Last month I was cyberbullied. I know, I couldn't believe it either. Me? Cyberbullied? At 43? And by a stranger no less! This person, who I will call @BigBigBully (for the purpose of this post) and who again, does not know me at all, took great offense to a picture I posted and it triggered an online bout of rage. They misinterpreted a caption to an Instagram (IG) image and the result was a slew of name calling, cursing, and threats. This stranger proceeded to attack my character and make judgements. It was crazy and irrational, and yet it felt hugely personal! The more @BigBigBully attacked me, I found it hard to remain silent. I should have never engaged. I should have just stopped reading after the first negative, crazy comment, like I normally do. Like I would instruct my children to do. I should have. But I did not.
And so, it began—a bit of back and forth on IG and a futile attempt on my part to educate the stranger about cyberbullying. After just a few exchanges, I accepted that this person was angry, obstinate, and obviously dealing with something larger. So, I wished the stranger well and hit "block."
Since then all I have thought about is how many young people experience this very thing each day. Aside from being mad at myself for even responding (because I do know better), I was mostly upset that @BigBigBully could be so empowered. I was also really bothered by the fact that cyberbullying in general happens just that easily, to anyone, at any age, at any time.
My experience was mild but it made me wonder—what if I were in my teens, more sensitive, less sure of myself, and with less perspective and life experience? Where would this have gone and how would it have impacted me? How can mean comments from a stranger feel extremely personal? Is it because they have access to real pieces of your life on social media, if you share that type of stuff? Is it because they are hiding behind a screen and thus the level of empowerment is elevated? Even more, how in the H. E. double hockey sticks am I going to be able to truly protect my own children from this very thing if I can't refrain from engaging even just this one time? Because all it takes is one time and the damage could reverberate throughout life!
Before now I just thought when the time comes, I'll teach my children to block people, to ignore them, to walk away. I thought I would instruct them just as I would when talking about in-person, on the playground, traditional bullying. But having now experienced cyberbullying, I know it's just not enough to expect our children to be so brave. We can hope for it, but we shouldn't leave it all in their hands to manage. Although I've never experienced traditional bullying, I know this type of bullying is very different and demands different guidance. Social media is empowering all kinds of behavior and we, as parents, have got to find a way to harness using it for good, for appropriate socialization, while protecting our children from the bad, as they mature. But how?
There is certainly a lot of good information out there about monitoring social media activity and what to do when/if someone is bullied. Limit the amount of screen time. Monitor your child’s online activity. Look for behavioral changes. Only allow usage at home in an open, communal place. The list goes on. And again, these are all solid words of advice. But the reality is, there are plenty of great parents who may have followed many of these recommendations and yet far too often we all hear about children committing suicide because of cyberbullying. SUICIDE. Over electronic communication via social media! Or at best, cyberbullying leads to internalized negative feelings and who knows what that turns into later down the line.
It’s clear that children need help navigating social media and they need it now. What must happen for social media companies to take this more seriously and step up efforts to curtail the growing cyberbullying trend? Is the almighty dollar worth the lives of our children? We don’t put children behind the wheel of a car for a reason—they are not equipped or capable of driving safely at just any age. Social media, to me, can be much more dangerous than driving. It’s certainly more accessible and used around the clock. Maybe social media should follow the same path as getting a driver’s license—uniformly make it illegal to use until a certain age, teach children how to responsibly use it, then give them a trial period of learning before completely giving them a social media license, and take it away when/if there are infractions. Can’t parents get a little help from the industry or government? Someone. Anyone. And I mean real help perhaps in the form of universal regulations and guidelines, heavy monitoring and oversight, fines and penalties, and lots of ongoing education.
Sure, every social media app provides resources like IG’s Tips for Parents and some apps have age requirements, thanks to the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act of 1998 (COPPA). For example, IG doesn’t allow children under 13 to create an account. But guess what? There are still plenty of 13 year olds on it and even at 13 and older, cyberbullying is still a major issue. I learned firsthand that it doesn’t have any age limit which is more reason why parents, social media outlets, and schools need to work together to more aggressively address this early on and thoughtfully.
Why can't Instagram, Twitter and/or Facebook partner and take on the issue of cyberbullying and own it in such a way that it turns it totally on its head? There are very smart people who work at these places. Surely they can figure something out! Perhaps they could close even more accounts of abusers and more heavily monitor the chatter on sites specifically for any indication of bullying? Or why can't they be like Kudos and require the approval of parents before posting? Or why can’t they create entirely new kid-friendly platforms? Something like an Instagram for kids? Perhaps they could partner with a monitoring service like TeenSafe or the PopJam app to create more safe environments. And from there, perhaps they could brand this new kid-friendly social media site so that it is more attractive than other options designed for older groups.
Our children deserve better—we have exposed them to something that can be very dangerous without giving them the developmental tools and skills needed to successfully manage it. It’s beyond time we address this awful, growing issue in a way that’s unapologetic, uniform, aggressive, and designed to regularly educate children.