How To Handle Cyber Bullying While Your Kids Are Distance Learning

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young woman working on laptop

Educators, parents, and schools are adjusting to the new reality of remote learning, and you and your spouse might also be doing remote work from home.

While this presents pros and cons across the board, the very real threat of cyber bullying has been pushed to the backseat, even though it's a major issue that can end with terrible results.

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Cyber bullying is a reality for many kids, even while distance learning.

Just like there was no blueprint for how to handle COVID-19, there are little or no established policies or training for the appropriate response to cyber bullying.

The threat of cyber bullying is very real and is still a major problem for children while they're distance learning.

The research to date identifies the problem, parses data gleaned from surveys, and has made recommendations for addressing cyberbullying, but very little has actually been established — or more importantly — standardized across the educational system.

Cyber bullying is often worse than other types of bullying.

The typical schoolyard bully presents its own set of problems, but cyber bullying is more severe in that it can be an ongoing, 24/7 assault on the victim.

As with all bullying, there is the victim and the bystander. The victim lives in a constant state of anxiety and fear.

The bystander lives in a similar state, but to a lesser degree. However, the bystander doesn’t intervene, because they don’t want to be the bully's next target.

How can you tell if your child is being cyber bullied? 

The main warning sign that your child is being cyber bullied is withdrawing into their smart device almost completely. It seems counterintuitive, but they use their devices more when they feel threatened. 

School administrators and bullying.

Our educational system is not standardized in its response to bullying, and therein lays the rub. While most schools tout a “zero tolerance” policy for bullying, there are few action items in place to address it. 

Granted, bullying has a tendency to be underreported, mostly because reporting bullying — by victims or the parents — add to the victim’s humiliation.

School administrators and leaders often take the tack that they're not responsible if the bullying does not occur on school property, or they reprimand the bully. Both actions result in more victimization.

What this does, says Dr. Rich, is it actually reiterates the bullying, because the school is now inadvertently bullying the bully.

"Bullying is the chronic systematic threat of the weaker by the stronger. Schools reiterate bullying when they use their power differential to protect the victim and punish the bully."

Bullying can affect children well into adulthood.

Victims of bullying are not only living in a state of fear and hypervigilance, feeling unprotected in their environment, but they often exhibit elevated levels of cortisol and epinephrine.

“They assume that any new person is a potential threat,” adds Dr. Rich, “making them wary and distrustful of new people in general.” This, he adds, can be a personality trait that victims carry with them into adulthood.

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Blocking kids from social media and computers won't help.

The natural instinct of a parent is remove the device or social media access from the child. This is, in fact, not helpful and can be harmful. 

The child’s social media access is an early warning system for them, according to Dr. Michael Rich, Harvard professor and founder of the Center on Media and Child Health (CMCH) at Boston Children’s Hospital.

“Parents want to protect their child by removing the vector of harm, but the child’s perception is that the parent is removing their protective shield, their lifeline to what is happening, and possibly a support group or friends to whom they can talk.”

What can parents do if their child is being cyber bullied.

What you need to do as a parent is to think long and hard about when it's appropriate to give a child a smart device. It's equally important to educate the child on how it should be used.

“Flip phones are actually making a comeback, because they allow for necessary contact between the child and the parent. And there are no social media apps to access,” says Dr. Rich.

“Moreover, parents and guardians need to engage with their child when they are ready for social media.”

Dr. Rich suggests asking your child what it is that’s fun about apps like SnapChat or Instagram, and ask them to show you. Let them teach you what they like and why.

The child will be that much more inclined to share their social media experiences, good and bad, with the parent.

Teach your kids about the power of the internet.

When your child is ready for a smart device with all the bells and whistles, they need to understand that it's a powerful tool. There are predators of every kind in cyberspace, and no child is immune to that.

“Parents need to share the digital space with their children, and have an established rapport with them so that they can be their child’s ally, and openly communicate regarding any issues.”

It’s difficult to address the very things from which you want to shield your children. Bullies, predators, age-inappropriate memes and videos, and — God forbid — pornography.

“The reality is, it’s all out there, and you want your child to be aware, ready to be safe, healthy, and a good citizen.”

One of the tenets Dr. Rich advises parents is to tell their children is “...not to put anything out there that you wouldn’t want your grandparents to see.” This works well, because grandparents are often viewed in a halo of unconditional love.

Providing a smart device should be conditional. 

Your children need to share their passwords and any other login credentials so you have access to all social media accounts.

What you need to do is not fight bullying. Rather, you need to change the narrative around bullying to that of solidarity.

Social media accounts are here to stay, so let’s use them to change the culture to one that uplifts and praises those that stand up for each other and for any bullying victims.

Let’s develop programs for kids to talk about why they love their school, their classmates, or a certain teacher. Schools can set up older students as mentors and reward those who identify and mitigate bullying.

The idea is not to fight bullying, but to reverse it, and use social media for those purposes.

This is about building a community with purpose, intent, and a sense of comradery. Talk to your school about your ideas without victimizing your child.

Bullying is rampant and the effects can be devastating. Children drop out of school early, develop health problems — either real or imagined — and can turn violent toward others or themselves simply because they see no way out.

We must not sacrifice real connections with people for connectivity. We need to use connectivity to connect on a human level in deep and meaningful ways.

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Maureen Cronin is the author of "Happy Brain, Happy Life," a Reiki master, and an intuitive that understands the difficulties in overcoming trauma and loss. For more information, visit her website.