Cyberbullying is not a sleeping giant, it’s creating havoc

At what point do we decide it is okay to video school Principal Steve Warner, dragging a student across the playground and posting it online?

It should not take the tragic suicide of 14-year-old Amy ‘Dolly’ Everett to get our attention about the catastrophic impact of bullying and it’s sibling, cyberbullying. Nor should it take the undeniable strength of her family to launch an awareness campaign in the immediate days after her death for the loss of a child is a grief like no other.

In Australia, 25% of our children currently experience bullying and 33% experience an online threat. People who live in regional areas are more likely to witness bullying over social media and twice as likely to be a victim than those in metropolitan areas.

In the US it is staggering to think only 10% of parents are aware their child is experiencing cyberbullying.

Bullying is intentional, hostile and repetitive. Cyberbullying is an extension of bullying online. Abuse, gossip or chat sent as messages, images and video to hurt, imitate, humiliate and exclude individuals characterise this behaviour. Mobile devices and social media apps power language and imagery which can be subtle, vitriolic and life-threatening.

For all of the beautiful things mobile devices and social media can do for us, we must continue to mobilise and sustain our attention on counteracting the dark side of these technologies. Life is precious.

Cyberbullying is complicated and requires parents to break out of the latest meme-driven stupor on their news feed and carefully examine what they hand over to their teens when they allow them to have a mobile device. It is weak parental assumptions and a lack of knowledge of the device’s capacity that is failing our teens.

When you gift that first mobile phone, you are giving a device that is beyond the development of a teen’s emotional and intellectual capacity. It has the potential to weaponise words and images that can cause severe psychological harm that adults often do not see. A mix of teenage hormones, the desire for peer acceptance, apps and a mobile device can create the perfect conditions to exercise power with an intent to hurt.

One case I’ve worked with a teenage girl received multiple messages stating she was a ‘filthy whore’ who was going to get her ‘head kicked in’ if she was seen speaking to another girl’s boyfriend. Accompanying one text was a violent video of teen girls in a fight. The messages were from girls she did not know and they did not attend her school.  

Boys can be just as ruthless videoing themselves in the act of mocking another boy about his weight. They physically threaten him then post the videos on a closed group over Instagram with the title ‘Fatboys Can’t Fight’. This develops into a competition as to who can capture the most humiliating video content while subtle taunts continue for the victims during the school day.

While mobile devices extend our ability to connect, the technology fails to convey pure face-to-face human emotion, stripping away the consequences of the harmful actions of the bullying teen. For them, it finishes with a strike of the send button.

So who has the most significant potential to make a change for the better? Parents. The eSafety Commission, schools and non-profit organisations, continue to deliver resources to support our community but a level of naivety prevails with parents as to the responsibility that comes with a mobile device in teen hands.

A ‘lock and block’ ban on mobile devices is not the answer.

Active, responsible parents do not hand over the keys to the car, let pornography be sex education or let their teens go to the pub without drawing on their values and the education programs in schools and other organisations. They front load with information and experience as a form of prevention. They talk, trust and guide their teens. The use of mobile device and social media must receive the same parent preventative treatment.

As an expert social media strategist, here are my top 5 strategies all parents of teens with mobile devices should adopt to prevent cyberbullying getting the best of their teen.

Build your own knowledge-base about cyberbullying. The website of the Office of the eSafety Commissioner is a great place to start. Other excellent resources are Common Sense Media and Bullying No Way.

  1. Establish boundaries for the misuse of the mobile device especially around cyberbullying.
  2. Identify ‘go to’ people for support. A sibling, teacher, counsellor, mother father or an organisation offering phone support such as Kids Help Line.
  3. Discuss what cyberbullying looks, sounds and feels like, then agree to a strategy with your teen if they experience cyberbullying or observe it happening. They need to know they can take action in a safe and supportive manner so have a plan – screenshot, block and report.
  4. Check in with your teen on a regular basis as an ongoing conversation will build trust.
  5. When an incident arises in the community or the media revisit your expectations and what to do with your teens.

Cyberbullying is a torment that parents must show greater awareness and conviction to prevent. The resources and support are a click away. Blaming the mobile device, social media, schools and the government is deferring your responsibility.