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.

AP Photo/Toby Talbot
John Halligan shows the Web page devoted to his son, Ryan, at his home in Underhill, Vt., Wednesday, Feb. 7, 2007. Ryan Patrick Halligan, bullied by classmates for months online, killed himself in 2003.

If what 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).

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.

‘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: isn’t the first social media company to report this. – now rebranded but still an older, US-based version of 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).

“As a parent,” said author, educator, and parent Rosalind Wiseman, “what I want you to say to your child is [something like], ‘I’m so sorry this happened to you; thank you so much for coming and telling me’ … because your kid is taking a risk to tell you about this. Most of the time they think that going to an adult will make it worse. Then you say, ‘and together we’re going to work on this, we are going to think through how we can do this so you can feel that you’ve got some control over a situation where your control has been taken away from you.”

Wiseman said that in a 2010 podcast by her fellow author, educator, and parent Annie Fox (see this).

That self-harm in Web sites might be about loss of control too is borne out in an interesting comment by user “quinn” below Boyd’s post, someone who sounds like he knows what he’s writing about: “It might have something to do with self-criticism as defense measure: [as in] ‘if I’ve already said everything horrible that can be said, no one can use those things to hurt me’ – a teenage version of ‘you can’t fire me, I quit’.”

Listening can lead to healing

Young people themselves say being listened to helps.

A milestone survey by the “Youth Voice Project” in 2010 found that students who’ve been targeted by bullying feel what helps most is to be heard and acknowledged, by peers or adults.

The three responses “likely to lead to things getting better for the [targeted] student than to things getting worse” were “listened to me,” “gave me advice,” and “checked in with me afterwards to see if the behavior stopped.” Coming in at a notably distant 4th, interestingly, was “kept up increased adult supervision for some time.”

From peers, the top three were “Spent time with me,” “Talked to me,” and “Helped me get away.”

The study’s authors, Charisse Nixon and Stan Davis, wrote that “positive peer actions were strikingly more likely to be rated more helpful than were positive self actions or positive adult actions.”

When our children are suffering, we naturally want to stop the hurt as fast as possible, and so we want to reject complexity and find quick fixes or formulaic solutions. The thing is, though, there is no formula – every digital harassment case is as individual as the people involved – and to slow down and listen, rather than act reflexively, may actually be the fix, or a big part of it. If not, it’s what children are asking for, and at the very least it demonstrates our respect for them and helps them process what happened, learn from it, and regain the sense of dignity they lost.

Maybe that’s why they want to be heard.

The Christian Science Monitor has assembled a diverse group of the best family and parenting bloggers out there. Our contributing and guest bloggers are not employed or directed by the Monitor, and the views expressed are the bloggers' own, as is responsibility for the content of their blogs. Anne Collier blogs at Net Family News.

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