Clicks & cliques: *Meaty* advice for parents on cyberbullying

Annie Fox’s recent mp3 file

“>55-min. interview with fellow educator and author Rosalind Wiseman at FamilyConfidential.com is a must-listen for parents, educators – anyone who has anything to do with teens and digital media. It has a lot to say about working through tough situations like sexting or cyberbullying incidents with young people in a candid, respectful way and, in the process, helping them understand the rights and responsibilities of being human beings as well as technology users. It’s such great stuff that I felt key points of this podcast should be searchable on the Web as text and got Annie’s permission to quote and paraphrase at length (hopefully accurately!). Because it’s a long podcast, I’m splitting this into two parts (which are still long – apologies, but they’re important!) – this week’s focus is parenting; next week’s on school, adding more sources.

Both Fox and Wiseman have new books out which I highly recommend: the third book of Fox’s Middle School Confidential series for tweens, this one subtitled “What’s Up With My Family?”, and the re-release of Wiseman’s best-selling Queen Bees & Wannabes with a new chapter on the role of technology in teen life. [Here's Fox's blog post about the interview.]

Moral compasses needed for navigating cyberspace

About a quarter of the way through the podcast, Wiseman talks about how she hears what many of us hear from teens: that people have always been mean to each other –cyberbullying isn’t anything different from what we’ve dealt with in the past. So, they ask, what’s the big deal?

“The minute somebody says that,” Wiseman says, “that is the minute when critically thinking people stop and say, ‘Why?!’ Because if it involves the degradation of other people – especially if it’s done for the entertainment of other people like bystanders – then that is a problem, and that is a tradition that needs to be challenged immediately.”

Wiseman says to Fox that, when that comes up with teens, she tells them, “If you are going to be someone who has self-agency in the world, if you in your own way believe you have an obligation for yourself and others to live in the world with dignity, and that you have a moral compass, if you want that ability, then you have to be able to challenge the things that are ‘normal’ but are not right….

“I think the role of adults,” Wiseman adds, “is to pierce this bubble that all of this [mean behavior] is normal now. Children think it’s happening so much that [they'll tell you] that they didn’t think it was wrong, and it’s our role to say, ‘No, actually it’s not ok, and you’re completely in your right to be upset about it.” When they say that, teens are reflecting a culture – both online and offline, at home and at school, involving adults as well as kids – in which there has been too much acceptance of flaming, dissing, gossiping about people we know and don’t know – too much negative social norming that has got to be addressed (see this about the vital role of positive social norming).

Wiseman’s ‘SEAL Strategy’

So when teenagers are upset about something mean a peer has said or done to them online or offline, we can calmly help them think through what happened, how they feel about it, and what they’re going to do about it. One approach, Wiseman’s framework for that conversation, is what she calls the “SEAL strategy” – part of the “Owning Up” curriculum she uses to help educators teach students to “own up and take responsibility for unethical behavior.” When doing this strategizing, parents and kids of course plug in their own situation and words. [Don't worry if the strategy seems to be about prepping for a confrontation between bully and victim if that's not what you and your child had in mind. The conversation itself is valuable. It's designed to help the child, if not completely take back control of the situation, at least mentally work her way out of victimization mode.]

Prepping for the conversation

But before we get to S-E-A-L – around 18 min. into the podcast – Rosalind talks about why it’s so important for parents to handle this calmly and respectfully:

“As a parent, what I want you to say to your child is [something like], ‘I’m so sorry this happened to you; thank you SO much for coming and telling me’ … because your kid is taking a risk to tell you about this. Most of the time they think that going to an adult will make it worse [which is why research shows only 10% of teens report cyberbullying to their parents (see this)]. THEN you say, ‘and together we’re going to work on this, we are going to think through how we can do this so you can feel that you’ve got some control over a situation where your control has been taken away from you.”

