Lucy Hone: Simple solutions to cyberbullying

Lucy Hone: The pain of cyberbullying is harrowing, but a few simple strategies can be effective in addressing its cause.
ALDEN WILLIAMS/STUFF

Lucy Hone: The pain of cyberbullying is harrowing, but a few simple strategies can be effective in addressing its cause.

Last week's column shared stats on cyberbullying. This week I want to consider some possible solutions – programmes and initiatives that are currently being trialled to reduce the pain that online bullying causes.

But first, a few words about that pain.

SOCIAL PAIN IS 'REAL' PAIN

Reading comments from the cyberbullying literature ("I wanted to die, I cried and cried and cried"; "It made me feel less than what I am, useless, ugly, unwanted, unloved, hated, stupid, angry, like I was nothing"; and "It makes you feel hopeless and alone") is harrowing.

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It makes me recall Matt Lieberman's research revealing that our brains respond to social pain in the same way as physical pain. Social pain is real pain, says Lieberman, so similar in fact it can be removed with medication designed to nullify physical pain, such as paracetamol.

Ask anyone to relay their most painful memories and I'm willing to bet the stories you'll hear focus on emotional pain, not physical. Go on, try it.

STEPS TO A SOLUTION

Beyond taking painkillers, what else can we do to address this situation? Masa Popovac, whose stats on bullying I quoted last week, believes the solution lies in a great deal more cybereducation, particularly for parents who remain largely ill informed.

Her advice for parents:

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- Start talking about technology (the benefits and risks) from very early on and continue to do so as children get older.

- Show an interest in the apps your children use – this will allow you to have informed conversations about what they're using technology for and raise issues about safety.

- Keep the dialogue open so they feel comfortable talking to you about things that are said or happen online.

- Reassure children that these discussions won't result in technology being taken away (this is the main reason children don't tell their parents they are being cyberbullied).

Her advice for schools:

- Develop and communicate clear anti-bullying messages and policies.

- Stay on top of new technological trends by putting students in a leadership role (get students to form a digital tech group responsible for keeping staff educated on key issues and trends and suggesting solutions).

- Encourage teachers of all subjects to discuss cyberbullying, relating it to what's going on in the news/other media.

- Have a reporting mechanism in place (perhaps even an anonymous one) which encourages bystanders to report what they witness online (most adolescents have witnessed someone else being bullied online, making this a target for intervention).

- Create networks among local schools to share trends, issues and best practices. While I'll acknowledge these solutions might sound a bit light considering the magnitude of the task we're facing, the programme she's created and is testing in UK schools is working.

GET EDUCATED

As the schools are largely playing their part (we already have established anti-bullying and responsible digital citizenship programmes rolled out in our schools), perhaps it's our lack of engagement, as parents, that is allowing the issue to escalate?

How many of us have bothered attending those digital information evenings put on by schools? I don't recall going. Given many children do not report these experiences to teachers or parents (allowing bullying to continue undetected for extended periods), perhaps upping our personal digital literacy will let us encroach just enough into our kids' social media domain to remind them that rules around good, old-fashioned decency still apply?

As my friend's mum used to say, "If you've got nothing good to say, then don't say it". Make yourself have a conversation regarding the fundamentals of good netiquette – and then keep having it.

There's a confidence piece in here, too, says Popovac.

"Many of the adults I spoke to in my study mentioned that their children know far more about technology than them – they feel quite silly talking to young people when the young people are the experts."

Education (whether it's by attending a school information evening or just familiarising ourselves with smartphone apps) will allow us to overcome that fear.

It will enable our children to have the confidence to share what they see, to stand up for themselves and others, and to resist the temptation to take phones and iPads into their bedrooms at night – at the very least it will afford victims some much-needed respite.

 - Sunday Magazine

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