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Being A Parent In The Age Of Online Bullies

Parents guide to cyberbullying and bullies online

After personally experiencing a lot of bullying and being a father to two children, Mark wanted to share his thoughts, ideas and tips for dealing with online bullying as a parent. If you or your children are affected by any kind of bullying or abuse, follow the links to our support resources throughout the article below.

Parenting and online bullying

I really dislike bullies and bullying. As somebody who has been on the receiving end of a lot of bullying, as well as the parent of two great kids, it makes my blood boil to see it be become so pervasive and accepted in society. So, when I sat down to write about the subject, I started with a really big question.

Why is bullying, and in particular online bullying, so prevalent?

To be brutally honest, I believe it’s for two reasons. One, online bullying is so common because it’s easier to be mean when you’re not face-to-face with somebody. And two, because we, as a society, tend to give away our power far too easily.

Don’t believe me? How many times have you paid somebody who claims to be an expert for information you already knew? We have been almost trained to give our power to all of the gurus who promise to help us with whatever they convince us is holding us back.

Granted, some of these people are truly helpful. But how many times have you given an “opinion maker” the power to shape your views and opinions? Often without evaluating whether their statements actually match our world view and beliefs.

Worst of all, we give our power away to people who say they’re in a position to judge whether we are cool, attractive, smart, witty, or good at something. And this is when cyberbullying and other social and verbal bullying takes place.

Online bullies are cowards

In my opinion, online bullies are the most cowardly of all bullies because they rarely face any real consequences of their actions.

Online, bullies do not have to deal with any risk of physical retaliation, nor do they suffer the humiliation of somebody telling them to their face, in front of peers, what they can do with their opinion. Online bullies can hide behind their username, spread hate across social media until they hit the jackpot, ignore replies that put them in their place, cause irreparable damage, and then create a new account when the old one loses its power.

Often we’re told to ignore the bully, but that only works when they are obvious or you are aware enough to realise that they are bullying you.

Defining bullying

Bullying is often defined by mental health professionals as physical or verbal aggression that is repeated over a period of time, and involves an imbalance of power. The imbalance of power is what differentiates bullying from just being mean. This imbalance of power comes from a perceived or actual difference in physical, institutional, financial, intellectual, or political power. The key here is that the imbalance does not have to be real, just perceived.

And it’s much easier to do with somebody whose personality and concept of self is still forming (like a child or teen), than somebody who has seen it all and wants to tell the local gossip where to stick it.

Bullying typically shows up in one of three ways: social, verbal, or physical. Physical bullying involves harming someone or their possessions. This includes physical assault as well as taking, disrupting, or breaking somebody’s things. It’s the most obvious form of bullying.

The less obvious forms of bullying

Verbal bullying is saying or writing mean things about somebody. Teasing, name calling, taunting, and making demeaning comments are all ways of verbally bullying somebody. Threats and gaslighting (making someone doubt their sanity) are also a form of verbal bullying, and gaslighting is particularly insidious. Most cyberbullying is verbal in nature, although it can also take the form of social bullying.

Social bullying involves hurting the victim’s reputation or relationships. This often show up as excluding them on purpose, telling others not to be friends with the victim, spreading rumours about the victim, or embarrassing them in public. This is the most subtle form and the hardest to detect and prove because the perpetrators often claim that they were just playfully teasing or didn’t mean to exclude the victim.

The toughest kind of bully

The common belief is that bullies feel inferior or are bullied in other parts of their lives, but this is not necessarily true. Often bullies are what they call bi-strategic, which means that while they bully, they also do something that is perceived as good and gracious, in order to promote their position in the community. So they may do charity work in a way that everybody knows, while quietly making somebody feel like an outsider or a lesser person.

I knew one person who was great at being generous with his time and very proud of his charity work, but at the same time he would deliver shots to your confidence in little asides. While he was very open about helping, he subtly made sure that you knew that you weren’t as cool or rich as him. The asides were never overtly bullying, but they were designed to make you question your value. They could even be explained away as another charitable offer, but phrased in a way that made sure you knew that he had power or standing over you.

What you can’t expect

Unfortunately, you can’t expect a kid to report bullying to any adult. Most kids would never tell their parents, and even more would not tell a teacher. I was one of those kids. I moved from Phoenix, Arizona, to Glasgow, Scotland when I was nine. Suddenly I was a Catholic American in primarily Protestant Scotland (neither of which I had any say in). I had to wear a school uniform, and my blue blazer was the visual equivalent of a limp on a gazelle crossing the Serengeti as I walked past the rival school. I would get into a fight on the way to school for being Catholic, and then another fight at school for being American.

To the teachers and headmaster, I was the common element in all the trouble. None of them realised that I was not provoking it. The first time I pointed out that I didn’t start it, I might as well have punched the bully one more time in front of the headmaster. He had made his mind up and I was contradicting it. Six of the best with a leather strap across my palms followed. So I learned to be quiet. After all, the adults could not be trusted to believe me, so why argue? I simply took the additional abuse and tried to be invisible in the back of class.

The lesson here is that it is incumbent upon parents to watch for signs that their child is being bullied. About half of all kids endure some kind of bullying in school or online, which makes it almost just a part of growing up. And while many experts say that bullying should be reported, I have yet to see that end bullying. As somebody who has been bullied long and well, I can say from experience that reporting it rarely works. Even when you’re on the receiving end of a black eye or bloody nose.

How to spot the victim of bullying

Since kids are not likely to tell anybody about being bullied, you, as a parent, have to look for other signs. Let’s start with the more obvious signs of physical bullying, such as unexplained injuries and missing or broken belongings (the second one is a strong early sign before it escalates to fighting).

