by: Arlene Sorkin, MSW
Executive Producing Director, IlluminArt Productions
According to the National Crime Prevention Association, cyber bullying happens when teens use the Internet, cell phones, or other devices to send or post texts or images intended to hurt or embarrass another person. More than 50% of all American teens have been a victim of cyber-bullying.
It is difficult to find statistics about how many younger children find themselves involved in cyber-bullying, whether as the victim or as a participant. Since I often have the opportunity to talk with groups of students in person, I conduct my own unscientific survey during the Q & A session following my group’s anti-bullying theater performances. I assumed I would get a few responses the first time I asked about 150 5th graders to raise their hands if they have a Facebook page. I was shocked to see about 80% of the hands in the room go up. My follow up question was, “How many of your parents know?” That only produced a few hands. Some said they used fake birthdates and some said a sibling set it up for them. Although our program shows scenarios about all forms of bullying, cyber-bullying dominates the discussions.
When my daughter was in middle school the scariest thing around was HIV/AIDS. I was a hospital social worker at the time so I took advantage of my daily experiences and brought home a story about a case every evening. The usual dinner conversation was about the teen who found out, after giving birth, that she was HIV+ or the guy who came in with a bad infection and found out that he had full-blown AIDS. These discussions about “somebody else” were not threatening or preachy in anyway, just a great opportunity to open the door to opinions and ways to prevent that from ever happening in our family – to talk about the consequences of unprotected sex. Now kids need to deal with the possibility of being preyed upon or tempted to prey upon others using their phones, computers, or tablets 24/7.
Not everyone has up close and personal experiences like mine but there are countless stories in the news that can spark a discussion. Kids may not watch the evening news but all of their social media outlets report tragic suicides blamed on relentless bullying. They definitely know what is going on. You can start a conversation by making it about your own reaction – “I was so troubled when I heard about so and so who apparently tried to take her life because of the things her so called friends wrote about her on Facebook. What do you think about that? How does it feel to hear that someone would do that? What could she have done before she did something so drastic? Who can you talk to if something like that ever happens to you? Do you know that we will not judge you if you get into some sort of trouble because of something you or someone you know said through texting or posting on-line, as long as you tell us?”
There are many websites that have definitions and suggestions if you Google “cyber-bullying”. I’ve learned the most from my discussions with students. We ask a lot of questions about what they know or don’t know. We talk about the consequences like losing friends forever because of something you wrote or something the other person perceived about what you wrote. We talk about hesitating and thinking for a second before you CHOOSE to push the letters on the keyboard that spell hurtful words. That yes, it is a CHOICE. You don’t have to push those letters. I tell them that my personal rule is to only write positive comments. My co-moderator talks about his experience as a camp director when he’s not working in schools. He explains that before he hires anyone, including counselors in training (age 13 & 14) or junior counselors (age 15 & 16), he does a thorough search on the internet, including their Facebook page, which he can usually find even if they don’t use their real name. If there is anything that is the least bit negative, he will not hire them. He also talks about how you think if you delete it, that it’s gone. It is there forever, somewhere in cyber space! How about having a conversation with someone in person about something that is bothering you? We also talk about how to do that.
Many of our students, in their post-performance evaluations, thank us for having open and honest discussions and feel they have learned a great deal. Kids are willing and able to engage in conversations about difficult topics like cyber-bullying if the door is held open.