Last April, at Anthony Wayne High School outside Toledo, student Kayla Meeker, 16, took her own life after allegedly being subjected to cyberbullying. Shortly after this tragedy, it came to light that another student at the school, Kaylee Halko, had experienced cyberbullying when a student from a nearby elementary school created an Instagram page mocking her progeria, a genetic disorder.
That school is not alone in experiencing cyberbullying. According to NoBullying.com, cyberbullying is on the rise and is most prevalent at middle schools.
“The truth of the matter is it doesn’t really get us anywhere if we deny how significant this issue is,” said Dr. Lisa Pescara-Kovach, associate professor of educational psychology at the University of Toledo as well as a campus prevention and protection trainer with the U.S. Department of Justice. “We really need to teach the difference between normal conflict and bullying.”
Working tirelessly with many schools and families, Dr. Pescara-Kovach helps to create bullying-free learning environments. She counsels children in hospitals and as outpatients if they suffer from depression, suicidal thoughts and/or anxiety.
Cyberbullying is bullying that takes place through social media sites, such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and even Vine. Bullies utilize these platforms by uploading photos which are intended to be embarrassing, tweeting insults or posting malicious comments.
Cyberbullying can be problematic because anyone can post and multiple people can chime in, sometimes anonymously. This differs from traditional bullying, which is the repetitive and constant verbal harassment or physical violence from one person or a group of individuals.
Parents may be tempted to ban their child from social media sites altogether, but Dr. Pescara-Kovach does not recommend this action. “It’s such a part of their world,” she said.
Because cyberbullying often occurs infrequently and without any pattern, identifying and disciplining the bully/bullies can be a challenge. In addition, school officials struggle to update bullying policies alongside the ever-changing technology and its byproduct of cyberbullying. In Halko’s case, because the creation of the page constituted only one incident, it was deemed not an act of bullying.
State laws aimed specifically at cyberbullying do exist, however. Michigan’s Matt’s Safe School Law focuses on creating safeguards for students, including requiring schools to have anonymous report forms accessible. Sometimes the responsibility for implementing this law and others lies with schools having the resources to counteract the growing problem. Also, cyberbullying can happen after school hours and outside the school premises, which could make disciplining bullies a legal challenge.
Spotting the Signs
Though there are many factors intertwined with this problem, parents and guardians must first and foremost assess the situation and address their child’s vulnerability. They should be aware of the warning signs that their child may be experiencing cyberbullying.
According to Pescara-Kovach, if your child seems hesitant or obsessed with logging onto social media websites, this warrants some concern. Both extremes could indicate that your child faces cyberbullying on the other side of the screen. Also, if your child becomes aggressive, withdrawn and/or their grades drop, this is worrisome. Really, any change of behavior should serve as a warning sign that cyberbullying may be affecting your child.
As for preventing your child from partaking in cyberbullying, Dr. Pescara-Kovach recommends talking with your child and simply being there for them. “Kid’s don’t want to be bullies. Something is going on in that kid’s life too that we want to help with.”
Apps such as SocialProtection.com are now available for parents and guardians to monitor Facebook content on the child’s account and alert parents/guardians when questionable or dangerous content is posted.
“The minute they have social networking sites, the minute they get on for interacting with other people, parents should be aware,” said Dr. Pescara-Kovach.
Sound advice to parents
-Encourage teens to take an occasional break from technology
-Keep home computers in a shared space
-Forbid teens from sending mean messages (even if someone else did first)
-Wait until high school to allow teens to have private phones and email