By Dr. Elizabeth Arnold
Before texting and Facebook, young people bullied each other at school or at the neighborhood park. At the end of the day, the victim could find a sanctuary at home. But in the Internet age there is no escape.
The texts are unfiltered:
- “You’re fat."
- "Your boyfriend is going to dump you."
- "Your best friend says that she doesn’t even like you."
- "You’ll never, never amount to anything.”
Such messages are all over Facebook, for everyone to see.
That’s a taste of cyber bullying. It’s not pretty but unfortunately it happens very often.
Here in the department of psychiatry at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center we see the results: young people who are depressed, anxious, even suicidal, because of the constant bullying in the 24/7 cyber world.
I cannot provide any specific examples because of confidentiality, but the extent of these problems is not an exaggeration. If it’s hard to believe, think about some of the cases that have made national news. Last year, a freshman at Rutgers University named Tyler Clementi jumped from the George Washington Bridge to his death after his roommates posted photographs of him with another man.
Earlier in 2010, a 15-year-old girl in Massachusetts named Phoebe Prince hung herself after months of taunts from students at school. At a court hearing for two of the six teenagers charged in her death, her mother read from one of her final text messages, which called the harassment, “one of the final nails in my coffin.”
We see patients with similar stories of desperation and anguish in our work on a frequent basis.
There’s not much research on bullying – especially this newest form of cyber bullying -- and so we still don’t understand well why some young people become the bullies and some the victims. I have some ideas. In adolescence there’s so much emphasis on fitting in; anytime people perceive you as different, you’re vulnerable. Some of the explanation for why young people turn to bullying is the same as it’s always been. Often, unhappy young people become bullies. Or it’s young people aspiring for a higher social status. Teenagers focus on the present. They don’t think about consequences. They don’t think that their cruel words can make someone think of suicide.
Cyber space makes these impulses worse. When you send a text message you don’t have to look at the person and know you’re hurting them. Bullying requires a loss of empathy. Cyber space creates that detachment.
Parents need to be involved with their children’s cyber life. Check your child’s Facebook page. Read their text messages. Is this an invasion of privacy? I don’t think so. Once a message is sent into the cyber world it’s public information. Text messages can be forwarded to the entire school.
Talk with your children and teenagers about bullying. Here are simple questions to open the conversation. Have you seen it? Has anyone done it to you? What about your friends? What would you do to stop it if you saw it happening? I know as well as anyone that in spite of our best efforts, our children, especially our teenagers, don’t always tell us about their lives. So here are some signs that your child may be a victim of cyber bullying:
- Unexpectedly stops using the computer
- Acts nervous or jumpy when an Instant Message (IM), text message or email appears
- Shows signs of uneasiness about going to school
- Exhibits strong emotions of anger, depression and frustration after the use of the computer
- Becomes abnormally withdrawn from friends and family members
Watch, too, for signs of cyber bullying by your child:
- Quickly switches the screens or closes programs when a parent appears
- Uses the computer at all hours of the night
- Gets unusually upset if he/she cannot use the computer
- Avoids discussions about what they are doing on the computer
- Uses multiple online accounts or one that does not belong to them
And don’t be afraid to intervene. Hold your own children accountable for their behaviors, and if you think your child is being victimized, here are some things you can do to help:
- Monitor your child’s use of the computer
- If you suspect that your child is depressed, have him or her see a mental health professional for an evaluation
- If the bullying is taking place at the school, make school officials aware and get them to intervene
- Make sure that your child knows that you will intervene on his or her behalf to get the bullying to stop
- Save all messages as proof of what has happened
Here at the medical center we treat many young people for anxiety and depression brought on by bullying. So watch for the signs. If your child avoids school, can’t sleep, can’t focus, cuts herself, loses his appetite or shows any other unusual behavior please get professional help. And take any threats of suicide seriously.
Technology has changed our world, for better and for worse, but it shouldn’t change our values and what we teach our children. We still need to teach them how to treat others and help them understand that the things they say or text can do real harm.
Elizabeth Arnold, PhD, LCSW is an associate professor of psychiatry at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center.