Q&A with Patricia Agatston, author of the book Cyber Bullying: Bullying in the Digital Age

Your book Cyber Bullying: Bullying in the Digital Age discusses the relatively new issue of cyber bullying that seems to be affecting more and more young people. What is cyber bullying and how are young people cyber bullied?

It’s helpful to understand bullying first.  Bullying is aggressive behavior that is usually repetitive in nature and the person who is being targeted has a hard time defending him or herself.

Cyber bullying is bullying through e-mail, instant messaging (IM), in a chat room, on a Web site, on an online gaming site, or through digital messages or images sent to a cell phone. In short, cyber bullying is bullying through the tools of technology.

It seems that advances in social media, instant messaging and cell phones have moved bullying from a schoolyard fear to a constant threat. What should children do if they find themselves on the receiving end of a cyber bullies’ attacks?

It’s very important that children avoid responding aggressively to cyber bullying because it can escalate the abuse.  While a mean message that occurs just once may be best ignored, if it continues other steps are needed.  It may be helpful to block the sender or remove him or her from your friend or contact list and delete the message(s) after first saving a copy in case the abuse continues. Taking a screen shot is one way to save evidence.  Many social networking sites allow users to report abuse or use social reporting tools to alert an adult about the cyber bullying.  It is usually a good idea to let an adult know when cyber bullying occurs so that you can discuss ways to get help and stop the abuse.  In severe cases it may even be necessary to contact the police.

Studies show that only 1 in 10 teens that are being cyber bullied tell their parents about it. Since not many teens are willing to share these details, what signs should parents look for to make sure their children are not being victimized by cyber bullying?

Many of the signs of cyber bullying are similar to signs of traditional bullying, since both can impact children negatively. A child may appear depressed or withdrawn, or may not want to go to school.  He or she may avoid social activities and may seem upset or angry after being on the phone or computer.  It seems counter intuitive, but children may become obsessed with checking their messages or social networking sites because they are consumed with what other individuals might be posting about them.

In Florida, there is a recent case of cyber bullying that ended in tragedy with the victim ending her life. In the classroom it can be difficult to prevent bullying, but online it seems nearly impossible. What steps can be taken to ensure that cyber bullying doesn’t end in disaster?

It’s such a tragedy when a young person dies by suicide but we also need to keep in mind that suicide is rarely the result of one event.  In fact depression and hopelessness are greater risk factors than bullying, and fortunately most youth who are bullied or cyber bullied never make a suicide attempt. It’s important for adults to keep in mind that youth who are greatest risk online are often at greatest risk offline, thus we need to pay special attention to youth who have many warning signs that things are not going well in their personal lives. The good news is that if youth get the social and emotional support that they need they can bounce back from the challenge of bullying or cyber bullying.  But it’s important for parents, educators, and other invested adults to teach kids the social and emotional literacy skills that can help prevent bullying from occurring.

The fear and shame victims of bullying feel is often paralyzing and causes them to shun social interaction and internalize their feelings without sharing them with others. As parents, we want what’s best for our children, but how do we address those issues with the bully or school administrators?

It’s very important for us to remain calm when our children share concerns about bullying with us. Keep in mind that most children fear that we will overreact or make things worse with our involvement.  We need to respond to their concerns in a calm manner, thank them for sharing with us and reassure them that we will work together to find a solution to the problem. Find out what steps they have already tried and give them encouragement for their efforts and courage. Let children know that you may need to contact the school to share concerns but that the school can keep the information confidential. While it’s normal for parents to wish to react like “Mama or Papa Bear” it seldom helps to become confrontational. Our focus should be on partnering with administration to solve the problem rather than blaming the school, or the parent of the child who is bullying.  Often the school administrator may be the best person to contact the parent of the child who is engaging in bullying.  The focus of that contact should include concern for the child who is bullying since we know that kids who engage in bullying can also suffer harmful consequences. We can recognize the strengths of that child and encourage him or her to use power in a helpful rather than harmful manner.

Cyber bullying is a constantly evolving issue that raises unique concerns and challenges for children, parents and educators. What resources are available for people who want to learn how to begin a conversation about this uncomfortable topic or provide help and support for others?

A variety of resources and websites are available for parents and educators who wish to learn more about cyber bullying.  Our website, cyberbullyhelp.org has information for parents and educators.  We have also written curricula for schools including:  The Cyberbullying Prevention Curriculum for Grades 6 – 12 and the Cyberbullying Prevention Curriculum for Grades 3 -5.

In addition, connectsafely.org has a new Guide for Parents on Cyberbullying that is helpful and can be found on their site.