Be aware of how you act,not just what you say.  Encourage your teens to stand up for their friends and reach out to others they see being treated badly.  Praise their acts of compassion and understanding.

Supervision of online behavior should be progressive-more for younger teens with increased privacy as they mature.  Be aware of websites your younger teens visit and discuss what they see and do.  Younger teens should share their passwords with you.  As they mature, ask if they will “friend” other trusted adults who would contact you in case of emergency.  Learn about social networking so that you can discuss it intelligently with your teenagers.  Talk about things they should avoid saying and help alert them to potential damage-now and in the future as the internet is forever.

Bullying is potentially dangerous threat in your child’s life.  Talking about it and educating your teenager, just as you prepare them for other challenges and risks in their life can benefit them and your relationship.

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