Cyberbullying can be such an intensely painful experience for young people! It is a form of assault that is particularly shrouded in secrecy and infused with shame. This type of bullying zeroes in on the fundamental need of young people to connect with their peers and feel a sense of belonging.
As adults, we can be at a loss as to what to do about it, or even unaware of its destructive impact. A generational divide can hamper an understanding of the issue because so many of us have never experienced it ourselves in the way that young people do.
In this time of COVID 19 and social upheaval, the lives of young people have been totally disrupted. What’s happening in the world can seem frightening and disorienting, and they like all of us, can feel destabilized. And since they are isolated at home, and often spending lots of unstructured time online, kids are more vulnerable to cyberbullying, and also more at risk from online predators.
Stressors that are barely manageable at the best of times may be even worse now. Difficult family dynamics can be exacerbated by parents that are stressed, overworked and worried about finances. And kids who are suffering a hefty amount of stress themselves may not have as much contact as normal with the adults in their lives like educators, family friends, coaches, extended family, etc., and thus their distress can go unnoticed. Isolated from friends and trusted peers, they may be cut off from all of those who normally provide support.
In addition, during this time of division, racism and ‘othering’ is so much more apparent, even beyond the battles we see on our screens between those who fight against oppression and those who would reinforce it. There is the notion of “others” or “foreigners” being responsible for COVID-19 – and this can manifest in racist slurs and the degrading treatment of others online.
It is more important than ever for us to learn more about how to support kids so that they will develop their own capacity to deal with all this stress and risk and find solutions to the difficult situations they may find themselves in. The first step for adults is to understand the complexity of cyberbullying for young people.
Young teens can be caught up in cyberbullying at a particularly vulnerable developmental milestone, a moment when they are extremely insecure, and wanting so much to be noticed, appreciated, and seen as beautiful. This may lead to them taking greater risks online and being vulnerable to anonymous stalkers and online predators. They may do things that leave them with deep feelings of shame. Shame leads to silence, and a fear of disappointing or angering the adults in their lives can provoke a deeper and deeper spiral into shame and secrecy. At COPA, we know that shame, blame, and secrecy are dangerous and unproductive, and may block young people from asking for help.
Again, as always – our focus is to support the development of the capacity of kids to solve their problems on an ongoing basis. With that in mind, below are some strategies for addressing and preventing cyberbullying.
For young people - our online learning module, Bullying Online, is a good place to start. It uses actual scenarios to enable them to learn more about cyberbullying and then figure out ways to protect themselves from it and access support. It is clear and full of concrete suggestions, but is also chatty, warm and accessible, and will put kids at ease. No guilting, no shaming – just the information people need to have about cyberbullying, about how to get help when you need it, and about how to be an ally for others. It is upbeat and non-judgmental, and a good place for kids to learn about their rights and to explore real solutions to situations they may find themselves in.
COPA recommends that adults read Bullying Online as well! Being clear about what bullying, assault, rights, and consent are, is crucial if we want to learn how to support kids.
Often adults will resort to increased surveillance or restricted access to online communication in an effort to stop cyberbullying. At COPA, we advocate instead a deeper connection to young people by practicing empowerment listening and our unique approach to problem-solving. Not only does this help kids find ways to address the problem of cyberbullying, but it also enables them to develop their own tools and the confidence to protect themselves in the future.
A few tips for productive and empowering conversations with kids about cyberbullying:
Thank the young person for having the courage to speak up about the situation
Tell them that the bullying is not their fault, and state clearly that bullying is not acceptable
Believe them – even if there are inconsistencies in the story – these will become clearer as we learn more
Stay calm and present, don’t rush the story. Ask open-ended questions, like How long has this been going on? instead of Has this been going on for a long time?
Clarify what they see your role to be as in Can you tell me what you’re hoping for from me?
Brainstorm with kids about possible strategies. Encouraging them to come up with their own solutions is a powerful way to support their confidence and capacity.
The next step could be rehearsing strategies with them and thinking out loud together about the advantages and risks of each. Encourage the creation of a fairly detailed action plan.
The most important piece of being a responsive and trusted adult in this situation is to make a commitment to follow up and then to actually follow up! This sends the message that you are there for that young person – that they can try a strategy, and if it does not work they can come back to you and work with you on another idea. Knowing that someone will check in with them changes everything – they are not alone.
COPA has some great online resources for helping adults learn more about problem solving with kids. We have a pocket-sized guide that is clear and concise, an online bullying prevention course for educators, and one for parents as well.
COPA was one of 4 organizations to receive special funding from the Ontario Together initiative to address health and well-being issues related to the COVID-19 pandemic. As part of this project, we offered webinars to educators working with families and students to support bullying prevention, anti-racism, mental health and well-being. If you are interested in hosting a COPA webinar for your organization, school, or community, call us at 416-466-7490, or e-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org.