In September 2013, 12-year-old Rebecca Sedwick jumped to her death from the top of an abandoned concrete plant in Florida after being bullied. Her two 14-year-old tormentors were charged with aggravated stalking. In February 2013, Toms River School in New Jersey was ordered to pay $68,000 to a student for failing to take reasonable action to protect him from bullying from other students. Earlier this year, two Maryland teenage girls were charged with first- and second-degree assault, false imprisonment and solicitation for child pornography after threatening a 16-year-old Autistic boy with a knife, kicking him in the groin and dragging him around by his hair while capturing these episodes on their cellphones. We are surrounded with evidence that bullying has been taken to a much more destructive level with the proliferation of technology in the lives of kids.
Bullying is an increasingly complex social issue that saturates our society each and every day. Whereas years ago kids could at least retreat to their homes for escape, there is no escape for kids today. Relentless tormenting through multiple technology platforms makes it virtually impossible for kids who are victims to find a safe sanctuary or a few hours of peace away from the reach of their bullies.
A learned behavior, bullying is detrimental to the academic, physical, social and emotional development of each party involved, from the victim, to the bully, to the by-standers and witnesses. Cyber-bullying further enhances the damage done by bullying because it expands the reach of the bully from what used to be hand-written notes inside a bathroom stall to a victim's entire peer group and community. Once shared online, a damaging message, photo or insult cannot be recovered. It remains in cyber-space in perpetuity, to the continuous and on-going shame, humiliation and mental distress of the victim.
Standing up to bullies requires determination, leadership and courage. "Anti-bullying" programs, research and the media sharing cautionary tales have proven to be insufficient to combat the epidemic. With technology changing almost daily, it seems that bullies have even greater opportunities and platforms to hurt others. And, unfortunately, there is no limit to the cruelty that teenagers are willing to hoist upon their victims, without a hint of remorse or understanding.
Social media and the pervasiveness of technology have empowered bullies and enabled them to both conceal their identity through anonymous posting and reach a far greater audience. Adults often witness bullying, but hide behind the false belief that as passive bystanders they have no power to intervene. In fact, adult bystanders are actually not passive, but active participants by choosing not to intervene. As adults in the community we must address this insidious conduct in a meaningful way to create teachable moments and lessons for our kids. We need to be proactive, actively intervene when we hear or see other children being bullied, we need to think ahead and we need to help our kids develop skills and plans of action for taking on the tormentors.
The Facts and Figures
According to the Pennsylvania's Bullying Prevention Toolkit, bullying is defined as "a form of aggressive behavior that is preventable among children and adolescents." The intentional behavior may be physical, verbal or non-verbal that is repeated or severe, causing distress or disruption in the target's life.
Cyberbullying however is a specific form of bullying that involves technology. According to Dr. Sameer Hinduja and Dr. Justin Patchin at the Cyberbullying Research Center, cyberbullying is "willful and repeated harm inflicted through the use of computers, cell phones and other electrical devices." Examples include stealing an online name and using it to share nasty rumors, sharing embarrassing images or video of another person or altering someone's messages or pictures.
While there are laws and prevention plans in place, such as Pennsylvania's Public School Code of 1949 which require schools to identify a specific bullying policy, there is just not enough. Cyber-bullying and bullying in our communities is a serious issue. It is not, as some like to say "kids being kids"; rather it is a willful, deliberate effort by some to torment and destroy another person. More than new laws, we need a plan of action.
The Warning Signs
Victims of cyberbullying often will show signs of it, both emotionally and physically.
Torn or damaged clothing, unexplained bruises and cuts, loss of appetite are just a handful of the physical effects that bullying may have on a victim. While the physical effects are unbearable, the emotional effects can be even worse. Emotional signs of bullying include anxiety, low self-esteem and loss of interest.
Tips: Contending and Preventing
The cyberbullying epidemic is one that is vastly sweeping the nation. The more advanced that technology becomes, the greater the opportunity for bullies.
Because of this, assertiveness and intervention is imperative. Victims or targets need to be informed about avenues for help and bystanders must be encouraged and taught how to intervene.
