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Cyberbullying has been a hot topic for years. But when all of us, young and old, were thrust in front of our screens due to COVID-19, the experts warned we could see an uptick in this behavior—especially among young people. 

Sure enough, we are six months into the pandemic and Google Trends is seeing an 80% increase in parents searching for help in dealing with cyberbullying. According to a Digital Trends piece that came out in April about Cyberbullying and Distance Learning, research indicated a 70% increase in cyberbullying among kids in the first weeks of social distancing. Statistics indicate that roughly 50%-60% of kids have been cyberbullied. 

Just so we are clear about what we are talking about, let’s define it. Cyberbullying is using any type of digital platform to scare, harass, shame, embarrass, hurt or threaten another person.

With everyone online right now, there are lots of easy targets and the stakes are high. Some kids are taking their own lives because of it, and many others are dealing with anxiety and depression as a result. If you know what to look for and have some precautions in place, you have a much better chance of intervening before the situation takes a tragic turn.

The big question is, what can parents do to address this problem?

If you notice a change in your child’s behavior or disposition, pay attention. Here is a list of 10 signs your child might be the victim of cyberbullying:

  • Appears nervous when receiving a text, instant message or email.
  • Seems uneasy about going to school or pretends to be ill
  • Unwillingness to share information about online activity
  • Abruptly shutting off or walking away from the computer mid-use
  • Withdrawing from friends and family in real life
  • Unexplained stomach aches or headaches
  • Trouble sleeping at night
  • Unexplained weight loss or gain
  • Suicidal thoughts or attempts 

Now that summer is here, your kids don’t need to be on their screens as much. Deciding how much time you allow your children to use their screens and standing by it can be benefit the entire family. Screen Strong has a 7 Day ScreenStrong Challenge you might find helpful. Think of it as a seven-day cleanse for your entire family to help them kick off the summer.

Once you have completed the cleanse, set the tone for the rest of the summer. Have a family meeting about expectations moving forward when it comes to screen time. Parents say they struggle with this the most because it causes such a huge uproar in the home. 

Think of it like this. When you tell your child to hold your hand to cross the street and they throw themselves on the ground and pitch a fit because they don’t want to hold your hand, you don’t respond by saying, “Ok, you don’t have to hold my hand. Just be careful.” You get your child off the ground and tell them, “You are holding my hand. Period.” It doesn’t matter how big a tantrum they throw, you aren’t going to give in. Why? Because you know the street could be very dangerous. For older teens, it would be like putting them behind the steering wheel with no training and telling them to be careful.

Limits Are Important

Screens have a great place in this world. However, without limits or set expectations, they can negatively impact your children and the entire family for that matter. To create structure around screen usage, be very clear about what appropriate online behavior looks like and define cyberbullying for them. The goal is to create an environment where it is abundantly clear that cyberbullying will not be tolerated. It’s vital that you let them know what to do if they think they are being cyberbullied. Working through this together can strengthen your relationship, too.

Create a schedule of things your kids can do instead of being on their screens. For example, reading is one of the best things they can do to increase their vocabulary and build their imagination. Exercise, getting outside or even doing things inside to get their heart rate up and create some sweat can do wonders for decreasing stress and anxiety along with elevating their mood. Look for activities you can do together as a family. Find ways for your kids to meaningfully contribute to your family and the lives of others who may need help with things like mowing their lawn, weeding their gardens, walking the dog and such. First Things First has a 30 Day Family Activity Challenge you might find helpful.

It’s OK to Ask for Help.

If you do not see change in a positive direction, you may want to seek professional help to deal with this situation. Also, encourage your kids to talk with other trusted adults in their life besides you. Honestly, sometimes it’s just hard to talk with your parents about certain things.*

These are complicated times for sure. As parents, our role is to lead—even when our children don’t appreciate the direction and structure we are giving them. A child or teen’s ability to assess their wellbeing is extremely limited due to their prefrontal cortex not being developed. Instead of being intimidated when it comes to doing what you know is in your child’s best interest to help them thrive, let them know that you get how hard this time is and that you are for them. While they may act like they don’t care about being in relationship with you, don’t be fooled. Knowing that you care, love them unconditionally and are there to listen is powerful—and although they may not acknowledge it—rest assured, they notice.

*Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Hotline: 800-662-HELP (4357); National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 800-273-TALK (8255)

Image from Unsplash.com

Popular artist Taylor Swift is aware of her critics and the harshness of their comments, especially after the time she sang off key with Stevie Nicks. One critic said it was the beginning of the end of her career.

These comments definitely affected Swift. So, what was her response? She wrote a song: Mean. 

