The increasing centrality of digital media in children’s lives and the eased access to computer or phone-enabled Internet has breathed new life into bullying. Cyberbullying poses a particular risk because there is a substantial lack of awareness; the victims do not realize they’re being bullied, the perpetrators do not fully recognize their actions as bullying, and the parents might be a bit slower to find out.The virtual world has given bullies stronger grounds to victimize and humiliate, creating a corrosive impact on our children’s confidence, self-esteem, and mental health, and inevitably affecting their capacity to learn and to live. Learn more on bullying and cyberbullying.
In attempt to further understand cyberbullying, we invited Mary Smith, a registered counseling psychologist in Ireland, to delve deeper into the nature of this negative behavior, what signs parents should watch out for, as well as what to expect schools to do about it.
In our Extensive Interview with Smith, CyberBullying started being rather prominent in the field of counseling psychology about three years ago, late 2009 – early 2010. “Prior to that I would have not experienced cyberbullying”, says Smith, “but it seems to have taken on a life of its own from that time”. Given the overwhelming access of internet access among teenage populations today, cyberbullying begins to be an issue from the moment that parents allow their child to have access to a mobile phone. That seems to be getting younger and younger; there are children who’re seven or eight years of age whose parents are giving them the usage of mobile phones. Having parents handing their children is like “handing their child a loaded missile”, she adds. What makes it worse is that only very few parents are aware of this fact.
Bullying and Cyberbullying: Intrusively accessible
From the vast array of devices, such as game consoles, e-readers, and mobile phones, children are getting easier Internet access every day. However, parents are only beginning to realize the accessibility of their children to these devices, and in Ireland, that would be related to the recent very sad and tragic deaths as a result of cyberbullying, such as the suicide of Erin Gallagher and the other sorrowful suicide of Ciara Pugsley. Directly related to these incidents, parents are becoming more aware of cyberbullying. However, Smith believes that parents need a lot of assistance and help. “In my opinion, drawn from my experience, parents who are not very technologically aware, who didn’t learn about computers at school, have a sense of hopelessness, and they really don’t know what to do to actually control their children on these technological apparatuses.”
But are parents always aware when their teenager or adolescent is being bullied? Most parents are not aware that children can become acutely depressed as a result of being a victim of cyberbullying. However, a child who is being bullied will display symptoms of “irritability, withdrawal, aggression, and moodiness”, and often at times parents are not tuned into these behavioral changes; they may put it down to typical adolescent behavior, says Smith. She also believes that it is up to counselors like herself and others who are really aware of the symptoms of bullying to educate parents and teachers on these issues.
It is crucial, in any case, that parents become aware of how much time their children spend online. “Nevertheless, being online serves as a distraction, it keeps their children quiet, and it gives parents a bit of peace for a period of time, but this is where parents become deluded about the activities of their children online, and they need to be a lot more vigilant”, so it’s how they are vigilant that really matters, as parents don’t exactly know how to monitor their children, perhaps because a lot of them think their children know a lot more about computers and the Internet work, so a lot of the times, counselors come across parents who are not technologically aware; they don’t what to do, and they need help and assistance.
While most parents would see their children online when they come home after school or late in the evening, what parents are not aware of is when their children are online using their mobile phones during the course of the day. “I have experiences with children during their lunch breaks using their Internet-enabled phones to access Facebook, or worse than that, to access live pornography as well. This is an issue I don’t think parents are at all aware of”, she expresses.
Most parents would see their children online on their own PCs at home. What they don’t see is what they do when they go to their friends’ houses, or what they do when they’re actually using their own mobile phones, “it’s a little bit of the ‘ostrich in the sand’ scenario”, as Smith puts it. They, parents, hope that their children are not accessing the Internet when they are outside of the home. Again, there is the fact that parents don’t know what their children are accessing on the Internet. A very small minority of parents has the capability and the technical knowledge to monitor their children; the vast majority of parents are not able to do this.
While some parents will check with their children if they have had Internet access while at a friend’s or a relative’s house, it’s only a minority, probably because parents don’t have the time, and they’re hoping against the odds that, at the house their child visits, Internet usage is being monitored, which brings us back to the point of them parents not being as vigilant as they should be.
