Transforming children's livesTM


Cyberbullying: The Search for Solutions

What can parents do? 

Image from the ABC Family movie Cyberbully

Maria Xia

Child Mind Institute

It has been almost a year since the suicide of college freshman Tyler Clementi became a cultural symbol of the dangers of cyberbullying. Tyler's death, after a roommate surreptitiously recorded and posted a sexual encounter online, prompted a wave of outrage and an outpouring of support for gay teenagers, who are often targets of harassment, led by popular sex columnist Dan Savage's YouTube campaign called "It Gets Better."

But in the ensuing months there have been a host of fresh news reports of teenage lives derailed by vicious cyberattacks by peers—lives, that is, of both targets and perpetrators. And in many of these cases parents and teachers found themselves powerless to contain or counteract the damage.

With that in mind, on Monday at 5:30pm at The Times Center, New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn is hosting a cyberbullying summit, bringing together a range of experts, as well as parents and students, to look for solutions. "Cyberbullying is a really unfortunate and growing problem in our society," Quinn said in announcing the summit. "We've seen children take their own lives as a result of the pressure and pain it causes. And I've heard from countless parents and teachers and students who don't know what to do with this new type of harassment."

Sunday at 8pm, ABC Family will premier a movie, Cyberbully, about a teenage girl who falls victim to online bullying, starring Emily Osment from Hannah Montana. "It doesn't take more than two minutes to go online and read stories about teenagers who have been so horrifically bullied they have put their own lives in danger," the actress writes on the Huffington Post. "The more we talk about it, the more we raise our voices and spread the word, the quicker help will come."

Kids have been casually mean to each other forever, but technology has put at their fingertips the tools to turn those schoolyard taunts, snide put-downs and mean-girl snubs into character assassination. It's happened so quickly it leaves parents bewildered not only about how to fight it but why rather normal teenagers would commit such cruelties.

As compassion for Clementi swept through the national conscience, the two former Rutgers University freshmen who broadcast the fateful video onto the web were silent, surely on the advice of their attorneys. There were calls for charges of manslaughter, calls to lock them up and throw away the key, and they were broadly demonized by commenters on websites as "despicable," "scum," and "murderers."

Which, actually, reminds us of cyberbullying.

The reality is that the perpetrators of cyberbullying are as young and vulnerable to impulse and emotion and lapses in judgment as their victims. Which means that to get a handle on this scourge we need to examine how our culture enables bullying, how we teach children, and model for them by our own behavior how to perceive and treat other people.

Efforts to monitor teenagers' computer use and lock down their social networks won't work—we've entered an age in which information can't be quarantined. So the focus needs to be on exposing kids to the reality of what casual acts of cruelty, thoughtless pranks, impulsive gossip can do when they're unleashed on the internet.

The number of kids who bully others out of budding sociopathy, or who derive gratification from the pain of others, is actually relatively small. Often their motivations are routine high school politics—a desire to fit in, win friends, or fortify their standing.

Perpetrators are often not that different from their victims—fallible and unsuspecting of how dangerous the world can be. In a New York Times story earlier this year, we learned of a Seattle boy who sent his ex-girlfriend's nude photo to her friend, because she had asked him for it. The supposed friend sent it to all of her contacts. Within 24 hours, the picture spread to hundreds of classmates. When the humiliated subject of the photo tried to transfer to a different school, the picture followed her there. In a mediation session mandated by authorities struggling to deal with the damage, the boy broke down crying and asked forgiveness for breaking her trust.

Just last week the Seattle Times reported that a 12-year-old girl received a suspended sentence for cyberstalking, after lifting a classmate's Facebook password and posting sexually explicit photos and messages on her Facebook page. The 12-year-old, and an 11-year-old whose case was handled by juvenile authorities, also instant messaged offers to perform sex acts to "random individuals."

The combination of childish behavior and powerful social-media weapons is like putting guns in the hands of kids—the results can be devastating for foolish perpetrators as well as targets. These "bullies" are far from incapable of reform and, at age ten, eleven, or twelve, hardly the cruel, incorrigible monsters we assume them to be when we hear they hurt our children.

The conversations that occur in our schools and our homes should be aimed at helping children think empathetically and compassionately—to make the feelings of their target more real to them, especially when they're not in the room. And they should be about understanding the consequences of a rash or angry or prankish act online—that they can't be undone when clearer judgment prevails. The youngster who thought it was funny to hijack her classmate's Facebook account sounded just like the 12-year-old she is when she said in court: "I just feel real bad, and if I could go back I would change everything."

Read our tips on How to Arm Your Child Against Bullying

Photo Credit:  ABC Family

Please help us improve the Symptom Checker!

Click here to share your thoughts about using the tool.