Cyberbullying, a result of that perfect storm created by personal insecurities and an environment ripe with opportunity and anonymity, can have devastating consequences.
No stranger to today's media, bullies are pursuing their victims across new platforms, such as email, instant messaging, chat rooms, websites, Facebook, Twitter and other social media outlets. It has become impossible for teens to escape their tormentors. Exposure now reaches far beyond the classrooms, hallways and locker rooms. It now reaches our homes. Teens are constantly accessible through the mobile devices they keep inches away from them at all times.
Many adults know when to give social media a rest. Some even announcing, "going off the grid for a while," or "taking a break from Facebook." Teens are another story. Most have nowhere near that level of personal discipline. Even if devices are taken away, they can still access accounts through other means with very little effort. Therein lays a tipping point. Just as sleep plays a critical role in restoring our cognitive functions, the ability to step away from abuse to process, evaluate and take action is essential to mental health. Without that clarity stress can reach a tipping point with alarming intensity.
Research shows more than one million children are harassed, threatened or subjected to other forms of cyberbullying on Facebook in just one year. This alarming number is a sign of the times as social media is changing the way we communicate. Some of these changes are positive, such as empowering the individual with a stronger voice to shape policies. Others are not so welcomed. The bystander effect, a social psychological phenomenon in which people fail to help a victim when other people are present, shows that the probability of intervention decreases when more people are present. With social media's massive reach, the number of non-responding bystanders is troubling. For example, 90 percent of teens using social media who have witnessed online cruelty admit that they did not intervene to help.
Signs of cyberbullying prevention are increasing, however. Examples are everywhere: Tina Meier, whose 13-year old daughter, Megan, committed suicide after being cyberbullied in 2006 is now helping to train 70 police officers from two dozen law enforcement agencies in St. Louis, Missouri on the world of electronic harassment; leaders from the Glendale Unified School District in California are paying a firm to track public posts by more than 14,000 middle and high school students; and Rep. Ron Marsico (R-Dauphin) of Pennsylvania is pressing the case for tighter rules to reduce online harassment of children, sponsoring legislation to make repeated online swipes leveled at a minor, including disparaging comments, threats or anything sexually explicit, a misdemeanor charge.
Agree or disagree with the tactics, action is being taken to stop cyberbullying, and that's important, but solutions must also be realistic. Teens will always be one step ahead as new social media technologies continue to emerge, which is why it's important to call out another group of people who stand ready to fight this battle: professional school counselors.
Teens will often hide that they are being cyberbullied due to shame, embarrassment or fear of punishment. Professional school counselors are trained to look for warning signs, including:
- A sudden change in appearance
- Desperate attempts to hang out with other social groups
- Increased symptoms of anxiety
- Psychosomatic effects, such as headaches and stomachaches
- Frequent visits to a nurse's office
- Self-destructive behaviors
- Changes in weight
- Panic attacks
These signs can easily be hidden at home, but professional school counselors stay alert throughout the school day and are trained to identify appropriate next steps and resources when action must be taken.
Parents should leverage these resources and let professional counselors be their eyes and ears. Reaching out to professional counselors when red flags are raised and starting a dialogue about the best ways to monitor sensitive situations is key. Also, communicating with teens and letting them know that their professional school counselor is there to help is essential. Parents might be ignored, but the seed is planted.
Professional counselors realize the benefits of protecting today's youth as a unified front. Working together, parents, teachers, school officials and professional school counselors can take a proactive approach to cyberbullying rather than reacting when it might be too late.