Smartphones are the ‘most wanted’ gift by teenagers. They want to use them to chat with friends, share photographs and update their circles about themselves. To do this, they install messaging apps like Whatsapp and open accounts with Facebook and Instagram. They want their parents to give them ‘digital privacy’. Our teenagers can indeed teach us a lot about these apps and their uses. I know of youngsters who have taught their grandparents the magic of the Internet. Some have picked up wonderful craft ideas from YouTube, while others have created groups to chat as well as study together virtually. And, a few have created useful apps themselves. But, it’s not all good, always. Tech-savvy children are not immune to cyber criminals. They can be easy victims of several sorts of online offences and harassment. Cyberbullying is too common a problem.
“Revenge porn goes to school: Sexting and cyberbullying notorious trends in schools; most institutions hush up cases” — The Times of India (17 Jan 2018)
Similar headlines appear almost every other day in newspapers across the world. Teens are increasingly turning to the Internet to not only connect with each other but to also settle scores when they fall out with their peers.
Chat messages, emails and objectionable photographs are often posted in the public domain to, in some cases, irreparably, damage the reputation of the adversary.
As a result, it is important for children to know what they can and can't share with their peers in the digital world to prevent themselves from landing in trouble.
Forms of cyberbullying
Teenagers are prone to posting comments about others in anger, or with the intention of teasing, which can make the target feel hurt, insulted, annoyed, angry or threatened. A child may be victimised by a whole group of ‘friends’ or classmates for issues ranging from body shape to style of dressing, from academic performance to food habits, and also for his own social media updates.
Are all children prone to fall victim to cyber-bullying? No. The situation is the same as in other kinds of bullying. Some children are mentally strong and positive. But, some may be more vulnerable than others due to various reasons. Children with low self-esteem and those who are physically handicapped, from disturbed families or suffering from broken relationships are the most susceptible. Such children may present a happy front, even teasing others, but that doesn’t mean they can themselves withstand bullying. They may not be able to take criticism, they may feel deeply hurt when teased or be completely broken when their friends (including virtual friends) remove them from Web groups.
Symptoms to watch for in your teen
- Being angry, insulted or hurt
- Exhibiting signs of depression
- Becoming withdrawn
- Being unusually short-tempered
- Most significantly, getting extremely angry if a parent tries to access the mobile phone
‘Irrational’ coping mechanisms
If your child is a victim of cyberbullying, you need to be aware of the various ways in which he may respond to the problem. You must be aware that he may even hit back virtually.
A research paper titled, ‘Irrational Coping Theory and Positive Criminology: A Framework to Protect Victims of Cyber Crime’, was co-authored by me and Jaisankar K. It was published in the book Positive Criminology (2015) edited by N Ronel and D Segev. In this paper, I built up an ‘irrational coping theory’ and documented observations of online behavior of cybercrime victims, including victims of bullying, stalking, etc. Here are some things I found:
- Victims may counter bullying by writing extremely offensive posts about the bully or creating fake avatars of the bully
- They may go to the extent of hacking the bully’s account
- In certain cases, the victim may take an extreme step like attempting or committing suicide or trying to physically hurt the bully
I call such reactions ‘irrational’ because these may lead to escalation of the problem for the victim and turn him into a perpetrator himself.
How parents can help
- Be a friend and not a frenemy. Teenagers will not easily open up about problems in their cyber world. If you notice symptoms that indicate your child is being cyberbullied, do not scold her for giving room for bullying. Instead, you can tell her how you yourself were bullied as a child. Once your teenager knows that you have gone through a similar experience, she may confide in you about her problems. Discuss the experience with her, and try to understand what she is going through.
- Teach your child to take criticism positively. This will make the child mentally strong. He will be able to cope better with bullying which involves pointing out shortcomings in a hurtful way.
- Train your child not to retaliate violently or negatively to cyberbullying. She should never be encouraged to take up any negative mechanism like writing back to the bully, creating fake avatars of the bully or generating hatred for the bully in public. Guide her instead to turn the negative energy generated by bullying into a positive force. Encourage her to draw the pain or write about it. Help her make a promise to herself not to follow the bully’s example.
- Make sure yours is a close-knit family. This will be a big help. Sharing and caring within a family unit releases tensions and heals pain faster. Family members must extend complete support to the teenager irrespective of whether they understand what cyberspace is and how cyberbullying can take place.
- Let your child enjoy her digital privacy under your care and guidance. Do not discourage her from using the Internet, as this may backfire. Help her learn from her experience of cyberbullying.
Some positive coping mechanisms
- Guide the child and help him ignore the bully and block him out.
- Help her report harassment to the Web platforms where the harassment has taken place.
- Encourage him to build a positive circle of chosen and trusted friends – ideally, the parent should be a part of that group, not forcefully, but because the teenager’s confidence has been won.
- Facilitate the child to consult a counselor about how to cope with bullying positively.
- Encourage the child to think about starting a group to support other victims of bullying and help them cope in a positive way.
Dr Debarati Halder is the Honorary Managing Director of the Centre for Cyber Victim Counselling (www.cybervictims.org). She is also working as Professor & Head of the Department of Research, Unitedworld School of Law, Karnavati University, Gandhinagar, Gujarat. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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