You, with your words like knives and swords and weapons that you use against me,

You have knocked me off my feet again, got me feeling like I’m nothing…

While there have always been mean people, many would agree that there seems to be more mean behavior than even a decade ago.

“I believe as a society we are seeing more meanness and we have become more tolerant of it,” says Dr. Gary J. Oliver, emotional intelligence expert. “While bullying has always been around, we have seen an escalation of inhospitable, hurtful and demeaning behavior – and not just in adults who have lived a rough life. We are seeing this behavior in children as well.”

So, as Swift asks in her lyrics, why do people have to be so mean?

“I think there are a number of reasons,” Oliver says. “People seem to be more accepting of mean behavior instead of stopping it. And we have a lot of hurting people out there. When a wounded person feels threatened, they lash out in an effort to protect themselves. These people are almost always unhappy, insecure and frustrated. Their effort to make themselves feel better and safer comes at a great cost to those who become the target of their anger.”

Oliver also believes mean behavior has increased because of humans’ natural instinct to fight, run away or freeze when they feel threatened. People who don’t how to handle a mean situation often resort to fighting back or attacking someone out of anger.

“Most people do not realize that when they feel threatened, the emotion portion of their brain gets hijacked. If they have never learned emotional self-awareness, they resort to instinctive responses,” Oliver says. “Parents can teach their children how to handle their emotions in a way that is assertive yet not mean and disrespectful.”

Dr. Oliver shares these tips to teach children emotional intelligence:

  • Love your children.

  • Keep expectations realistic. No child can be number one at everything.

  • Help your child to recognize his/her strengths.

  • Teach them healthy boundaries.

  • Model how to treat others with kindness and compassion even when treated disrespectfully.

  • When someone makes a mean statement to your child, teach them to ask themselves if it is true. If not, they can dismiss it. If it is, they can do something about it.

“Nobody likes being treated mean – not even the bully,” Oliver says. “Teaching your children that they don’t have to react to every stimulus and that they can remain calm will serve them well on into adulthood. How far your child goes in life depends more on emotional intelligence than having a degree from an Ivy League school.”

Who would you prefer your child to hang around, someone who is mean, disrespectful and rude or someone who is compassionate, kind and respectful?

Have you heard about the Sayreville, New Jersey high school football team? The school superintendent suspended their entire season after learning of hazing incidents in the team locker room. Seven teens were arrested and charged with participating in hazing rituals that allegedly included raping freshman players.

What is at stake here? 

Considering each teen’s future, what’s the potential lasting impact of this type of behavior? Some will say, “Boys will be boys, what’s the big deal?” Others will say this isn’t just hazing, but outright abuse.

After the season’s cancellation, many parents complained that this was hurting their child’s potential scholarship opportunities, that it was unfair to punish the entire team for the actions of a few, and that perhaps the superintendent’s reaction was too harsh.

What About Accountability?

The alleged assault took place in the locker room with the entire team present. If this is the case, who should we hold accountable – actual participants, silent witnesses, or both?

You might remember a 2012 incident in Steubenville, Ohio involving two stellar athletes on the high school football team. Both were convicted of raping a 16-year-old girl and sentenced to time behind bars. As in the Sayreville incident, witnesses did nothing to stop the rape.

When the victim’s parents pressed charges, her family received threats and statements were made such as, “She was asking for it.” One of the boys pleaded with the victim not to press charges because it would ruin his football career.

People literally spend millions of dollars on anti-bullying and abuse prevention campaigns targeting teens. They even tell young people this behavior is unacceptable and if you see something, say something.

Unfortunately, Sayreville and Steubenville are not the only two places in the country where incidents like this have taken place, and the parents’ response to these situations is troubling. They seemed more concerned about the football season than the potential lifelong impact of this situation for everyone involved. Some might argue that there has been a cultural departure from having an ethical sense of right and wrong.

Choices Have Consequences

One could understand teens complaining about the punishment being too harsh because the judgment/decision-making part of their brain doesn’t fully develop until the mid-20s. It’s more difficult to understand, however, parents who don’t see the need to hold their children accountable. If your teen had held down and raped someone as part of a football team initiation, what would you want to happen?

Kudos to the teens brave enough to say something! Clearly, we can talk with and help teens understand that stopping someone from taking advantage of another person is not “ratting them out.” It is the right thing to do.

Teaching teens about sexual assault and what to do if they witness someone taking advantage of another person is absolutely vital. Lives are much different as a result of the Sayreville and Steubenville situations, and others. Parents cannot sit back and believe that this is all just part of growing up. There’s just too much at stake for our young people.

True or False?

