Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Cyberbullying-Stalking and Might Makes Right

Internet safety presenters get the greatest rise out of the audience with talk about online sexual predators.  The predators exist, no question.

But the most common, most prevalent online danger to emotional health is cyberbullying, or cyberstalking.  We call it cyberstalking when the perpetrator is an adult.  The word bullying tends to soften intimidation, blackmail, slander, etc., tends to make it a children's crime, not really a crime, at all.

Adults bully, too, however, don't just stalk. Any time someone intimidates, threatens, verbally harasses, physically violates--  it is a manifestation of might making right.  Seeking power, attention, a persona of strength, this is what drives bullying.

By definition adults make better bullies. They are more powerful.  By virtue of their size and authority they can coerce children both physically and emotionally  to do things they wouldn't normally do.   Hence teachers are charged with sexual harassment when they have a sexual relationship with a student, even if the student initiates it.  The teacher, as a professional, knows the law and is supposed to know better. 

But the Internet is the great equalizer.  Online, children have power, too.  They know how to fake authority via anonymity and impersonation.  They have the resources, the means with which to harm others.  Electronic media-- digital photography, computing, texting, phones-- these are powerful tools. 

In a new study, the American Osteopathic Association recently found cyberbullying to be a real issue for parents.  Surveying 1000 parents, a majority showed concern about their children online and six had a child who had been bullied. We can't vouch for their methodology, i.e., how parents were found, or the reliability/ validity of the study, but we can tell you that nationally, in fifty states, the States Attorney's concur.  Of all the threats facing children online, cyberbullying is the most common crime, and parents should be concerned.

Defined in the study as taunting or spreading rumors about a peer online, cyberbullying is linked to the popularity of online social media, the ease of with which kids can connect with one another on sites like Facebook.

Mental health professionals have always worked with children who suffered from bullying by other children in the schoolyard.  The bully isn't usually anonymous in these cases.  Other children see, several others hear, what  is said or done.  Intimidated, they are afraid to report, even go along with it.  They participate, too, are a part of what we call, Group Think.

When teens fight on the street, when they "gang up" on other teens, it can be a right of passage, a way to be popular.  Strength is attractive.  When they don't outgrow the behavior, professionals see bullying as an indication of an emerging, perhaps serious personality disorder.   Online bullying isn't literally physical battering but the effects certainly are.  Everything psychological is physical.

The consequences for the anonymous perpetrator are minimized, a huge incentive for the behavior.  It is much easier to displace anger online, to cause tremendous psychological pain via viral messages, malicious gossip, or exposure and shame, and the audience can be in the thousands.  Beats the schoolyard for impact.

It is the ultimate danger of sexting, really.  Pictures can go anywhere.

Victims of cyberbullying suffer anxiety and depression, lose interest in socializing, may become aggressive or withdrawn, slack off on school work.  They may have suicidal thoughts, and some follow through with these.

According to the new study parents are owning responsibility to make sure their kids are okay. They discuss cyberbullying with their children and many "friend" them to monitor their interactions. Others even check security settings.  That is enlightened parenting.

It is better than saying, "No Facebook for you." Barring children from social networking isn't effective, isn't even possible.  It is like telling kids they can't go out and play.  But discussing the possible dangers, teaching them how to avoid bullies and what to do as a victim (tell parents, contact police)-- these are first steps toward healing and prevention.

Again, it's that relationship that matters and not all kids are going to listen.  But when it is obvious that a child's behavior has changed, that he or she is overly anxious, doesn't want to go online anymore, can't concentrate, or closes the browser when someone walks into the room, then it is time to have that talk, time to insist upon getting help.

Linda Freedman, PhD, LCSW, LMFT

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