Girls are bearing the brunt of a rise in US cyberbullying

In this Monday, July 22, 2019, photo, Rachel Whalen looks at her phone at her home in Draper, Utah. Whalen, a college student, was the victim of cyberbullying in high school. 

THE ISSUE

Cyberbullying is on the rise nationwide, and girls are bearing the brunt of the harassment. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, “20 percent of students reported being bullied during the 2016–17 school year. Of those students, 15 percent reported being bullied online or by text, which is an increase from 11.5 percent during the 2014–15 school year. .... Three times as many female students reported being bullied online or by text (21 percent) as male students (7 percent).” A “higher percentage of high school students reported being bullied online or by text (19 percent) than middle school students (12 percent).”

The statistics show the seriousness of this problem: 1 in 5 students report being bullied. And a smartphone is the instrument of harm in a significant percentage of those bullying cases.

Pennsylvania law requires school districts to have anti-bullying policies that delineate the disciplinary consequences for bullying and the processes for reporting it — including that which occurs through electronic means.

Even if the cyberbullying occurs after school hours, schools bear some responsibility for dealing with it when it involves students. And everyone in the school community, from bus drivers to coaches to administrators, should be trained to identify bullying in all its forms.

A law signed by Gov. Tom Wolf in 2015 made cyberharassment — threatening harm or “seriously disparaging” a “child’s physical characteristics, sexuality, sexual activity, or mental or physical health” online — a third-degree misdemeanor.

So there are tools available to school officials and the police to counter cyberbullying. And we’re grateful there are because many parents feel powerless to help when their child is being bullied.

But parents are not without power. Or without responsibility to counter the scourge of cyberbullying.

To begin with, we can limit our younger children’s exposure to social media, the means through which insults often are conveyed. That may mean giving them basic phones instead of smartphones, so they can reach you when they need to but can prevent them from getting mired in the social media muck. (This may seem unrealistic. But if more parents went this route, kids might not see the lack of a smartphone as a terrible deprivation.)

If your child has a smartphone, monitor its use carefully. As the federal website stopbullying.gov cautions, “The more digital platforms that a child uses, the more opportunities there are for being exposed to potential cyberbullying.”

Facebook ostensibly requires children to be at least 13 before they use that platform, but it’s not an enforceable policy. And many adolescents have abandoned Facebook for other social media apps and sites — Snapchat, Instagram, TikTok, Twitter. You should know which of these your child is using. And you should know that he or she might not just have an Instagram account but also a secret account known as a “Finsta” (the term is derived from “Finstagram,” or fake Instagram).

Make it clear to your child that you take cyberbullying seriously — that your child can come to you if being bullied, and that you expect your child to be kind online and in real life.

We also need to model online behavior that is positive and healthy. If we’re obsessed with social media, if we send out nasty tweets, rip businesses anonymously on online review sites, and post angry rants on Facebook, our children are going to take note. (And, of course, they take cues from how we treat people offline, too.)

The website of Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro advises parents to teach children to protect their email passwords and to walk “away from the computer if harassment starts. ... Keep in mind that online conversations can be reproduced and spread very easily.”

In an Associated Press story published in Saturday’s LNP, 19-year-old Rachel Whalen remembered “feeling gutted in high school when a former friend would mock her online postings, threaten to unfollow or unfriend her on social media and post inside jokes about her to others online. The cyberbullying was so distressing that Whalen said she contemplated suicide.”

Fortunately, she got help. But as LNP detailed in a series of articles last year, not everyone is saved.

Sixteen-year-old Juliet Benson, a Lampeter-Strasburg High School student, succumbed to suicide in 2014 after she’d been bullied relentlessly and viciously via social media.

“For kids and teens, social media magnifies the good and the bad,” psychologist Perry Hazeltine, who helped start a project that screens county students for anxiety, depression and suicide, told LNP last year.

“Teens have what I call an exquisite self-consciousness,” Hazeltine said. “They want to be with their friends on social media and be part of something they perceive everyone is doing, but they don’t know how to handle it.”

We have to help them handle it.

We need to reassure them other people’s lives likely aren’t as shiny and perfect as they seem on social media. We can help them slam the door on the bullies who seek to follow them home via text or social media post. We need to teach them that they don’t need to subject themselves to torturous online taunts, that the power of disconnecting can be greater than the fear of missing out.

It is not enough to tell our kids that other kids can be mean. They know that already. They are living that reality. They need to know that they don’t have to put up with the cruelty — that we will fight it with them, even if that means going to the police.

And if our kids are the ones doling out the cruelty — spreading rumors and insults about another child — we need to stem it by imposing consequences, beginning with taking the smartphones they’re wielding to inflict harm.

State bullying prevention consultation line: 866-716-0424