  • Cyberbullying victims are at increased risk for traditional bullying victimization, substance use and school problems.
  • Victims of cyberbullying suffer from anger, frustration and sadness.
  • Most victims of cyberbullying tell an adult about their experience.
  • Victims report that they are primarily cyberbullied by strangers.

If you answered “true” for the first two statements and “false” for the last two, you are correct.

News stories abound about young people and bullying. One of the most widely-known incidents is about Megan Meier, a then 13-year-old from Missouri. She became online friends with a person she thought was a new boy in town. The “friend” was actually a group of young people and adults who plotted to humiliate Megan because of a broken friendship with another girl. When Megan discovered the truth, she became distraught and later committed suicide.

Cyberbullying is defined as using the computer or other electronic devices to intimidate, threaten or humiliate another. It most commonly takes place on the Internet among students from a given school or neighborhood.

Researchers and co-directors of the Cyberbullying Research Center, Justin Patchin and Sameer Hinduja, collected data from more than 15,000 youth regarding their personal cyberbullying experiences. They found that:

  • Five percent of the youth they interviewed claimed to be scared for their own safety.
  • On average, 25 percent of youth have been a victim of cyberbullying.
  • Among this percentage, mean or hurtful comments, and spreading rumors were the most common forms of cyberbullying.
  • More than half of study participants feel that cyberbullying is as bad as, or worse than bullying in real life.
  • 41 percent of victims do not tell anyone in their off-screen lives about their abuse, but 38 percent told an online friend.
  • 16 percent admitted to bullying another individual online.
  • Most of the bullying offenders said they consider bullying to be fun or instructive; such as a way to strengthen their victims.

Your child uses cell phones, emails, instant messaging, websites, blogs, text messages and other methods to communicate electronically. All of them present a potential cyberbullying risk to your child.

What Do Parents Need to Know?

The impact of cyberbullying can be devastating. Cyber victimization can cause poor grades, emotional spirals, poor self-esteem, repeated school absences, depression and in some cases, suicide. These outcomes are similar to those of real-life bullying, except with cyberbullying there is often no escape.

Young people used to be able to avoid the “bully” once school was out. Today’s technology now makes it almost impossible to escape. Since few parents closely monitor their child’s digital use, it is far easier for bullies to get away with bullying online than in person. And as the quiz pointed out, kids rarely tell their parents about the bullying.

What Can Parents Do?

  • Establish that all rules for interacting appropriately with people in real life apply online.
  • Explain what cyberbullying is and why it is unacceptable to bully or to allow bullying to continue.
  • Talk with your teen about the nature of REAL friendships.
  • Encourage your child to talk with you any time they believe they or someone they know is dealing with a bully.
  • Model appropriate technology use.
  • Write a technology contract that includes any form of technology used in your home.

Cyberbullying can be a serious threat to the well-being of your child, but the best plan of attack is to be proactive. Being ignorant about technology in this day and age won’t cut it, so you’ll want to educate yourself as well as your children. As the saying goes, information is power.

For tips on parenting get our E-book “How to be a Guide for your Teen” Download Here.

Looking for more? Check out this episode of JulieB TV for more on this topic!

In 2012, social media erupted over the email sent to news anchor Jennifer Livingston about being overweight. The email’s sender contended that he was trying to bring to her attention that she was not a good role model for young girls in their community because she was overweight. Her on-air response to his email created quite a buzz.

Someone also bullied a young girl named Kaelynn. She tells of physical and sexual abuse and about the death of her mother. Suffering from PTSD, she began stuttering. Classmates called her meth-head, orphan, worthless, a mistake, faker, retard.

“I was hated for being myself and I began to hate myself,” she said. None of Kaelynn’s classmates had any idea what she had experienced. She attempted suicide in fifth grade. Fortunately, her attempt failed and today, she speaks out against bullies.

While October is Bully Prevention Month, this topic is worthy of ongoing discussion. Bullying is nothing new, but it seems to exist at a whole new level.

Has our culture become a place where anything goes? The mean acts aren’t only happening with young people; adults participate as well. What became of human decency and treating each other with respect, even when we disagree?

Webster’s Dictionary defines a bully as someone who is quarrelsome and overbearing; one who habitually badgers and intimidates.

Could your child be the bully? Is your child a victim? And, how would you know?

If you don’t talk with your children about bullying, now is a good time to start. Here are some questions to get things going.

  • Is conflict different than bullying? All relationships have conflict. Just because someone doesn’t share your opinion about something or agree with your perspective does not mean they are a bully. Bullying is when a person treats you disrespectfully, is mean to you over and over again, or intentionally seeks to embarrass or harass you because you have a different viewpoint.

