Cyber bullying: What your kids may not be telling you

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Targeted by texts. These were the words sent to 7th grader Ashia Young, “They’ll say ‘you have rolls on your neck you fat pig.' It’s really hurtful.”  When she read those statements in a group text with people she thought were friends, it was jarring. 

The hateful messages also contradicted the advice Ashia’s mom had always given her. Sherri Young says, “The one thing I’ve always taught her is to be proud of who she is - be proud of her body - because everybody is made different."

5th grader Jia-Li Diaz has been there too, “They will tell me I have a hair right here and like I have a uni-brow." Bullies victimized her; tried to recruit her. 

Her mother Anna Diaz has a transparent policy that she frequently goes through her daughter’s phone to monitor her activity, “I would see text messages from her friends telling her not to talk to a girl because they are not talking to her."

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Sometimes the digital daggers that are sent in texts and on messaging apps can get stuck in your head says high school freshman Raigan Smallwood, “Like they would call me a nerd because of my glasses and because I was getting better grades than them. You think about it because it hits you hard - like are you really a nerd…are you really a geek?”

We talked to the girls at a Boys and Girls Club of Greater Dallas, where staffers get involved in cyber bullying cases even if the incidents happen elsewhere. 

Cherri Rowe is the Director of programs for the organization. She explains, “If they tell us someone is bullying them and whether it is on Kik or Snapchat we will do everything we can to make sure that situation is resolved. It grows if you don’t address it. But we also want the kids to understand that’s another person.”

Rowe says children in the program come forward on a daily basis to say they have been cyber bullied. She says it reflects a troubling message that seems to be coming from the wider culture, “It’s okay to be mean to people.  It’s okay to say you suck or you’re not a good person or you are a bad person. And there is something about being behind a keyboard that gives people the power and just the ability to be mean.”

Often, the target of cyber aggression suffers silently. According to the National Crime Prevention Council, only about 11 percent of cyber bully victims tell their own parents. Aisha Young explains, “Because at school they will be like you told your mom - you are a snitch”.

Some stay silent because they think they can handle it on their own; until they realize they can’t. Raigan Smallwood had stayed quiet about the cyber bullying she was experiencing.  She details what it was like when her mother found out, “It was like you got busted.  But then again it kind of felt like a relief for her to know.”

Some young people keep the cyber taunts under wraps because they worry they will be scolded by their parents because they are not supposed to be using the applications where the bullying has taken place.  

Many also have a real worry that their parents will try protect them from further bullying by taking away their online access. Raigan says that’s what happened to her.  She describes that reaction in even more stark terms than she describes the actual instances of cyber bullying, “When you lose your social media, it’s like you live under a rock…it’s like the old days…like a caveman”.

Dr. Marion Underwood is the Dean of Graduate Studies and Associate Provost at the University of Texas at Dallas; and she has extensively studied how adolescents communicate digitally. “Young people essentially live their social lives online and in person.  To them, there is no line between the online world and their social world.”

Dr. Underwood is involved in The Blackberry Project, where researchers gave smart phones to about 170 teenagers--with a condition: all messages would be intercepted, and studied, “It was an attempt to see what in the world they were saying in this medium. And the biggest surprise for me was the richness of the communication.”

Dr. Underwood finds teens cyber chat about deep stuff - most of it positive and uplifting. But she says the negative messages, while much less common, can be much more impactful, “It only has to happen once and it is incredibly hurtful.  Because it’s public, it’s long lasting, the person can go back and revisit it and it is witnessed by the entire peer group.”

That’s exactly what happened to Caroline Malfettone, “I got some pretty rude comments." She was blindsided by a bully’s statement on ask.fm.

Her father, Frank Malfettone, shares the message Caroline was sent, “It said nobody likes you.  Just kill yourself.”  He didn’t know about that message for a long time. 

Like the other young people we talked to, Caroline, kept the shocking statement secret, “I cannot tell my parents.  That’s the first thing that came to mind.  It just didn’t make sense.  I was shocked.  I needed to figure it out for myself first before telling anyone else.”

She kept it from her mom and dad for months, because she says she was embarrassed. Frank Malfettone would never have guessed his daughter would react that way, “I was always the one she could come to in a moment’s notice and she could talk to me.  But it was gone like that.”

As time went by Caroline became more and more withdrawn, says her dad, “The backpack came off she went straight to her room—closed the door---bed.  Woke up the next morning not wanting to go to school.”

She didn’t want to eat or socialize, or do the things she once enjoyed. Frank says, “We knew something was wrong but we just didn’t know what. We kept seeing these changes but dismissed them”. 

Maybe it was a phase. Or hormones. Frank and his wife ascribed the same kinds of excuses that a lot of parents do when their children start behaving dramatically different. But Frank says as he and his wife gave Caroline her space, her emotional state just kept getting worse, “We were there - we were on the doorstep - without revealing too much we were dealing with some really heavy stuff”

Eventually it all came out and he remembers Caroline showing him the message she had received, “I remember seeing that---and man, the rage as a parent." Months of intense counseling followed. Caroline missed much of her 7th grade school year. 

Frank Malfettone was inspired by the whole ordeal to start a Facebook page called Bullying/The Caroline Effect to create a public group for other people going through the same thing.

Things have since improved a lot. But three years on, “It still has an effect on me now---obviously---because I missed a year of my childhood. It is hard to get that back.”

That was an extreme case. Sometimes cyber bullying is a lot harder to spot, says Dr. Underwood, “When we asked children about their most hurtful online experiences what they most frequently say hurts them the most is being left out--seeing pictures online of their friends getting together without them, seeing people they thought were their friends at a party they weren’t invited to, or even seeing a group picture they are in but they are not tagged in”.

Dr. Underwood suggests you limit how long your children spend on electronic devices.  She advises parents to make sure their children do not charge their phones overnight in their own rooms.  She also says parents should take devices away from their kids at the table and while riding in the car.  She says those times provide rich opportunities for parents to talk to their kids.  And she thinks parents need to solicit their children's thoughts about social media on a regular basis.

Because of the enormous and anonymous access to the wider world these days, being a kid - or being a parent - can be pretty complex. But simplicity still has its place says Sherri Young, who intervened when her daughter was being cyber bullied, “If they tell you something or you notice a change - get involved - try to find out what is really going on…We need to start talking to our kids and letting them know we are on your side."