However, cyberbullying shows up differently. Kids become stressed, withdrawn, and afraid.

Since stress is such a huge byproduct of bullying, you want to watch for the telltale signs of stress. Look for things such as not eating, depression, anxiety, having an upset stomach, missing school or work, avoiding social situations, and even avoiding friends.

The biggest problem starts when the victim starts avoiding social situations and friends, because this leads to isolation. Consequently, the victim never gets a different perspective than the one presented by the bully. And that is exactly what a bully wants — victims who are alone and afraid.

What to do about bullying

So how do we curtail, stop, or prevent bullying? Even the most self-aware person can fall prey to bullying because it starts to eat away at you when you are alone. As adults, most of the bullying is done in ways that can be written off as, “I’m sure she didn’t mean it that way.”

But if it keeps you awake at night, makes you doubt your self-worth or sanity, it’s toxic.

In my experience, the key to stopping the effects of bullying is communication. Nobody should ever go through it in silence, even though that’s what we’re taught in the movies. Talking about it with somebody is often the best way for the victim to realise that the bullying is not about them.

The key for helping is to not let the person who is being bullied isolate themselves. When somebody withdraws, it allows the bullying to become bigger and more impactful than it really is. Victims tend to lose perspective because the primary perspective they are receiving is from the bully. If you see your child start to withdraw, this is a good sign that they are being bullied. Even if they won’t talk to you, make sure that anybody you suspect is being bullied has friends they can count on. Be that friend if you can – it might be the most heroic thing you ever do.

Share stories

Often sharing your own stories lets somebody know that they are not alone in this. If that doesn’t work, consider sharing stories of famous people who endured bullying can provide role models for kids being bullied. Lady Gaga, Rihanna, Sandra Bullock, Justin Timberlake, Jennifer Lawrence, Christian Bale, and Her Royal Highness, Kate Middleton, were all bullied as kids. Martial-arts expert Jackie Chan was bullied for being too afraid to defend himself, and Jessica Alba needed her dad to take her to school so she wouldn’t be attacked.

It’s often overlooked, but anybody who is being bullied needs to look after their health. It’s easy to get into a downward spiral, not eating because of stress or being teased about weight is natural. However eating well, exercising, and laughing – even if it’s just at a silly television show – can all really help a victim keep a positive perspective on life.

Just don’t make them feel worse about being bullied. If they won’t talk about it, don’t drop it into conversations or say things like, “You need some protein to stand up to that bully.” As innocent as it sounds, it’s probably going to be perceived as adding to the bullying.

Just listen

The best thing you can do if your kid or somebody you care about is being bullied is to listen and validate. Let them vent. If you were bullied, try to remember what it was like, how it felt. Then your responses can come from your heart, which will let them feel understood. Reminding them that they are normal and sane helps deal with the taunting and teasing. It also helps them realise and remember that bullying is not about them. They’re just the most convenient target.

My personal trick to broaching the subject of bullying is to start asking gently how their day went. When details are in short supply (as they almost always are), I tend to draw on one of my stories from my youth. Unfortunately for me (and often for my kids who had to listen) I have numerous stories about bullying. I lead the story into a situation where I was bullied. Invariably I would get asked, “So how did you deal with it?” My response varied from story to story, but often the truth was a lesson in what not to do. However, I always added that it’s a good idea to have somebody to talk to.

Friends hold the keys to success

Seriously, the key to my success was that I had a couple of friends who would tell me that the bully was just jealous, or that they were afraid of anything or anybody new (at least this is what I took the phrase, “He’s an idiot” to mean). As the new foreign kid in school (more than once), I got used to be picked on relentlessly for months simply because of my accent.

Even though, I never told the authorities or my parents because I knew that wouldn’t help, I always found a friend to talk to.

Knowing that being picked on by a bully is not your fault is so very important. Bullies poke at just about everybody who is not obviously stronger or more powerful until they find a sensitive area, and then they go after it with a vengeance. Having an external voice of reason to help you understand that it’s not really about you can make all the difference.

The problem with most parents is that they run to the school or the bully’s parents to stop the behavior. But this usually won’t make an experienced bully stop, it will only make it more subversive or more painful. And kids understand that better than adults.

Creating trust

So even if you can’t report it, you can be another voice of reason. You can help your son or daughter see their true peers in a group by asking a couple of simple questions about who they trust, and who always has their back.

What this does is creates another bond of trust between you and your child, which will be reinforced by their friends. Their true friends will help them, and when they run out of ideas, they will feel safe turning to you.

Whatever you do, please don’t let a victim feel isolated and don’t give them the chance to isolate themselves too much. Help them find a peer they can talk to. Be a safe place for victims to vent without it getting back to the bully. Help your kids and victims of all ages not give the bully a chance to start by avoiding them or ignoring them. Get a buddy and be a buddy is the easiest way.

It’s one of the hardest things to watch as a parent, but it is a test that has the chance to make your kid stronger if handled correctly.

A huge thank you to Mark Jordan for sharing such an informative and well structured article. If you or anyone you know is affected by cyberbullying or abuse online we can help! Visit our Cyberbullying and Online Abuse Help Center for practical help and tips or alternatively, you can use our Total Access Support section to make use of our various support services. To learn more about Cybersmile and the work we do, please explore the suggestions below.

Mark Jordan is a former football (soccer) coach and art teacher for primary-school children, a former adjunct professor, and for evermore the father of two (both of whom are adults now). He currently lives in Warsaw, Poland, where he is the VP of Communications for Kinguin. You can learn more about Mark here.