The parents of kids targeted by digital bullying and harassment often face some serious challenges of their own, as they work toward ending a child’s ordeal. That’s a key take-away from New York Times reporter Jan Hoffman’s thoughtful front-page story on cyberbullying yesterday. Often their children, even when enduring a lot of emotional pain, don’t want them to get involved (fearing a parent only makes things worse). And their children may be right. Then there’s the question of who they go to for help. Hoffman leads with the story of a parent who went to school authorities for help: “After expressing their concern, they told her they could do nothing. It was an off-campus matter.” That’s becoming a less frequent response, as more and more schools understand it’s usually far from “an off-campus matter,” but it’s still a way too common response, I’m hearing.
Another question parents face is how to get help from companies whose services are used by harassers, including mobile carriers and social network sites. Even if they’re responsive, there’s little they can do to resolve the problem beyond taking a profile or hate group down, which doesn’t resolve the behavior behind the comments posted in a site. Getting a fake profile taken down, though it may temporarily hide the real problem (the conflict at school or among students), is more like calling the phone company to fix an argument that breaks out between two callers – an argument grounded in their relationship or conditions in “real life,” or school life. Also, it’s understandable if parents want the service provider or Web site to tell them who’s behind the mean behavior, but it’s against US privacy law for service providers to provide the identity of other users without a court document such as a subpoena. Which means getting the police involved and which usually means turning the incident into a case, with related legal implications. Do the parents want that kind of escalation? That’s a real question – they definitely need to talk with their child about that.
Talk to the other parents?
There’s also the question of whether or not to talk to the parents of the aggressor(s), which can also either help or make things worse for the targeted child. Hoffman writes that some parents – not Marie in the opening vignette, however – do “prefer to resolve the issue privately, by contacting the bully’s family. [However] psychologists do not recommend that approach with schoolyard bullying, because it can devolve into conflicting narratives…. Parents who present the other parents with a printout of their child’s most repugnant moments should be prepared for minimization, even denial.”
The No. 1 action for parents to take in every case is to talk with our children – get as much of the picture as we can, calmly – and keep talking about it (without wearing everybody down and making things worse, of course). Parents and teens need to work together. And it helps to keep in mind that our kids offer us one perspective, usually not the whole story, and the story may not have begun with the behavior or comment on a phone or social network site that first brought it to our attention. Why is it so important to work with our kids throughout? Because each case is individual, depending on the kids involved, the school environment, etc.
Generalizing doesn’t help
It seems callous to say that “it depends” is the only accurate blanket response to all the questions parents face. But in a couple of ways that’s good: 1) it requires a lot of calm, open-minded communication (in families, often between family and school, and sometimes among the families involved and/or among family, school officials and community authorities), all of which increases the chances of a resolution tailored to both the targeted child and the aggressors, and 2) it shifts the focus away from technology. Digital bullying and harassment is infinitely more about our humanity than our technology, so the latter – whether it’s taking a phone away, blocking aggressors in a site, or taking a profile or hate group down isn’t going to prevent or fix conflict between people, which is almost always offline as well as online.
But let me back up for a moment: When our children are in real pain, psychological or physical, of course we want more than anything to make the pain go away as fast as possible. That’s completely justified, but it doesn’t help if it doesn’t get at the source of the pain – and if we act too quickly, we can worsen the situation for our children. They’re right to worry about that.
Harder to resolve, richer results
What will help, I believe, is for everybody involved, including the targeted child’s parents, to keep the goal in mind. The goal includes stopping the pain or victimization, certainly, but more than that: healing and/or increased resilience for the kids who are victimized, self-examination and increased civility (ideally, empathy) for the aggressors, and increased awareness and respectful behavior in the school community.
That may sound like an impossible ideal, but we should collectively expect to draw nothing less from cyberbullying incidents when they happen (egregious cases like the ones in the news don’t happen nearly as often as the news would suggest). And cyberbullying actually creates the conditions that help get us there. First, these incidents call for more communication between parent and child, and kids tell researchers that what helps a lot is to be listened to, to be really heard and supported. Second, the individuality and complexity of each case and the up-front anonymity forces everybody, including school officials and law enforcement, to communicate more to get to the bottom of what happened. That’s much harder than just blocking a texter, taking down a profile, or suspending a bully, but it can deliver greater, more lasting and widespread benefits too. And it even gets easier after a while, as it changes school culture and becomes “just the way we do things around here.”