  • What do you do if you see someone being bullied? Don’t assume that your child will automatically stand up for the victim. Talk with them about how they would handle this situation. The research shows that if just one person stands up for the person being bullied it can change the entire situation, BUT it is hard even for adults to step out and go against the crowd. If it doesn’t feel safe to say something, go get help.

  • If someone bullies you, what will you do? Parents assume that their child will say something, but studies show that is not the case. Most bullying victims do not tell their parents because they are afraid the situation will worsen. Talk through the steps your child can take if they believe they are being bullied. Assure them that they can come to you for help in working through the situation.

A parent’s job is to pay attention. So, keep the lines of communication open by talking often and honestly about this topic. That way, your child is ready if something happens.

Here’s a guide to help you understand, prevent and counteract bullying: Guide to Bullying and Cyberbullying *provided by OnlineSchools.org

For tips on parenting get our E-book “How to be a Guide for your Teen” Download Here

On average, how much time do you spend with your children each week?

How much time do your children think you spend with them?

You’ve probably heard that quality time with your children, not the quantity, is what really matters. A study published in the Youth and Society Journal, however, questions that line of thinking.

The study indicates that bullying behavior increases when children perceive that their dads are not spending enough time with them.

Andre Christie-Mizell is a psychologist and associate professor of sociology at Vanderbilt University. He studied the behavior and perceptions of 687 children ages 10 to 14 and living in two-parent homes in 2000. Plus, he looked at their parents’ work hours.

He asked:

  • What is the relationship between the number of hours parents work and adolescent bullying behavior? 

  • What is the relationship between bullying behavior and youths’ perceptions of the amount of time their parents spend with them?

Interestingly, he found that the child’s perception of how much time they spent with their fathers most impacted bullying behavior. This is exactly opposite of what expected to find. Since mothers usually spend the most time caring for children, Christie-Mizell thought the mother’s time away would be the determining factor.

“The findings about fathers and mothers are important because it turns what most of us think is conventional wisdom — that mothers have the most influence on children — on its ear. This research shows that while it’s equally important for kids to spend time with both parents, fathers need to make an extra effort,” Christie-Mizell says.

He suggests setting up a schedule for parent-child interaction in order to guide children’s perceptions. For example, you could reserve Saturday mornings for daddy-daughter dates or father-son time.

Christie-Mizell says the interaction has to be purposeful and scheduled. You can’t just rely on those random, last-minute trips with Dad to the grocery store.

“Children need to know they have this scheduled time. And it’s important for fathers to try to keep to the schedule as much as possible. If fathers have to miss, then it’s also important that they explain to the child why they have to miss their scheduled time and how what they are doing instead affects their family,” Christie-Mizell says.

A University of Michigan-Ann Arbor study explored time with Dad, too. It found that American kids in two-parent, intact families spend an average of 2.5 hours a day with their fathers on weekdays and 6.2 on weekends. For about half that time, fathers are directly engaging with the kids – playing, eating, shopping, watching television with them or working together around the house. The rest of the time, dads are nearby and available if their kids need them.

Children tend to do better in every area of life when dad is active in their lives. And believe it or not, dads are better off, too.

For more information on the importance of fathers, download our E-book “Why Being a dad is a BIG Deal” Download Here

Paul Coughlin’s passion to prevent bullying comes from his own bullying experience while in elementary school. He understands how a campaign of cruelty can damage a person’s emotional and psychological well-being, not just in childhood, but often for life.

This knowledge, along with his passion, led him to start an anti-bullying effort called The Protectors, whose primary focus is on the potential strength, heroic desire and rescuing capacity of bystanders. Studies show that bystanders possess the most potential to transform an environment of bullying into one of character, freedom and justice. One study revealed that if only one bystander, whether popular or not, uses his or her assertive but nonviolent words in defense of a target, the incident of bullying can end 58 percent of the time within six to eight seconds.

How prevalent is bullying in schools?

  • One out of every four students report being victims of bullying during the school year. (National Center for Educational Statistics, 2015)

  • Of children who are bullied, 64 percent did not report it. (Petrosino, Guckenburg, DeVoe, and Hanson, 2010)

  • School-based bullying prevention programs decrease bullying by up to 25 percent. (McCallion and Feder, 2013)

  • The reasons for being bullied reported most often by students were looks (55 percent), body shape (37 percent) and race (16 percent). (Davis and Nixon, 2010)

According to Coughlin, an expert witness regarding bullying and the law, bullying is not about conflict and miscommunication. It is about standing in contempt of another human being.

“It is a myth that the bully has anger management problems,” says Coughlin. “Bullies are highly predatory people. Bullies tend to come from homes with coercive parenting styles where parents express disdain and contempt of people who are different from them. Young people learn through modeling, this is how you treat people.”

