Question: My fifteen-year-old daughter says someone in her class is sending her “teasing” type emails. Is this bullying or is this normal?
Nothing raises our parenting defenses as much as when we suspect our children are being intimidated. The key word when you look at figuring out normal teenage interaction and pinpointing bullying behavior is intimidation!
When you think of bullying, you usually think of a bigger kid picking on a smaller kid. However that isn’t necessarily the case. Bullying occurs when a person is targeted and picked on by another person due to perceived weakness, whether physical or social. In your daughter’s case, I would say the key is the intimidation factor. That is, if your daughter feels intimidated then the situation has to be addressed.
More and more kids are being affected by bullying. “It is estimated that between 25% to 30% of people will be impacted by bullying during their grade school through high school career,” reports Coralie Van Alstyne, Educational Psychologist with School Steps Inc.,. “Recent surveys are showing that the percentage may be increasing do to the proliferation of cyber-bullying.”
One study shows that the most common form of cyber-bullying is posting something online about a person to make others laugh and the most frequent form of victimization is receiving insulting emails from someone you know. It sounds like your daughter may be experiencing a form of cyber-bullying.
The development of the Internet, social media, and texting has allowed bullying to occur without eye contact or physical interaction, and most importantly, without the tormentor or bystanders witnessing the victim’s reaction.
When we witness something happening to another person, our brain registers what we are seeing as if it were happening to us, which usually leads to an empathic reaction. For example, if you see someone trip and fall, your brain registers this information as if you have fallen, and prompts you to reach out to help the person up, almost as though you’re not thinking about it.
Similarly, when people witness bullying, they have an instant reaction toward the victim, such as empathy, remorse or guilt, or even an inclination to “help” in some way. The type of brain cells that are responsible for this phenomenon are called mirror neurons, the motor neurons in your brain that fire when you observe the actions and facial expressions of another as if you yourself were “doing” the action. Our brains’ ability to mirror gives us the innate understanding of what another person may be thinking or feeling.
Here are several reasons why cyber-bullying is more alarming and may be more impactful to our kids:
- Traditional bullying (involving human interaction) limited the number of kids who were participants to a relatively small number per incident. With cyber-bullying, however, the number of kids who can be involved (and nearly immediately) is limitless.
- Texts, emails, and, especially, posts to social media sites such as Facebook are permanent. And since there is no time limit to the bullying action, the message can be seen anytime.
- Bullying that occurs via network technologies allows bullies to avoid the effects that the mirror neurons would subject them to, in this case, feeling the victim’s pain. Bullying then becomes an activity than can be conducted without remorse.
What you and other parents can do:
1) Make sure that your daughter knows this the bullying not her fault. Bullying behavior, either in person or via technology, is wrong. Ask your daughter to share all information related to the incident, so you can make good decisions about how to protect her.
2) It is imperative that your daughter not reply to these emails, since any engagement encourages the bully.
3) If the emails continue, you should talk to teachers/administrators at your daughter’s school. Keep in mind that the school may not be able to take action if the cyberbullying doesn’t take place during the school day. Notifying the school sends a message to the bully that adults are monitoring the bullying.
4) Encourage your child’s school, your local community centers, church, etc., to provide information about cyber-bullying.
5) Set a good example. As parents, we are role models to our children, but when it comes to how we talk about others or the things we laugh at, we have to be extra careful that we are not modeling “mean” behavior. Laughing at a joke at the expense of others or an off-handed comment may inadvertently set the wrong example to our children.
“The key to decreasing any kind of bullying behavior is to empower the bystanders since they make up a larger percentage of children,” says Coralie Van Alstyne. “The best way to empower other children is to educate them and help them understand that they can make a difference for victims of bullying by getting involved at any level.”
Kids need to understand that simply passing on negative messages through text, email, or any other means encourages the bully and can have negative consequences. Schools should setup a place on their web sites where students can anonymously report any kind of bullying.
Remember: We know as parents that the words of others are simply that, words. Most of us had to reach adulthood until that lesson sunk in, so keep that in mind when you are guiding your child and sharing your own experiences.
Tara Delaney is a nationally known child development expert who specializes in sensory processing, autism spectrum disorders, and social/behavioral issues. She is the author of two books: The Sensory Processing Disorder Answer Book (Sourcebooks) and 101 Games and Activities for Children with Autism, Asperger’s and Sensory Processing Disorders (McGraw-Hill). An active occupational therapist, Tara is also the Founder/Executive Director of Baby Steps Therapy, a nonprofit clinical practice focused on helping every child achieve his or her greatest potential in the classroom and beyond. Visit her web site at www.taradelaney.com.