Journals

Is Cyberbullying an Epidemic in America?

The bully of years gone by, who stole lunch money or taunted kids about their weight, now seems quaint. Today’s bully has gone digital and is much more empowered because of it. Cyberbullying is the official name for this brand of teasing, and while it happens across all age groups, professions, and economic barriers, children and young adults are often the most vulnerable targets of cyberbullying. As more people become cyberbullies or their victims, it’s starting to look like an epidemic.

And of course, no American epidemic would be complete without a celebrity spokeswoman. In this case, we have Monica Lewinsky, who delivered a headline-grabbing TED talk about cyberbullying earlier this year. Lewinsky’s public embarrassment unfolded at a scope most teenagers don’t have to contend with, but humiliation in front of one’s peers can feel like the end of the world to the average middle-schooler. Everyone can agree on Lewinsky’s call for a “return to a long-held value of compassion and empathy.”

Next up: the causes of cyberbullying, and what everyone can do to make the world a gentler place.

The Motivation Behind Cyberbullying

Cyberbullies are emboldened by the anonymity the Internet provides. They may take the form of “internet trolls” who leave mean or harassing comments for strangers, or they may know their victims in real life. But bullying through text message, email, websites, social media, and other electronic mediums provides a shield. The cyberbully can say things she would not say in person, and she doesn’t have to see her victim’s reaction.

Cyberbullying can also be carried out at all times of day; it’s not just limited to school or daytime hours. The ease and relative anonymity of cyberbullying have caused it to spread amongst people who would not otherwise become bullies in face-to-face interactions.

Prevalence

9% of middle and high school students have been cyberbullied, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. And when the prevalence in high school alone is measured, the percentage increases to 15%. For teenagers across the board, the rate rises to a depressing 40%.

Most importantly, these figures demonstrate that cyberbullying increases in prevalence as kids get older and become more sophisticated technology users. Small numbers also fail to capture the intensity of experience for the victims. National news stories about suicides provoked by cyberbullying demonstrate how painful this form of bullying can be.

And when cyberbullying is measured within specific groups, the numbers become more alarming: 61% of overweight teenagers have experienced a form of cyberbullying and 42% of LGBT youth have been harassed online. Therefore, cyberbullying may not be an epidemic within the general population, but it certainly looks like one when we look at the most vulnerable groups.

How Parents Can Help Kids Cope with Cyberbullying

Parents naturally want to protect their children from painful experiences. However, most people experience some amount of teasing during their school years. Perhaps the best way to help your child cope with cyberbullying is to maintain open lines of communication. Family dinners, time in the car, and other face-to-face time can be opportunities for kids to confide in their parents about any harassment they may be experiencing.

Sometimes it may be necessary to intervene on your child’s behalf. This could mean talking to school officials or other parents, or reporting abusive behavior to websites and other authorities. Some children may not want their parents to get involved, so ask your child before you do so. If you suspect your child is suffering from depression or other mental health issues, contact a professional for further evaluation and treatment.

Parents should also talk to children about not participating in cyberbullying. Teach kids the values of compassion and empathy that Monica Lewinsky highlighted in her TED talk. Tell them they don’t have to pass on harassing messages their friends create.

As the saying goes, it takes a village to raise a child. Building strong communities will increase the support and empathy available to all, decreasing cyberbullying and softening its impact on victims.

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