How Can I Deal with Cyberbullying?
Last time, I answered the question “What is Cyberbullying?” and talked about why it seems to be so hurtful to the targets. I also talked about how cyberbullying short-circuits the natural safety mechanisms that helps to keep face-to-face bullying from becoming murderous or maiming.
To talk about what you can do about cyberbullying, I’m going to return to each of those points and address them with specific countermeasures. And, I’m also going to do a short section on technical countermeasures — or what you can do with controls in the technology itself.
The best way to deal with cyberbullying — or any bullying — is to prevent or reduce it by fostering self esteem and communication skills.
Let’s start with the motivations for bullying:
Social status is awarded by winning the match. Ascending status feels good; descending status feels bad; uncertain status means the game is still on because end-of-match emotions kick-in when the match ends.
One of the things we can do to reduce the motivation is to reduce the perception of the need to defend or advance status. I did a blog post on the Importance of Self Esteem in preventing bullying and one on Building Self Esteem. The suggestions in those posts will help reduce cyberbullying the same way they help reduce any other bullying.
But, once the game is on, the nature of digital communication doesn’t transmit much of the information needed to signal when the game is over.
We can help to address that by increasing face-to-face socialization — which increases empathy and the empathy response. Children need more un-scripted face-to-face time to just be kids together. Facilitate this as much as you can, and don’t try to control everything. What seems like “doing nothing” is really building bonds and empathy — the anti-violence social force.
Digital media fails to convey most of the emotion of a conversation — body language, voice tone, facial expressions — which is why even adults are far more aggressive and insulting on line than in person. It is important to deliberately exercise empathy in digital communications — to try to read our writing from the other person’s perspective. Give people the benefit of the doubt by asking yourself:
“What is the kindest possible way this could be meant?”
Assuming that meaning will not harm the reader — and it may save them huge embarrassment. Asking questions is a more useful habit than accusing people of having mean thoughts. Most of the time, we imagine others’ intentions as more harsh than they are really intended. Realize that bias and escape conflict by assuming the best.
Teaching conversational skills — including logical argument and critical thinking — will help children hold their own in verbal matches — which online communication is. It will also help them to recognize the impotence of name-calling attacks in the context of verbal matches. As those kinds of attacks are understood to be weak, they will lose their effect — and therefore their usefulness.
Rote “sticks and stones” talk is not a substitute for logical and conversational skills. Advocate for formal teaching of these skills — and do what you can to teach them yourself. The second usefulness of teaching logical argument skills is that children will learn when and how to gracefully concede an argument — or to just-as-gracefully accept victory — in a clearly communicated fashion.
This is vital because clear victory marks a clear end to a match — allowing all parties to move forward. Children cannot learn these things unless they have a model for them — and also practice them. Teach how to argue, how to know you’ve lost, how to concede gracefully, and how to win gracefully. This vital life skill, while it takes time to teach, will pay dividends forever.
Formal debating matches come with time-limits — just like MMA fights. When parents stay in the loop of their kids’ digital communications, they can use parental controls to impose breaks between rounds — and even to end conflicts by shutting out aggressors (more on this later). Learning can sometimes be rough, and it is important that parents not rush to shut down communications to “protect” their children too soon. Don’t allow your emotional reactions to interfere with your child’s growth and skill-building.
Another vital life skill is Debriefing:
Do you ever have an argument with someone, and then later you are going over and over it trying to think what you should have said?
Debriefing is to bullying interactions what game debriefing is to a football team. It is a way to make useful sense of the experiences; to assign useful meanings to the experiences; and to plan and even rehearse for better responses in the future.
Everyone does this in some way. Repeated nightmares and anxiety attacks are less-useful ways. Building the habit of doing the process in more useful ways — and feeling normal about it — is another high-value life skill.
You can model this behavior for your children whenever a conversation with anyone goes in an interesting direction — good or bad. If the kids are with you, loop them in on your personal debriefing process.
- What did you not notice that you could have?
- What else could their comments have meant?
- How else could you have taken things — or reacted?
- What else could you have said?
- How could you have left the situation more gracefully or positively?
This includes gracefully admitting when you’re wrong or mistaken, as well as graciously giving and receiving apologies for offenses.
This is a useful habit for everyone, and your children won’t learn it unless you show them how to do it. How can you leave everyone you meet happier?
Remember that in digital media you’re missing the emotional part of the communication — facial expression, etc. Use debriefing as a matter of lifestyle — and include your children. It will build communication skills that will pay dividends for their entire lives — while helping them avoid bullying in the near term.
If you provide your child with access to an on-line account and/or smart phone, you must become literate in the current social media trends and the available tools for managing security issues.
Teach your children good digital hygiene, including password management and how to build strong passwords. If you aren’t versed in this, do some googling. Use the “hacked account horror story of the week” as a teachable moment, and an excuse for a together learning activity.
In tragic stories of bullying, or children being lured by pedophiles, the parents were almost never deeply involved in managing, exploring, and learning about digital communications with their children.
There are two fundamental strategies to understand: Whitelisting and Blacklisting.
Think of a white list as an invitation list: Anyone on the list can get into the party. A whitelist is a list of people you will accept phone calls, text messages, or e-mails from.
Activating a white list is like having an invitation-only party: Anyone who is NOT on that list will NOT be able to get in. Messages from people not on the list will “bounce” — and not be seen.
Use a whitelist when you have a more serious or wide-spread problem, or want to be very restrictive of who can contact your child. The younger the child, the more inclined I would be to use whitelisting right out of the box. With a whitelist you can shut out everyone but family and specific trusted friends.
Think of a blacklist as the kind of thing your corner bar uses to keep out unruly patrons who have become unwelcome. People on a blacklist can’t get in the door. The opposite of a whitelist, the blacklist are numbers from which you will not accept calls, text messages, or e-mails.
If your child has no or few problems, and is becoming old enough to manage unknown callers, a blacklist will allow you to block the one or two numbers a bully may use to bother them directly. The weakness is that if they use any other number to dial or text, they’ll get in. If your child has increasing problems, consider changing to a whitelist.
Computers and Social Media:
Monitor your child’s use of the computer. Put it in a main room in the house so you can glance at the screen any time.
Use the operating system parental controls — and use strong passwords for them. Enforce computer down-time to keep the on-line world from taking over their lives.
When they have social media accounts, you should have their passwords, and you should log-on at least daily to monitor their activities and communications. You should monitor their privacy settings and help them block people and content that aren’t appropriate. You must become literate in these settings and procedures.
Facebook has a portal specifically to help kids who experience bullying on that site. It contains information and advice that adults should look over also!
If you run into issues, consider using a keyboard logger or even hiring someone to help with managing their online activities.
If they get into troubles with Facebook or other social media, contact the security department of the company for help, and use the available tools.
If they get into serious issues — if someone is sending them pornography, breaking into accounts, or making credible threats of harm — those are serious crimes and should be treated as crimes and not as bullying.
Even if you have an “unlimited” data plan, make sure you have protections in place against “text bombs” — an automated flood of text messages (literally tens of thousands of them). If you don’t have an unlimited data plan, a text-bombing attack can run your bill into scary levels.
Exercise parental controls that limit installation of apps, and the sending and receiving of videos.
I want to express special thanks to Melissa in Sprint customer service for guiding me to some of the following material. I’m just using Sprint as an example here. Most cell carriers have responded very well to the needs of parents with a suite of easy-to-use tools. Sprint offers a web-based set of Mobile Controls.
With Sprint Mobile Controls, you can:
- View an easy-to-read dashboard of your child’s phone usage.
- Quickly and easily set phone use limits by time of day and day of week. Don’t want your son using his phone during school hours? No problem.
- See who your child is talking or texting with — and when.
- Establish an allowed list of phone numbers that can call or text your child.
- See what apps your son or daughter is downloading to their phone.
- Set alerts to stay informed of any potentially concerning behavior.
With My Sprint Account Controls, you can:
- Block or allow all settings with one touch, or manage them individually
- Block or allow texts, data usage and picture and video sharing
- Block or allow apps and digital media downloads
- Restrict Web access to sites inappropriate for children
- Restrict or allow users to manage their own wireless settings
- Stop unwanted SMS messages.
The parent can do all this from their computer screen — without having the phone in-hand. These tools are not difficult to use, and the carriers have staff that will generally help you learn and use them.
Sprint also allows the phone-holder to block messages from your phone using short code 9999. So, your child should be taught such countermeasures to shut-out unwanted calls and texts.
For the parent who wants to keep track of the text conversations their teen is having (that should be you), it’s important to know text messaging isn’t backed-up at Sprint. It is a good idea for parents to install a text-message backup app to preserve their child’s text message conversations for review and for evidence if necessary.
These are some basics of how to deal with cyberbullying. Extreme cases may require assistance, both technical and emotional. Err on the side of more help rather than not enough.