5 Questions With Cyberbullying Expert, Dr. Elizabeth Englander

Dr. Elizabeth Englander
Three months ago Rebecca Ann Sedwick was found dead after jumping off a cement plant tower, an apparent suicide as a result of alleged intimidation from peers at her school through social media. Dr. Elizabeth Englander, Professor of Psychology at Bridgewater State University and the Director and Founder of the Massachusetts Aggression Reduction Center, has been working tirelessly on educating the country on bullying and its effects in hopes of preventing what happened to Rebecca from happening again. Her book “Bullying and Cyberbullying”, which was recently published by Harvard Education Press, does just that. Dr. Englander is here with us today to share some facts that every parent should know about cyberbullying.

5 Intervention

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Haipha Simon: Should schools get involved in defending their students against cyber bullying? Why and how?

Dr. Elizabeth Englander: It depends what you mean by “defending.” If you mean punishing someone who has bullied a student online, there are legal limitations to what schools can do. Most cyber bullying doesn’t happen when kids are at school, and if cyber bullying happens from home or from another location, schools may or may not have jurisdiction to punish the bully. (That’s a question for a lawyer, which I’m not.) However, schools can always - and should always - help to support kids who are being cyber bullied and who may also be bullied in school. There is a reasonable body of research which suggests that it’s how adults support and connect with kids who are bullied that is most effective and helpful, in any case. I think that sometimes there’s too much emphasis on trying to stop the cyber bullying, and not enough emphasis on helping children develop the human connections that will help them be more resilient.

4 How to Protect Children

H: What are ways parents can protect their children from abuse through social media?

E: Theoretically, parents can forbid children from even using social media; but this is a difficult rule to enforce in a world where children have access to wireless Internet in so many locations away from home, and on so many different devices. More important is to educate kids about what can sometimes happen online. When children understand that feeling anonymous can disinhibit people - and that they’re less likely to focus on the impact of what they’re doing to you when you’re not physically in front of them - then they’re not so shocked and traumatized if it does happen. An unanticipated act of cruelty is much worse than one that you know might happen. (Imagine you’re a Post Office clerk. If there’s a long, long line of people waiting to ship packages or buy stamps, you anticipate that some of them will probably be cranky when they get to the counter. Knowing that it might happen helps you prepare.) Children also need to understand factors that can lead them to make themselves vulnerable, in ways they might regret later. For example, when you’re sitting at home, you’re more likely to post or send something private than if you’re sitting at a computer in the public library. Why? It appears that a private physical environment (like your living room) makes an online interaction “feel” more private, even when it’s not. Perhaps most importantly, kids need to learn that social networking sites are not the place to hold private conversations - it’s far too easy to copy and disseminate any information from them. Private conversations are for in person, or on the phone. If your kids don’t want you to see what they’re doing on a social network, then they probably shouldn’t be doing that there.

3 The Tools of a Cyber Bully

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H: What tools do children use to bully other students?

E: There’s a wide variety of apps and websites that kids can use to bully others. They might use text messaging, with or without photos; they might use sites that are designed for photo-sharing and editing, such as Instagram and Snapchat. Other sites, like Ask.fm or Formspring, dare kids to face anonymous challenges and questions from their peers. Still other sites are for more general sharing - Facebook is foremost among these, although many indicators suggest that it’s popularity is waning among teens. Finally, Twitter specializes in quick messages to groups, and gaming sites often feature live interaction with chatting. Any of these types of apps or sites could be used to bully, but some are more susceptible than others. Sites that emphasize photo-sharing are often used to bully, since there are simply no social “rules” about photo-sharing that have really evolved. That is, there’s really no rule about when you have to ask someone’s permission to take, or to post, or to tag, their photo. Also, sites that feature easy anonymity (e.g., Ask.fm) are also prone to meanness, since feeling anonymous can strip away the inhibitions that stop people from being cruel. If you want to show off to others that you’re being mean, a social networking site can be ideal. Interestingly, although online games are prime places for cyber bullying in elementary school, they’re less often viewed as problematic by teens, who generally regard the trash-talking that can occur in games as just part of the competition (versus a personal attack).