When it comes to encounters with sexual material over the Internet, Smith was concerned with the nature of photos teenagers upload to the Internet. It has become incredibly easy for children to upload photos to the Internet, and while a vast majority of parents realize this, again, they don’t know how exactly teenagers manage to do that. However, parents have been absolutely shocked and horrified when they realized that their children were perhaps taking naked photographs of themselves, uploading these photographs and sending them to their mates or their girl/boyfriends at the click of a button. “I think that the vast majority of parents would never think in a million years that their child would be capable of doing something like this, and it comes as a tremendous shock when they realize this is actually what has happened”, she says.
But are parents and teens aware of the long-term effects of inappropriate online behavior and content sharing? The answer is yes and no; it’s usually after such an event has occurred that the full impact of this type of behavior is realized by both the child and the parents. “Children are impulsive by nature, especially teenagers, and a lot of children and teenagers will press the button; it’s exciting at the time, and it’s only afterwards that the full extent of what they have done comes home to roost, and I would say it’s the same with parents as well”, Smith explains. It’s only the children who have been involved in such events and their parents that have realized the impact and the negativity of this behavior, so again, there needs to be a lot more education of parents of these activities. In some schools, this is ongoing, but again, like a lot of scenarios, it’s not until it arrives at your door that you realize the impact of these behaviors.
Unlimited access to pornography
It has come to counseling psychology’s awareness, in the last six months, that primary school children as young as nine have pornographic sites via their phones, knowing that this occurs during the course of the school day; it can occur during the lunch break, or the smaller breaks, and it is something that schools need to be much more vigilant about, because what is happening is an increased “sexualization” in the attitudes and behaviors of young primary school children has been observed, and “I have been made aware of young people in first and second years of secondary schools actually sexually propositioning young primary school children, and I put this down to unlimited access of young people to pornographic sites on their phones”, says Smith.
It is shocking that parents have not a clue that this is going on, and actually only recently did Mark Dooley in the Daily Mail address this issue, for he said that “in England, children as young as six and seven have been propositioning younger children in the sexualized fashion as a result of being enabled access to pornographic sites on their phones.” Therefore, access to pornographic sites, not just for secondary school children, but also for primary school children, has got to be monitored, very vigilantly. Parents should be made aware of the severity of the situation.
Having unlimited access to pornographic content on the web can have several negative long-term applications when it comes to youngsters. They get a very corrupted view of relationships, as well as a very corrupted view of sexuality, and become sexualized way earlier than their emotional development should allow. “It can actually destroy a child’s relationships forever”, explains Smith. Also, bullying increases the sexualized behavior of children, and can create quite dangerous scenarios, as per mentioned before, where boys as young as 12 or 13 are propositioning girls as young as 8 or 9 for sexual favors; they don’t know what they’re doing, they don’t know what’s happening, they’re emulating the scenes on these pornographic sites, which is highly dangerous.
Cyberbullying and school policy
While most schools do have a general anti-bullying policy, “I am not aware of any school that has also injected and added on an anti-cyberbullying policy as well, at least not to my knowledge” exclaims Mary Smith. Again, this is something that has only very recently come into the realm of schools, and it is about time schools realized that they need to take this much more seriously.
What’s surprising is that cyber bullying isn’t limited to only children. In fact, teachers are also being cyber bullied. Sometimes, photographs are taken during class, of teachers, particularly female teachers, and these photos end up being put on the Internet. Also, negative commentary about individual teachers is made by pupils on their Facebook pages, aiming at undermining or demoralizing the teacher’s standing within that school.
Many parents have already gone to particular schools and demanded more safety for their children within the boundaries of the school campus. “I think the next step will be parents suing schools; that I have no doubt about”, says Smith. She anticipates that parents shall take legal action against schools due to a failing in the school’s duty of care to its pupils because of a lack of a cyber bullying policy.
Young people have displayed suicidal ideations as a direct result of cyber bullying in schools. Knowing that cyber bullying has been linked with several suicide attempts and actual tragic deaths of teenagers taking away their own lives means that more attention should be given in order to detect behavioral changes in these teenagers. It is only for the vigilance of people like Mary Smith and parents with high levels of awareness that the issue of cyber bullying has been uncovered.
Mary Smith has sixteen years of postgraduate experience under her belt, and currently works part-time in private practice. For the rest of her time, she works at a range of primary and post-primary schools as well.