The Best Bullying Prevention

O Tech Talk 003

Bullying is a word that has almost lost its meaning because it has been used so often and under so many circumstances. That’s especially true online where cyberbullying is used to describe almost any interaction that makes adults uncomfortable, from flaming, gossip and pranks to impersonation, slander and threats.

In her new book, It’s Complicated, Hannah Boyd points out that “the language of bullying often presumes that there’s a perpetrator and a victim. By focusing on blaming the perpetrator and protecting the victim, well-intended adults often fail to recognize the complexity of most conflicts.” She suggests that parents avoid using the term “bullying” unless behavior meets three criteria identified by Swedish psychologist Dan Olweus:
Aggression. What’s the intent? Is the perpetrator trying to hurt or intimidate someone? Sometimes behavior that looks like bullying is actually a misguided attempt at humor or a response to stress.
Repetition. What’s the frequency? Even the nicest people hurt others on occasion because they are oblivious or under stress. Bullying involves repeating a behavior even after the perpetrator understands that it’s painful or damaging to another person.
Imbalance. Who has the power? Young people seem to understand that bullying involves disproportionate power — a stronger person picks on a weaker one precisely because he or she cannot fight back effectively. Research confirms that children are 63 percent more likely to be bullied if they have disabilities or perceived differences (such as being gay or overweight).

In situations that meet these criteria, adults must intervene because bullying has lasting consequences for everyone involved. Research shows that children who are bullied tend to be lonely, anxious and depressed. Children who become bullies are also likely to have underlying social and emotional problems that interfere with healthy relationships. Even children who witness aggression are vulnerable to emotional distress and anxiety.

Of course, Boyd acknowledges that online interactions that fall short of bullying can still be hurtful. Girls are more likely to participate in and be wounded by gossip and rumors — especially about looks and sexual behavior. Boys are more likely to participate in pranking and punking (insults and intimidation).

Online abuse has several unique features. Some people find it easier to be cruel when they don’t have to deal with direct consequences. Also, online humiliation can be deeper, because there are so many witnesses, and more long-lasting, because it’s difficult to eradicate cyber slurs. Online, the child who is behaving poorly may feel there is no risk of punishment, and the child who is tormented may feel there is no escape.

Parents must consistently reinforce two messages:
1. Cruel behavior is always unacceptable.
2. In difficult circumstances, healthy people stay focused on what they can control.

Boyd says kids who develop these five capacities are less likely to take out their feelings on others and less likely to become targets:
Self Awareness. Help your child recognize and reflect on her own feelings. Knowing she feels angry or sad, frustrated or vulnerable gives her more options.
Self Management. Children need help learning how to insert thought between feeling and action. A child who is able to calm himself and think through a problem is less likely to say or do cruel things and less likely to trigger hostility in others.
Social Awareness. From an early age, encourage your children to be respectful, tolerant and curious about people who are different in appearance, abilities, point of view or cultural background.
Relationship Skills. Research suggests that children are less likely to be unkind to others when they have high-quality friendships. For advice about helping kids develop strong friendships, go to parentingscience.com/kids-make-friends.html.
Decision Making. Help your child focus on what she can do. Redirect her attention to what’s positive. If necessary, limit contact with people who behave poorly by using the controls available in most social networks.

Carolyn Jabs raised three computer-savvy kids including one with special needs. Visit growing-up-online.com to read more of her columns.

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