Cyberbullying is a public health issue that continues to go through its own kind of “social fog” as schools, parents, students, and law enforcement attempt to establish some common guidelines in dealing with episodes of online harassment.
Some schools and local police departments have met cyberbullying head-on. They’ve implemented a clear process to handle cyber bullying cases. They’ve committed to educating teachers and students around the issue, and some have implemented hotlines students can use to place anonymous calls for help. Still, others seem to still be struggling.
I recently found this out first hand when I had to report a photo of a local teenager that appeared on my Facebook feed. Another student (authoring an anonymous Facebook Fan page) put a sexually obscene caption on the photo. Dozens of kids played along by adding their own crude remarks as comments under the photo.
Though the student wasn’t my child, seeing the photo unleashed a storm of heartbreak (and anger) in this mom’s heart for the victim. First thing the next morning I phoned the school to report the incident. While school officials were empathetic, and shocked at the vulgarity of the photo, they didn’t quite know where to place the authority to resolve the issue.
School officials told me “there’s not much we can do if it didn’t happen at school. It’s a parenting issue; call the kid’s parents. If you are really concerned, call the police.” The local police told me to “take it up with the school where either the bully or victim attend.”
By the end of the day the school and the police (through several more calls) handled the issue together. The school resource officer—along with the police—looked at the bully’s full digital trail. They deemed his/her online activity to be threatening and the sexual nature of the photo as cause enough to take action. They pulled the bullying student out of class, called in all parties, including parents, and administered the appropriate reprimands (which they kept confidential). They also contacted the victim and his/her parents, who were equally shocked.
The process wasn’t easy and took nearly seven hours to get to a resolution.
And while the lack of a clear process certainly frustrated me, there were several wins worth sharing.
- You can help create the process. Regardless of where a school’s cyberbullying policy may be, it’s the parent who insists on action that will get results. Rather than criticize the school or the police department for being “behind the tech curve,” you can be part of creating a better process to keep kids safe online in your community. Simply being committed to bringing the issue to light is critical.
- ‘Calm’ wins. Regardless of your emotion around a cyberbullying incident you can get to a resolution sooner with a calm demeanor rather than exasperated demands. It’s easy for these conversations between parents and officials to go south quickly if one party doesn’t see the other moving fast enough. Be kind, calm, and politely persistent.
- Be prepared before it happens. The best way to deal with a cyberbullying incident when it arises is to be prepared before it arises. It helped that I could speak with some degree of knowledge on the topic to officials. This means staying alert to your child’s online life, reading publications (like this blog and others), and keeping online safety (and behavior) a conversation point in your home.
- React appropriately. If someone simply makes a rude comment or posts an inappropriate photo, don’t over react. It’s simply time to block that person. If there’s a pattern of such posts aimed at one person or if the comments escalate to threatening, slandering, intimidating, or become sexually explicit, then it’s time to take action.
- Maintain perspective. While cyberbullying is a huge threat to the physical and emotional health of kids today, the reality is that the perfect process has yet to evolve. Wrangling the issue with any degree of success will take parents, students, schools, and law enforcement developing long-term guidelines. In the interim, it’s everyone’s role to commit to increased awareness and growing skills around the ominous task of helping teens communicate, and manage conflict, in the online world.