Truth be told, bullying has been a problem as long as there have been children. Bullying provides an insecure person with a sense of power. The more insecure the bully, the more they will torment others. Children have been bullied and taunted about their weight, wearing glasses, their clothes, their looks, their speech and a list of other characteristics too long to name for decades. Most took the bullying with their heads down and a sense of avoidance. Few were secure enough not to be bothered by the taunts. Some resorted to their own bullying, it not aimed back at their tormentor, then aimed at someone else “smaller” than themselves. In the past few decades our society has seen bullying and the reaction to bullying spiral out of control as bullies become relentless and the bullied resort to bringing guns to school to deal with the problem. In my opinion, the breakdown of communication between children, teens and their parents is a large part of the problem.
In recent years, cyberbullying has caught the attention of society through the horrific wake-up call of our children committing suicide in response to bullying beyond their control. Children such as Megan Meier, Ryan Patrick Halligan, Phoebe Prince, and Hope Witsell found life unbearable as the focus of one or more cyberbullies and ended their young lives when they felt there was no longer any hope.
So what makes cyberbullying so different from the standard bullying of decades past?
With cyberbullying, the victim has no idea where the taunts and threats originate. While screen names are used on-line, they can be fictitious and designed for the sole purpose of tormenting. The victim may think they are being harassed from one direction when truth is that others are the ones to blame. This anonymity gives bullies a certain sense of security, spurring them to become more vicious in their attacks. Furthermore, with the availability and popularity of on-line social networking, the rumors and taunts are spread very quickly to a much wider audience. What starts with a few individuals can turn into mass bombardment. Once it starts, it is not likely to stop as individual can pick up a thread weeks later and re-kindle the damaging fire.
We have all seen the headlines that have illustrated where this vile practice of bullying can lead. Our children can only handle so much hatred and pain. Bombarded with such negative messages on an on-going basis, they quickly begin to doubt their self-worth and even those who are prone to talk to their parents or another trusted adult soon feel so worthless they will not take action except to attempt to end their own existence or react with reciprocate violence.
What can we do to effectively combat cyberbullying? First, we need to encourage the state legislatures to propose, support and pass laws that address electronic harassment and specifically cyberbullying. As of June 2011, 32 states have laws addressing electronic harassment, but only 6 of these have laws that specifically address cyberbullying. The states that have neither such laws include Arkansas, Arizona, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, District of Columbia, Hawaii, Indiana, Louisians, Maine, Michigan, Montana, New York, Ohio, South Dakota, Texas, Vermont, West Virginia, and Wisconsin. (Cyberbullying Research Center; http://www.cyberbullying.us/Bullying_and_Cyberbullying_Laws.pdf) However, the vast majority of those with electronic harassment and/or cyberbullying laws stipulate sanctions at the school level only rather than the criminal level. Simply stated, placing the responsibility of punishment for these offenses upon the schools is not only unreasonable, but unrealistic.
The majority of incidents of electronic harassment and cyberbullying do not take place at school. They take place at home or local hang-outs where children and teens use their personal electronic gadgets (smartphones, laptops, etc.) to commit these offenses. Schools are often disrupted due to the fall-out from these offenses; however, they have no real grounds for disciplining for the offense since it did not take place within their areas of jurisdiction. We must push our legislature to elevate these actions to a “criminal” status. It does not seem unreasonable to ask for such a decision based upon the dramatic and devastating results in which most incidents of cyberbullying end.
However, we all know that changing laws takes time, so what can we do in the interim? We have to teach our children that they do not deserve this type of treatment from anyone! We must keep the lines of communication open so that our children and teens are comfortable and willing to talk to their parents, their teachers or other trusted adults. We must encourage our children and teens to report such incidents and not to allow these bullies to get away with their actions. As adults, we have to stop hiding behind the excuse that most of these incidents originate from anonymous sources and set an example that this type of harassment will not be tolerated. We have to be willing to take a stand and insist that no child or teen be treated in such a manner. One death due to cyberbullying is one too many. Those who instigate such actions should be held responsible. We must monitor the internet usage of our children and teens. There are many inexpensive programs – often part of a security suite – that allow parents to restrict web access based upon age and other factors. We must realize that our children and teens are not adults and as much as we would like to treat them that way, it is our job to protect them. If they are angry at us for doing so, they will get over it. One day they will understand that our “meddling” in their lives is based upon our love for them and they will appreciate it.
Take a stand with me and work to make a change. Let’s put an end to electronic harassment and cyberbullying now.