How Parents Can Handle Bullying in a Digital World

Pop culture portrays bullying as a dichotomy between bullies and victims, hashed out on school grounds and settled with an after-school special convenience (think “Glee,” “Mean Girls,” “Fast Times at Ridgemont High”). In real-life high schools, instances of bullying aren’t as clear-cut as they appear on screen.

For today’s youth, bullying behavior isn’t confined to schoolyards and cafeterias. With the pervasiveness of social media encroaching on the lives of youngsters, it’s easier than ever for verbal or physical harassment to go unnoticed by parents, as teens and tweens take their lives online.

Nancy Willard, director of Embrace Civility in the Digital Age, an outreach effort promoting a modern approach to address bullying, says it’s more difficult for parents and teachers to address bullying in the digital world.

“Schools aren’t making the rules for sites or apps that students are using,” Willard says. “Adults aren’t present.”

The ability to be anonymous may suspend common inhibitions, creating a perceived shield from retribution; as such, kids and teens feel they can—and will—say anything. Willard’s work focuses significant attention on adapting parenting and administrative practices to mesh with a changing world.

“Such aggressive behavior used to take place on the playground,” says Bill Kling, attorney and University of Illinois at Chicago professor who teaches courses on public policy, law and leadership. “Now confrontations take place on the digital playground.” The change of venue complicates the ability of administrators to monitor and intervene when bullying occurs.

According to law, bullying is “any pervasive or severe verbal or physical act, including written and electronic communication, that causes a student to feel unsafe or negatively impacts a student’s mental or academic well-being.” The range of behavior included in that definition runs the gamut. But as far as academia is concerned, for aggressive behavior to constitute bullying, Kling says it has to demonstrably interfere with a student’s ability to participate in school or must take place on school grounds or using school equipment or network.

The old image of a traditional bully, perpetuated in popular culture, doesn’t always ring true in modern society. No longer are beefy football players or chain-smoking teenage bad boys the norm. Willard says that the young people who engage in bullying are often described as “at-risk thugs” who are impulsive or violent. But, she says, that isn’t an accurate description of the kind of young people who engage in cyberbullying.

“In fact, a large amount of bullying, especially at the secondary level, is by the social competent, very well-integrated social climbers,” Willard says. “These aren’t young people who are at risk for going to jail, these are young people who are at risk for becoming CEOs or politicians.”

As the means of bullying have changed, so too have the appropriate methods of stopping it. Willard says that simply telling an adult doesn’t appear to be effective in stopping bullying. In fact, when victims report abuse, it sometimes gets worse.

“The developmental priority of a teenager is to learn to handle their own affairs,” Willard says. “They don’t want to tell an adult, and if they do tell an adult, then other students will look down upon them because they couldn’t handle their own affairs. We have to help encourage them and help them learn to handle their own affairs in an effective manner.”

Punishment of offending students, Willard says, is the worst thing a parent can demand of administrators. According to studies by the Youth Voice Project, punishment does not succeed in holding bullies accountable, but rather it stigmatizes shame. In the digital arena, retaliation remains a clear concern.

“If you punish a student and generate anger, digital retaliation can be vicious, anonymous and can involve people who are totally outside of the authority of the school,” Willard says.

For many teens, using the Internet—or apps like What’sApp, Kik and ask.fm—suggests lower stakes and a lesser chance of being reprimanded. But for the targets, such attacks can be more painful. “It increases the distress of young people because they don’t know who’s attacking them, so everyone is a potential threat, a potential enemy,” Willard says.

Instead, Willard encourages parents to work to develop a moral code early on in their child’s youth and through adolescence. Encourage children to focus on their strengths, and act as a positive role model by teaching strong values and character traits.

Instead of punishing children who have demonstrated aggressive behavior, parents and administrators should opt for restorative practice interventions: focus on acknowledgement of wrongdoing and accept personal responsibility. Opting for disciplinary consequence in abeyance allows students who are not chronic bullies to avoid having an infraction on their permanent record; instead, such offenders agree to take steps to make amends and remedy any harm caused, preventing further incidents.

For students who have been targets of aggressive behavior, parents and administrators can work together to help empower teens with the skills to promote positive relations at school. Such behaviors include:

  • Knowing how important it is to reach out and be kind to those who are being left out or hurt by others
  • Conflict resolution
  • Voicing concerns to friends and peers
  • Recognizing and stopping your own bad behavior
  • Cultivating self-confidence and the skills to be able to respond effectively to hurtful behavior

“And if you have been hurtful,” Willard adds, “and every one of us has been hurtful from time to time, how can you own it and fix it?”

When situations can’t be remedied through these techniques, there are legal protections against bullying and harassment. “Keep a record, download anything that’s posted online, document everything,” Willard says. “Frequently young people who are chronically bullied have psychosocial concerns, which result in physical conditions. Get your pediatrician involved.”

For more resources on how to handle bullying, check out Willard ’s program for parents and administrators to share with students, entitled “Be a Friend, Lend a Hand: How Young People Can Powerfully Promote Positive Relations.”