When 9-year-old Jamel Myles killed himself in August after his mom says he was bullied, his death made national headlines. While the outcome of his tragic case is uncommon, the bullying he endured is not. In fact, the nonprofit organization National Voices for Equality, Education and Enlightenment says someone bullies a child every seven minutes.
Nineteen percent of students in high school reported being bullied on school property in the prior year, according to the CDC’s 2017 Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System. Of students surveyed, 14.9 percent reported being cyberbullied. Child Trends, a nonprofit research organization focused on children, says that those statistics are consistent with analyses going back to 2009.
While the lack of an increase may be seen as good news, the fact that so many kids are bullied is cause for concern and they are the reason for the campaign to keep kids safe from bullying that takes center stage in October during National Bullying Prevention Month, which was founded by PACER’s National Bullying Prevention Center in 2006.
“The rate of the bullying problem varies in reports and that’s largely because we fail to use the same bullying definition and survey device in gathering data,” says Michele Borba, Ph.D., parenting expert and author of “End Peer Cruelty, Build Empathy: The Proven 6Rs of Bullying Prevention That Create Inclusive, Safe, and Caring Schools.” “Whether bullying is increasing is not proven, but my concern is that it appears to be more emotionally damaging and starting at younger ages.”
Not only does bullying start earlier than it used to, but it’s also tougher to escape. “There has always been bullying, but what makes this world so much more challenging for kids in particular is that the bullying can follow your kids home and on their devices,” says Stephen Balkam, founder and CEO of the Family Online Safety Institute (FOSI).
When it comes to bullying online and in real life, they had a similar impact on suicidal ideation, according to a study by the Cyberbullying Research Center. Study author Justin Patchin, Ph.D., and co-director of the center wasn’t surprised by those finding, noting it’s typical to see similarities between them. “For those who are only bullied at school or only bullied online, it is difficult to determine which is worse,” Patchin says. “Every instance of bullying is different and can impact youth in a variety of different ways. While some students might not be all that bothered by online bullying, others really are.”
Borba says that online bullying creates another problem in that bullies believe they can get away with their cruelty and can’t be tracked when they shame another anonymously. “But the key is that bullying should never be tolerated anywhere or at any age,” she stresses.
While many are aware of the long-term impact bullying can have on a victim, bullies who get away with their actions get the wrong message about their behavior, which can also lead to negative consequences down the road.
“The fact is bullying doesn’t end at age 18, or 21, or any age, it just gets a variety of different names, such as assault and battery, harassment, discrimination, stalking, theft, or bigotry,” explains Gene Liebler, LCSW, executive director of Behavioral Health Services at La Rabida Children’s Hospital in Chicago. “It’s not hard to understand how adults get in trouble with the law, when so much of the behavior that gets an adult in trouble with the law is completely ignored, or seen and dismissed, while they are growing up,” Leibler says. “The answer isn’t to criminalize childhood behavior, it’s to prioritize developing environments where children learn to value and support one another.”
Here are five actions parents can take to create those environments for their children and communities.
1. Model good behavior and empathy
“As adults we need to fully accept our responsibility as role models and teachers — and any adult who has anything more than brief interactions with a child is one of their teachers,” says Liebler. He explains that children learn empathy by watching adults and adds, “This problem has just as much to do with adults’ behaviors as it does with children’s, and that’s just as true of the solution to it.”
Even if a child begins bullying, he says that behavior will stop when they learn empathy. He also notes that many children are bystanders and those who “learn and understand how to use empathy to disrupt the bullying will promote healthy, safe environments.”
Parents can also hold up models of empathy and inclusion created by their peers, such as buddy benches on elementary playgrounds and the Sit With Us app that helps middle and high school students find new friends with whom they can share lunch.
As kids get older, Liebler advises parents to engage in conversations about “what’s right and wrong, self-worth, friendship, and values,” all of which can be important protective factors.
2. Teach kids to report and then block
“It is important to give youth tools that they can use to take action when they are being mistreated,” says Patchin. He says that kids should know how to report inappropriate behaviors on websites, apps, and at school and they should know who to turn to at school.
Patchin says reporting is on the rise, which is a good trend and one that needs to continue. Balkam agrees, stressing, “Report, report, report!”
He says that reporting cyberbullying has become easier and companies are more responsive than they used to be. “In the early days, it really was wild west,” Balkam says. “But technology companies, ISPs, and social media sites are far more nuanced now. They don’t want it on their platforms.” When kids first get technology, make sure they know how to respond and report offensive behavior and bullying. Encourage them to take a screenshot and report it. After that’s done, block the offending individual.
3. Empower kids to support peers who are being bullied
Most kids are not bullied, but they often witness bullying. That is “an incredibly difficult position for kids and to have a chance to discuss with a parent what to do when they see bullying is extremely helpful for their social and moral development,” says Liebler.
Borba agrees that teaching kids and giving them safe ways to speak up and step in when they witness bullying is important. She notes that small actions can have a big impact. Using a distraction to divert peer attention elsewhere or getting people to walk away both reduce the audience the bully craves. Standing close to the victim can make the person look less alone. Other students are likely to join the cause, which may prompt the bully to back down.
4. Encourage assertiveness
Assertiveness is something that can help all kids, and according to Borba is an area where kids need some help. “A student with timid body language can be seen as easier target for bullying because he or she appears vulnerable,” she says. “And a child who is trying to speak out to help a peer won’t be taken seriously by other bystanders or kids who are bullying unless they look assertive. That’s why it’s important to help kids look assertive and confident and not passive.”
One of Borba’s favorite ways to teach kids how to look assertive is instructing them to “always look at the color of the talker’s eyes.” When they do so, kids hold their head high and appear to have strong body posture.
5. Work together with school officials and students
Patchin recommends that parents partner with educators to make sure school is a safe environment for all kids. “Maintain a clear line of communication between educator and parent so that each knows what is going on regarding a student,” he says. “If a teacher notices something out of the ordinary with a student, effort should be made to convey that to the parent. Similarly, if a parent notices that school is not going well for their child, the parent should discuss this with the school,” he explains, noting that often school first hears of an issue when parents reach out.
It’s essential for students, parents, and educators to work together. Borba says that when there is a concentrated effort among all involved, “it sends a clear message to students in particular that adults are taking peer cruelty seriously.” Also, when everyone knows how to respond, students who are bullying recognize that they won’t get away with their behavior.
“That’s how we create safer, more caring schools that our children deserve,” says Borba.
More from Make It Better:
- How to Motivate Kids: 5 Proven Steps for Success
- 5 Ways to Help Your Kids Take Charge of Their Mental Health
- How to Recognize the Lesser-Known Suicide Risk Factors and Warning Signs
Shannan Younger is a writer living in the western suburbs of Chicago with her husband and teen daughter. Originally from Ohio, she received her undergraduate and law degrees from the University of Notre Dame. Her essays have been published in several anthologies and her work has been featured on a wide range of websites, from the Erma Bombeck Humor Writers Workshop to the BBC. She also blogs about parenting at Between Us Parents.
Shannan is the Illinois Champion Leader for [email protected], a campaign of the United Nations Foundation that supports vaccination efforts in developing countries to ensure life-saving vaccines reach the hardest to reach children. “Vaccines are one of the most effective ways to save the lives of children in developing countries and I’d love nothing more than to see diseases eradicated,” Shannan says. “We are so close to getting rid of polio for good!”