So the question is: What can we do to protect and prevent?
Whether you are a student, parent, teacher, family member or friend, there are a number of tools and resources that you can use to address cyberbullying:
• Do not respond or retaliate. Bullies are in search of a reaction. Use your "poker face" and don't let the bully see that he/she upset you.
• Tell a trusted adult. Everyone deserves back up.
• Keep records by taking screen shots or saving text messages.
• Know your child's computer passwords or be an administrator for their computer.
• Implement a "Do's and Don'ts" computer contract.
• Use parental controls.
• Monitor all social media activity and familiarize yourself with your child's level of involvement.
• Educate them on smart usage of technology.
• Keep a written record of all incidents to use if there is a need to involve law enforcement.
• Strategize with your child so they feel as if they are in control of the situation. Encourage them NOT to respond. This re-builds their self-esteem.
• Do NOT contact the bully's parents. This is not your responsibility.
Schools and Staff
• Teach students that bullying is unacceptable, in all forms.
• Include cyberbullying into the school conduct code with set consequences and refer to this when necessary. Train all staff members on policy and procedures.
• Monitor use of school technology.
• Offer an "ally-building" course or behavior reinforcement system for students to strengthen skills, teach techniques to prevent or respond to future incidents.
• Talk to each party separately about the facts. Praise students for being open.
Reporting and Accountability
In a perfect world, there would be no such thing as bullying or cyberbullying but we very well know that this is not the case. If an unfortunate cyberbullying incident does occur, there are several steps that all parties are responsible for and should take in an effort to resolve.
A clear, concise set of school rules and policies in response to incidents of cyberbullying/bullying should be in place. They also must be distributed to all students and caregivers and be visually accessible in a populated area of the school.
With the help of Law Enforcement, many acts of bullying have been successfully prosecuted using a variety of criminal offenses. For example, while there is no "bullying" statute in the Pennsylvania Crimes Code, there are multiple other criminal statutes that address the underlying conduct for the worst offenders. Law enforcement and prosecutors play an important role in both holding offenders accountable and providing victims with relief.
In many jurisdictions, juvenile diversionary programs exist that are focused on rehabilitation and restorative justice. These programs provide a venue for a young offender to experience the consequences of his or her actions without going through the juvenile delinquency system. This type of early intervention is often helpful in bullying situations that have not become elevated to the most extreme levels. Victim offender conferencing is one tool used by some prosecutors to help the offender (bully) better understand the impact of his/her conduct.
The Youth Aid Panel (YAP) is a program that provides second chances for first time juvenile offenders to be accountable for their actions to the victim and their community, while preventing future offenses. Harsher offenses bypass this and are passed along to the juvenile justice system.
Often classmates don't realize the effect that bullying can have on a person, which is why it is important that these acts get reported immediately. So what can peers do if they see or suspect one of their classmates being bullied?
• Be more than a bystander! Talk to a parent, teacher or trusted adult so they are able to help ASAP.
• Be kind. Show the target that you care; one smiling face in the crowd can go a long way.
Cyberbullying is serious. We need to treat it as such. If you or someone you know is a victim of bullying/cyberbullying, please contact a trusted adult immediately. If you are unsure of whom to go to, please call 1-888-HELP-414 to ask for help.
If you would like a copy of the District Attorney's Montgomery County Bullying/Cyberbullying Task Force Manual, go to: http://www.montcopa.org/DocumentCenter/View/5120
Berlin, Robert and Ruscitti, Darlene, Best Practices in Bullying Prevention and Intervention. A collaborative effort of the Dupage County Regional Office of Education and State's Attorney 's General Office. January 2011
Pennsylvania Bullying Prevention Toolkit; Resources for Parents, Educators, and Professionals Serving Children, Youth and Family. Center for Safe Schools, Highmark Foundation.
Hinduja, S. & Patchin, J. W. (2011). Cyberbullying: A review of the legal issues facing educators. Preventing School Failure: Alternative Education for Children and Youth, 55(2), 71-78.
Erbacher, Terri Bullying & Cyberbullying Tips for Teachers and Staff, Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine.