Cyberbullying is an unfortunate side effect of childhood in the age of technology, and it can be tough to figure out how to protect your kids. Today in The Motherhood, Dr. Elizabeth Englander, professor of psychology and founder and director of the Massachusetts Aggression Reduction Center at Bridgewater State University, talked with a group of concerned parents about dealing with cyberbullying.
“I actually don’t ONLY study cyberbullying – my focus has been on bullying and cyberbullying, which are really much more closely related than many people realize,” said Dr. Englander. “I’ve been studying violence and abuse in children for almost 25 years!”
Read the following Q&A with Dr. Englander and blogger co-hosts Victoria of The Mummy Chronicles, Lisa of Mommyality, Leticia of Tech Savvy Mama, Sarah of Sarah and Sons, and Christy of More Than Mommy for advice.
Q: At what age does this seem to start? Is it middle school or even younger now? (Victoria, The Mummy Chronicles)
Dr. Englander: Both bullying and cyberbullying begin in elementary school. In my research I started studying third graders and it was present in that grade – I didn’t study younger than third grade, but I think it is there too. Cyberbullying in elementary school is related, btw, to cell phone ownership.
“We’ve seen it in our middle school. Quite frequently. Our Vice-Principal said that cell phone and Facebook issues take up more than half of his time now,” said Lisa of Mommyality.
Q: I’d like to hear your take on how cyberbullying is different from traditional bullying. This is a crusade of mine. (Christy, More Than Mommy)
Dr. Englander: Things have definitely changed in 25 years. 25 years ago, I was studying physical violence between boys. We didn’t even bother studying girls! Today, the focus is on cyberbullying and psychological bullying, and girls are very much involved. Unfortunately.
In a sense the cyber stuff HAS changed things, but the way to deal with it is really to be old-fashioned – not high tech. Kids have a lot of fantasies about online interactions. They need to understand the nature of what they do online – that NO MATTER WHAT THEIR SETTINGS, it is all totally public.
“Cyberbullying is hard because unlike physical bullying, the scars are emotional and more difficult to see rather than the physical bruises that come from typical bullying,” said Leticia of Tech Savvy Mama.
Q: I want to know how you start having the conversation about bullying in your homes. What things do you talk about about in real life bullying that aids the conversation around cyberbullying? (Leticia, Tech Savvy Mama)
Dr. Englander: One thing we do know is that CONVERSATION is the key to the whole issue. Begin by asking your kids, “I’ve heard a lot about bullying and meanness between kids….do you think that’s a problem at your school? What do you think about it?”
Q: Do boys or girls tend to be the worst offenders with cyberbullying? (Lisa, Mommyality)
Dr. Englander: We actually are particularly worried about the girls. There is data that supports the hypothesis that girls are weathering the online world worse than boys. Some of it is inadvertent – girls rely so much on digital communication, that they don’t realize that it can sometimes make small problems much worse. We need to begin by talking to girls about their friendships and asking them, “When do you think people should talk about things in person, INSTEAD of texting about them?”
“I think that it’s so dangerous for parents to not have at least a basic understanding of the online and mobile tools kids are using. I always recommend that parents empower their kids as teachers to learn more and to never be afraid of asking,” said Leticia of Tech Savvy Mama.
Q: It is easy to feel overwhelmed – and even scared – of all this! How can parents feel more in control and able to help their kids? (Cooper, The Motherhood)
Dr. Englander: 2 things my research has shown very clearly: first, most of it is simply NOT reported to adults. Kids prefer to go to their friends first for help.
Second, you’re not going to know everything your child does online. They can get online with many devices and in many settings. You may know what they do at home, but the possibilities for getting online are endless now. Education and discussion are the real answers in this day and age.
Also, I do think that parents should monitor what their kids do online – not to catch them doing something bad, but just so the child gets in the habit of remembering that what they do online is NOT private.
Q: What would you recommend as “steps” if you will leading from no computer usage (for younger kids) all the way up to having a phone and using social networks as they grow older? (uknowkids)
Dr. Englander: Bottom line is: keep to age-appropriate stuff. If you don’t approve of violence, they won’t wither away if you don’t let them do it. I would not let a child under 15 text or have internet access on their cell, because the rate of problems in under-15s is so high. They should use the Internet, and they can use FB, but you have to constantly flog away at how public it is and coach them to stop and think before they post ANYTHING.
Dr. Englander recommended visiting the Massachusetts Aggression Reduction Center website for resources on educating both parents and kids about cyberbullying.