What can you do?

  • Speak Up. If someone is bullying you, tell them to stop.

  • Bystanders are the best front line of defense. Stand up for the victim when you see bullying happen. Phrases such as, “Stop it, that’s wrong,” “Let’s do something else,” “I am going to report you” are powerful and can stop the bullying.

  • Schools can adopt anonymous reporting. One of the top five apps changing the world for good, as reported by CNN, is an anonymous reporting app called STOPit.

  • Take the incident seriously. Act sooner rather than later.

  • Don’t look the other way. When you know something is happening, report it.

“What’s really going to change bullying is when we change parenting,” Coughlin says. “As parents, we need to expect our kids to help someone in need. It needs to be part of your family mission and purpose. I have actually had this conversation with all three of my kids. I expect you to do something life-affirming. We don’t stand by and watch someone’s psychological flesh get seared from their body and do nothing.

“Research actually shows that when we see someone being targeted and you have the power to act yet you do nothing, our capacity for courage, sympathy and empathy decrease. We become small-souled. If we want strong kids, this is a pivotal moment. This is a tremendous opportunity for character development.”

Although it is not possible to prevent bullying altogether, there is no excuse for allowing it to continue if you know it is going on. Speaking up for yourself or another victim can make a huge difference both now and in the future.

For tips on parenting get our E-book “How to be a Guide for your Teen” Download Here

While driving her teen daughters home from school, Mom asked them what they knew about 13 Reasons Why, a popular Netflix series about a teen who commits suicide. The youngest was clueless. The older daughter, however, definitely knew what her mom was talking about.

When Mom told the girls she didn’t want them watching the show on Netflix, the cat-that-ate-the-canary look on her oldest daughter’s face said she was too late. Mom quickly learned that her eldest had already watched not just one episode – but the entire first season. At this point, she felt like a serious mom failure had taken place right under her nose.

Apparently her daughter, along with millions of U.S. teens, found 13 Reasons Why to be very intriguing. Some say they can relate to Hannah’s problems. Others find it entertaining.

However, parents, counselors, teachers and school administrators across the country have extreme concerns about the show. They feel that it may glorify teen suicide, bullying, rape and other behaviors.

On “The Today Show,” Dr. Harold S. Koplewicz, psychiatrist and president of the Child Mind Institute, called for the show’s immediate removal, saying teenage suicide is contagious. Koplewicz cited more than three decades of research that shows when kids watch suicide depictions on television, they’re more likely to try it themselves. Sadly, they’re also more likely to succeed in their attempt.

Not surprisingly, Netflix just announced a second season of the show, albeit with a warning card at the beginning. 13 Reasons Why was the most tweeted-about show in 2017. And, the viewership is exactly the audience Netflix is after.

While there are definitely some caution lights surrounding the show, perhaps it’s not all bad. For example, it provides some opportunities for parents to discuss the tumultuous teen years, suicide, bullying, drug abuse and dating violence.

In her post, An Instruction Manual for Watching 13 Reasons Why with Your Teen, therapist Jenny Spitzer includes these recommendations to parents:

  • Validate feelings, whether or not you agree. Actions are up for discussion and you have the last word. But feelings are never up for negotiation.

  • Avoid telling your children their feelings aren’t real. They are, in fact, more intense than the average adult’s. Teens typically lack the ability to see that their problems are temporary, so everything feels like it’s going to last forever. You can tell them that this is not the case until you’re blue in the face—they won’t get it. Often, their brains aren’t wired to understand this yet.

  • Don’t assume they aren’t communicating if they’re not communicating with words. There are lots of ways that people communicate without words—through art, dance, music. People can also communicate with their behavior.

  • Help them effectively use communication tools.

  • Don’t assume they know everything they say they know. Try to stay away from yes or no questions.

  • Ask them to explain things to you. For example, what does bullying mean to you?

  • Discuss similarities and differences between your child’s experience and the experiences depicted in the show.

  • Familiarize yourself with your child’s school policies surrounding these issues. What policies are in place to respond to these issues? Ask about the policy regarding what school counselors can and cannot divulge to parents. Find out exactly what your school counselor would do if Hannah confided in them. Ask what they can and cannot do when they suspect a child is suffering from depression—you might be surprised.

Although it may be uncomfortable, these recommendations are great starting points for open and honest conversations. Your teen needs to hear the truth from you. You also need to hear what is on your teen’s mind. Additionally, consider inviting other adults into your teen’s life who share your values. Then, give them chances to speak into the life of your child.

This article was originally published in the Chattanooga Times Free Press on May 14, 2017.