WiredSafety’s surveys reflect that only 5% of students would tell their parents if they were being targeted by a cyberbully. When Teenangels conducted a survey of their own, they learned that less than 25% of the students would tell anyone if they were being cyberbullied.
Why? The answer is different for parents than another trusted adult. Parents have the power to make their lives miserable. They can turn off the Internet, take away cellphones, computers, and gaming devices, pick up the phone and call other parents, the school, or their lawyers. They run too hot and overreact, or too cold and underestimate the pain the cyberbully causes.
The students don’t want their parents to discover that they are not as popular in school as hoped. They don’t want to look like they can’t take care of themselves. They don’t want their parents to find out that they were doing things they shouldn’t or to learn the information the cyberbully is threatening to expose.
Parents might start monitoring or filtering everything, spying, or being overly attentive to what the student is doing online. The parents may demand passwords to all accounts and use them, confront the cyberbully or their parents, call the police, or blow things out of proportion. The cyberbullying may become the topic of discussion over the Thanksgiving table or the source of teasing or bullying by siblings.
If their current or former friends were the cyberbullies, the victim, interestingly, may try and protect them or avoid having them punished. They don’t want to be termed a “tattletale” or have the cyberbully escalate their actions because they “told.” They may have responded using inappropriate language or threats of their own. The list goes on and on.
They are reluctant to share with their “friends” and not sure if the cyberbully is one of those in whom they are confiding. With anonymous cyberbullying they can’t be sure if the cyberbully is their best friend or worst enemy. Friends are armed with their secrets and passwords and sometimes the cyberbully poses as one of their friends. They don’t know where to turn or whom to trust.
Trusting their teachers, guidance counselors, and school administrators is a bit different. In this case, they worry that the school will refuse to get involved. (This fear is often well-founded.) They fear their uninformed involvement even more. When well-meaning school administrators get involved, they often call everyone in and try to get to the bottom of things. This only makes things worse and sets up the victim for more harassment from the cyberbully, their friends, and everyone in the class who sees the victim as “squealing.”
Even when the school administrators do the right thing, it can backfire. On a recent Tyra Banks Show, Parry met a young student who had reported her classmates taking her picture with their cellphone while in the locker room at school. (She and other girls were dancing in various stages of undress.) The cyberbully threatened to post the pictures on Facebook and the girl panicked and went to the principal, who promptly called in the girls and confiscated the cellphone. The entire class turned on the victim, saying she had blown it all out of proportion. She was victimized twice—once by the girls and again by the class.
An interesting exercise for students is to ask them to see how many reasons they can come up with why they wouldn’t tell their parents about being cyberbullied. Parry has never gotten them to come up with more than 57 different reasons. See if you can beat her record and share the reasons you find. They can be illuminating. If we understand why they don’t share this or trust their parents, we can find ways to address their concerns and change this pattern. We can also find ways to make sure that they trust guidance counselors, teachers, and school administrators so they don’t have to face this alone.
The challenge we all face is how we can intervene without feeding the cyberbullies. There are no easy answers on this one, just some approaches that have worked for others. An effective strategy is to get peer counselors involved and create a cyberbullying taskforce for the school, including students in crafting responses and consequences of cyberbullying activities. Make sure you include the consequences for bystanders.
Whatever you do, do it carefully and thoughtfully. Ask the victim first before you take any action other than those needed to protect them or others. Remember, cyberbullying hurts. The first thing we need to do is address that hurt. Bring in the guidance counselors to help. The more advance preparation and planning the school does, the faster and better you can respond when these things occur.