Addressing cyberbullying: Offering support may help more than taking control
When kids report incidents of cyberbullying, parents might do well to dig deeper into the situation and try to avoid reacting reflexively.
If what Ask.fm executives reportedly said about the hate messages on Hannah Smith’s page is true – and it’s very likely to be – those messages were even more symptomatic (and less causative) of her troubles than originally thought (see my earlier post).Skip to next paragraph
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The social media site is reported to have told investigators that “98%” of the hate messages she received came from her own IP address, meaning her own computer, The Times of London reported. In other words, if true, this was another example of digital self-harm.
Danah Boyd, a social media researcher, first wrote about digital self-harm in 2010. Her blog post on the subject highlights how crucial it is to respond calmly not reflexively, and really listen to our kids, when harassment happens in social media.
The listening is vital for two reasons: getting to the bottom of what really happened (in the offline context and social circle as well as online) and helping the targeted child heal.
More on that in a moment, but first a little background: Ask.fm isn’t the first social media company to report this.
Formspring.me – now rebranded Spring.me but still an older, US-based version of Ask.fm with its anonymity and Q&A format – contacted Ms. Boyd back then because of its abuse-reporting team’s discovery that kids were posting abusive messages to themselves in that site. In a 2010 post, Boyd relates her own learning process in working through the evidence of this emotional self-harm with Formspring.
Takeaways for parents
As I wrote in 2010, I was struck by how helpful Boyd’s takeaways could be to parents of children who are being hurt online, whether by themselves or others, and I wish all parents of social media users worldwide could “hear” this:
"Supporting your daughter or son is not simply about finding the bully and prosecuting them or about going after their parents. Teens who are the victims of bullying – whether by a stranger, a peer, or themselves – are often in need of support, love, validation, and, most of all, healthy attention. I can’t tell you how many teens I’ve met who’ve been bullied by people at school who then turn to tell me about how their parents are absent – physically, mentally, or emotionally. And how often I hear teens complain about their parents trying to ‘fix’ things by getting involved in all the wrong ways. Ways that make the dynamics around bullying so much worse."
Why seizing control doesn’t usually help
This is a big reason researchers give for children’s underreporting of online harassment (only about 25 percent do): that the reaction of the adults they report to could make the harassment or social marginalization of the target worse.
By summarily taking control of the situation without listening to and involving the targeted child, adults are doing the exact opposite of what that child needs – to regain his or her dignity or self-respect and get back some sense of the control that’s been lost in a situation that may’ve been unfolding for some time (and we all know the danger of acting on assumptions).