And if we’re lucky enough that they do come to us, Wiseman says, a lot of times we’ll hear them say, “‘I’m going to tell you, but you have to promise not to do or say anything about it.’ That might seem to make sense [right then, when you so want to know what she's dealing with], so you may want to agree at first, but if your kid then tells you something you have to do something about, you have to break a promise…. So instead you say, ‘I really can’t make that promise. I’d love to, but we may have to find somebody who knows more about taking care of the problem than I do…. But what I will promise you is that if we do need to bring someone in, you will never be surprised by their involvement – you won’t walk into a room and be surprised. I can promise that. We’ll work this through together.’ Because,” Wiseman says, “you [the parent] taking over robs them of the control they need to have to be able to face the bully.”

S-E-A-L

As you sit down with your child, “say, ‘I’m going to give you a structure that’s going to help you think through the really bad feelings in your stomach and put them into words for yourself before you go and talk to someone else,’” Wiseman says, “‘because how many times have you had the experience where you’re really, really mad at somebody and know exactly what you’re going to say to the person, and then you get in front of the person and you totally lose your words? This is going to be a way for you to have a better chance of that not happening, so you can be calm and have as much control as possible in the situation.’”

* S means you “stop and think when and where, now or later, publicly or privately” you will confront the person face-to-face (usually pretty short in public, longer in private). I think it’s important to note, here, that Wiseman’s saying the young person is doing this neither to be the bully’s best friend nor to destroy somebody. “It’s not a zero-sum game.”

* E is about how “you explain exactly what you don’t like and exactly what you want.” Not something vague like, “you’re being mean to me,” but “when you stole my password, you know I’ve had the same one since 6th grade and you used it to send an embarrassing message to my entire contact list making it look as if it was me. I hate that; it was beyond embarrassing to me.” Then the teen explains exactly what she wants, regardless of whether or not the kid is likely to do it, something like: “I’m asking you to send a message to all those people saying you sent that other message, that it wasn’t me. I’m going to be sending that message to everybody, but I’m asking you to have the courage and integrity to do it yourself.” Wiseman explains that, in this confrontation, the targeted child is not asking to be treated with dignity, is not appealing to the bully’s sympathy. She is being clear that dignity “is something I deserve because it’s what everybody deserves.”

* A is really two As – for “affirm” and “acknowledge or admit (“some kids like ‘acknowledge,’ some ‘admit’”). They’re about rights and responsibilities. “The first A is to affirm your right and everybody’s right to walk down the school hallway or be in this world without being treated like dirt.” As for responsibilities, this parent-child conversation is providing your child some space in which she can ask herself, ‘Is it possible that I contributed in some way to the dynamic that I’m now dealing with? What are my responsibilities to other people and have I respected those responsibilities?” Wiseman adds that this is sometimes the hard part for parents – asking their own child about her role in the situation, but it’s essential, she says, if we want our kids to have the ability to put on the brakes the next time it happens. She feels this is particularly important with today’s technologies because these days it’s almost impossible not to have a role, not to be either target, perpetrator or bystander (see this Slate piece by Yale psychology professor Alan Kazdin about the power of the bystander). Cyberbullying situations are very fluid, usually hardwired to the school context, with bullies, victims, and bystanders frequently swapping hats in a 24-7, digitally-enabled school drama that makes it hard to get away and get perspective (see this).

* L is “You either lock in or lock out the relationship or friendship with the person you confronted – or you take a vacation from it. With peers, you need to be able to go through the process of asking whether you want to be in this relationship or not and how you want to be in it. As a bystander, you can say to the bully I’m coming to you as a friend (lock in); it would’ve been easier to say nothing, but I’m saying this to you out of loyalty; as a friend I’m coming to you. To a bully, you might say, ‘You’ve changed, you’re blowing me off all the time, bossing me around, ridiculing me, whatever, and it’s not getting better, so I need to lock out the friendship or I need to take a break.’ [Wiseman reminds always to encourage them to put it in their own words. They just need this structure because this is very difficult to do.]

