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Sticks and stones may break my bones but Facebook posts can really hurt me

We weren’t short of issues when I was in high school – it seems high schoolers never are.  If I were to remember back to the late nineties, I’d say the biggest issues were drug abuse and anorexia.  We probably had about 20 unfortunate students (out of a class of around 150) who fell victim to these evils, and it often left a lasting impact on their later years.

Now imagine a serious problem that affects 1 in every 4 South African teenagers.  A problem that affects them enough to result in long-term anxiety, poor self-image, and on occasion, suicide. You may even call such an issue an epidemic for its prevalence and its devastation.

That issue is cyber-bulling.

Cyber-bullying occurs when bullying takes place over digital devices, like a cellphone.  This type of bullying often involves embarrassing someone on a public or semi-public platform, such as WhatsApp or Facebook.  Bullying has always been a reality of high school but now that all students are connected via cellphones and the internet, online shaming has become the weapon of choice for bullies.  And it’s much easier.  People often feel more brazen using social media and are likely to say things they wouldn’t say in person, and once one kid makes a comment, it becomes open season for the rest of the pack to dig in.

Examples of cyber-bullying range in severity, from kids intentionally excluding a certain person from a WhatsApp group, to making toxic comments to someone like, “if I were you, I would kill myself”.  The effects too may be as passing as someone crying after school, or as severe as long-term emotional, psychological, and physical issues, such as anxiety, fear, depression, low self-esteem, or weight loss/gain.

So, what do parents need to know about cyber-bullying and what can they do about it?

 

Qooh who?

Cyber-bullying often takes place on social platforms like WhatsApp, Facebook, Instagram, or Snapchat, but it is important for parents to stay up-to-date regarding the latest apps so they can identify warning signs of potential cyber-bullying (whether their child is the instigator or the victim).  For example, many parents are not aware of the app called Qooh.me, which has become rather popular and has transformed into a cesspool for cyber-bullying.  The idea behind Qooh.me is that you can ask a question or write a message to one of your ‘friends’, completely anonymously.  It’s a colossally terrible idea.   After creating a profile on this app and connecting it to your Facebook account, you start receiving anonymous messages from people you are connected to on Facebook.  Kids often join the app with the hope of receiving glorifying messages, like “you’re so pretty in that dress”, but land up receiving messages such as, “that dress is the ugliest thing I’ve ever seen”.

 

How do I know if my child is being cyber-bullied?

Just like physical bullying, cyber-bullying is often difficult to pick up as often the child is ashamed or embarrassed of the bullying.  However, there are a number of tell-tale signs that parents can look for such as if you child shows nervous behaviour when getting an instant message, text or email, if he/she becomes secretive about his/her online activities and cell phone use, or if he/she avoids school or after-school activities.  A new website has been launched to help parents identify whether their child may be being cyber-bullied, and is available for free at http://www.ismychildbeingcyberbullied.co.za

 

What can you do?

As a parent, there may be few things worse than finding out that your child is a victim of bullying.  You’re not alone though as there are a variety of websites available to assist and social workers to speak to who are well versed on the subject.  As a broad guideline, below is a summary of some actions parents can take in this situation:

  1. Communicate with your child to understand the cyber-bullying and acknowledge their pain
  2. Reassure your child that the bullying is not reflective of them as a person
  3. Monitor your child’s online activity and ensure they do not retaliate
  4. Support your child by seeking counselling if necessary
  5. Report the cyber-bullying to your school (if it took place during school) or to the police, if necessary
  6. Consider getting your child a “safe cellphone” which alerts parents to cyber-bullying (such as a KidTech phone – http://kidtech.co.za)

 

Take it offline

As much as cyber-bullying may seem like a purely technological problem, it is not.  And the answer does not lie in a purely technological solution. Of course digital tools help, but social tools help more.  Speak to your children to help them understand what cyber-bullying looks like, what they can do about it, and who they can speak to if ever necessary. Also, if your child may be one of the initiators, it is important to address the underlying motivation for such behaviour with him or her (and preferably a social worker as well).

 

 

You may be asking yourself, “how did we get here?”  We’ve arrived in a dystopian society where the very technology that we thought would brighten our tomorrow has landed up darkening our today.  The digital light of progress is being used to illuminate the cruelty that only an adolescent teenager is capable of.  This is an unfortunate consequence of our children growing up in the real-life experiment where they are bombarded with ever-changing technology, while we wait to see what the outcome will be.  The results of this experiment are in, and while they show that a world of kids raised on a digital diet is awe-inspiring and incredible, it can also be rather horrific.  And it’s up to us as parents to help our children through this new journey by educating them, monitoring them, supporting them, and providing them with the tools they need to get through the next Facebook post.


Also published on Medium.

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