2 The Ages of Cyber Bullying

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H: What age gets bullied the most? How often does a child get bullied in America on average?

E: Bullying and cyber bullying seem to peak in middle school. However, it’s difficult to know exactly how often cyber bullying really happens, since it’s often not reported to adults. Victims of cyber bullying may prefer reporting to peers, and the support of friends can be a powerful method for coping with cyber bullying. If you read statistics about the frequency of cyber bullying, you’ll see that the estimates vary enormously. Generally speaking, the more types of digital cruelty you ask about, the higher the percentages you’ll find. Also, older children report higher numbers (not surprisingly!). Among elementary school-aged students, you might find that about 5% are cyber bullied. Among high schoolers, that number would be more like 25-30%, or even higher. The older kids get, the more their bullying involves cyber bullying. By high school, very little bullying happens ONLY in person.

1 The Beginnings of Cyber Bullying

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H: When and why did bullying turn into cyber bullying?

E: Although digital cruelty has been mentioned here and there since the use of cell phones became widespread, cyber bullying really became a hot issue around 2005. Traditional bullying didn’t just go away, but more and more bullying became psychological, rather than physical; and cyber bullying has promoted the use of “gateway behaviors” (social behaviors designed to show contempt), since you obviously can’t physically bully someone through digital means. As a bullying method, cyber bullying has certain advantages. It reduces guilt and makes bullying easier, since the victim isn’t right in front of you; and especially among younger children, hiding one’s identity can tempt those who want to try bullying but don’t want to be caught (in my research, 75% of older kids (teens) knew the identity of their cyber bullies). Cyber bullies are often convinced that they can’t or won’t face any consequences, and victims can be traumatized by the thought that their bullying may be seen by so many others.

Bonus: 

H: What are some of the ramifications that have resulted from bullies intimidating their peers?

E: When you think about the problems that bullying causes, it should be a straight forward question. But it’s actually a little more complicated, partly because so many behaviors are called “bullying.” Bullying isn’t simply when anyone is mean, or when someone’s feelings are hurt. Bullying is a situation where a more powerful person (the “bully”) launches a campaign of cruelty and/or abuse towards a less powerful person. I’ve had people tell me that a single incident hurt so much that “it was bullying as far as I’m concerned,” which I think is their way of saying that that single incident might not have been bullying or cyber bullying literally, but it was still very hurtful. While being mean to someone once can really hurt, and it can in fact be an incident that the target remembers vividly and for many years, it doesn’t usually have the impact of bullying or cyber bullying that happens over and over again to someone. A child who’s experiencing a long campaign of cruelty has to both endure the trauma of individual incidents and also anticipate the future cruelties to come. If the bully is popular, the target may conclude that the world is really on the bully’s side - and that the world is thus a pretty cruel place. That kind of experience is associated with emotional difficulties (e.g., depression, anxiety); social difficulties (e.g., isolation); academic problems; and even, sometimes, aggression and violence (particularly when bullying compounds problems for a child who is already depressed or at risk).

H: What’s the most important thing all parents should know about cyber bullying?

E: Cyberbullying is a problem that can happen to any child, but any parent can take steps to reduce their child’s risk. Your son or daughter might engage in cruelty online through thoughtlessness; they may be mad at someone; or they may feel that what they do online “doesn’t count” or “isn’t real.” This isn’t unusual. Also, a child may be targeted online simply because they’re there, and not for any particular reason. Overall, kids of any age need to talk about cyber-issues and think about how problems can arise online, hopefully well before any problems actually happen. When children never talk about bullying or cyber bullying, then they’re much more traumatized if someone is mean to them. Data from 2010 to 2012 also found less cyber bullying when kids were educated about these issues. This was true for kids of all ages, but especially so for younger children. The bottom line is that discussing cyber bullying with your child will probably help reduce their vulnerability. Kids need to understand that how you talk to others changes online; they need to think about picture-taking and posting rules; and they need to be reminded to think about the impact of what they do online to others. Just talking appears to make a big difference. Want more information, or help in starting these conversations? There are many downloads and guides for parents, all free of charge, at elizabethenglander.com.


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