Perspective-taking good for parents too

“When your kid comes home and tells you something has happened, don’t believe that what the child related is 100% truth and there is no other perspective,” Wiseman says. “That is their truth. But it’s also true that, in a conflict, human nature focuses on what has been done to it, not what it did to others. Two kids will have very different perspectives on what happened.” She asks parents who have more than one child if, when something comes up, the two kids don’t usually have a difference of opinion about what happened. Nah. ;-) “It’s like that at school too. Each child has his own truth.”

So “if you go in there [into school], guns blazing, you may find out something more happened, and you’re going to be very embarrassed. So it’s incumbent upon you” to go in knowing there are other perspectives, say what you need to say, and “finish your story [for school administrators] with ‘Is that accurate?’ [Repeat: Make sure, after sharing what you heard from your child, you ask the school administrator or the other parents there: "Is that accurate?"] Then really listen.” This can make the difference between amplifying the problem and helping to resolve it.

But as important as your behavior is to the outcome for everybody, it’s vitally important for your child, who’s keenly aware of how you handle the situation. “You’re teaching your child how you handle conflict,” Wiseman says in the podcast. And Fox points out that “parents are leaders for their kids.” She adds that, no matter how much technology is involved in the issue being worked out, “this is not a technology issue; ultimately, it’s a parenting issue.”

3,000 text messages a month – hmm, might parents have something to do with it?

Wiseman told Fox that her teen advisers say texting “is our primary way we communicate with each other. Yes, we use [social network sites], but texting is faster” (the average is 3,146 text messages a month for 13-to-17-year-olds, Nielsen reported this month). They also tell her that parental communication represents a not-insignificant part of those texts. One girl told Wiseman, “My parents are texting me … from the time I wake up to the time I go to bed.” The girl showed her one of those texts: “Honey, I’m going to the airport to pick up Grandma.” Daughter texts back, “Mom, you’re driving, stop texting me!” And as, Wiseman watches, the mom continues texting. Maybe, Fox suggests, we parents could check and see what behaviors we’re modeling for our kids. Another girl told Wiseman: “My mom sends me pictures of people she finds dressed ridiculously,” making snide comments about this or that piece of clothing. Calling this pre-adolescent behavior, Wiseman suggested: “We have to look in the mirror about these things…. We are part of this. It’s not just teenagers [dissing others]…. “

It’ll help, I so agree, “if we really tie [how we deal with their tech use] back to the root issues of how we must be with each other,” as Wiseman put it. That, to me, is the core of the cyberbullying solution. “Kids are smart enough to be able to extrapolate, if we teach them the connections … if we teach them that the way they use technology is just reflective of everything else that we expect of them.”

[Readers, everything above is much more compelling when you hear it coming from its sources, so do yourself a favor and listen to the podcast. Next week: behavior and technology at school.]

Related links

* “Bullies: They can be stopped, but it takes a village” at Slate – by Yale professor of psychiatry and child psychology Alan Kazdin and Boston College professor Carlo Rotella
* Annie Fox’s Middle School Confidential: What’s Up with My Family? ($9.99, 96 pp.) is comfort food for the mind – a middle-schooler’s highly social, overloaded, hormone-challenged, technology-tethered mind. When my 12-year-old saw the pdf review version on my laptop screen when we were sitting on a plane together last fall, it was his idea – not mine – to read through the whole book then and there. That says it all, think! This is solid, respectful, caring advice for kids.
* Video: CBS News’s Katie Couric interviews Wiseman about children’s privacy: “If we don’t value their privacy, we’re sending a message about respect.” Ok if we monitor them surreptitiously? “Sure, but what if you find something you need to talk to them about? It’s taking a risk that if you get caught, the kid can focus on the “violation of privacy” instead of on the content of their behavior – they go into self-righteous mode when the focus should be on their risky behavior.
* Couric and Wiseman talk about sexting.
* Annie Fox’s podcast with Rachel Simmons, whose most recent book is The Curse of the Good Girl (here’s Simmons’s site)
* “A different sort of back-to-school tip: Kindness”
* The last time I wrote about Fox and Wiseman: “Sexting: New study & the ‘Truth or Dare’ scenario”


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