Cyberbullying & bullying-related suicides: 1 way to help our digital-age kids

As digital technologies increasingly tether kids to the non-stop drama of school life, adults can help them detach and get some much-needed perspective.

By Anne Collier

How do we help our children maintain some detachment from the drama, sometimes cruelty, of school life? This, I think, is the central question of online safety, if not child development, in the digital age. It has just become national news that 15-year-old Phoebe Prince of South Hadley, Mass., and very recently of western Ireland, committed suicide January 14 because of fellow students’ social cruelty online and offline, in and out of school, according to ABC News and the Boston Herald. Last month the country learned of 13-year-old Florida student Hope Witsell’s suicide last fall (I posted about that in our forum here).

Detachment from ‘The Drama’

Each of these cases is highly individual, but what they all seem to have in common is the 24/7, non-stop nature of the harassment the teens faced – the tech-enabled constant drama of school life turning into 24/7 cruelty. Phoebe’s and Hope’s tragedies indicate an urgent need for all of us to help our children come up for air, to maintain some perspective about the “alternate reality” of school life, especially in the middle-school years.

Technology mustn’t be the focus of either blame or solution development because it’s not the source of the problem; social cruelty is. But technology – if not used with a sense of perspective or balance – can “tether” a child to the cruel behavior. I get that word from MIT sociologist Sherry Turkle, who refers to today’s communications tools (the social Web, cellphones, etc.) as “tethering technologies” in her paper about “The Tethered Self.” She discusses how they remove us from our physical surroundings. I think their constant use can also affect our sense of context psychologically too – everybody’s, not just kids’, but adolescents have a lot to deal with just developmentally, so perspective can be extra helpful to them.

We hear a lot that we need to think about the implications of giving our children mobile devices that make them as available to their peers as they are to us. But let’s look at one of the implications: Kids’ and their peers’ moment-by-moment mood changes, blow-by-blow gossip, and good and bad behavior mutually accessible as long as their communications devices are on. In other words, constant drama – often heightened by kids who enjoy fueling it, whether for entertainment, as a prank, or out of malice.

How we can help

What we don’t hear enough is that there are ways we – parents, school personnel, police, and policymakers – can help our kids and teens. We can help them…

* Get perspective and maybe a little mental detachment from peers as well as “the drama”
* Do the identity exploration that’s a key task of adolescence as themselves,” as individuals, and not only or always in relation to their peers
* Have a little time for reflection
* Realize the importance of self-respect and know they have our respect.

In other words, we can help them to be able – when needed – psychologically to disengage just so they can think straight and actually see that their life is not that drama at school or online, and they are never the person any bullies could ever make them out to be.

Tampa-area schools are discussing (I think much-needed) parent-notification rules, the Tampa Tribune reports and Massachusetts lawmakers are “stepping up efforts to pass an anti-bullying measure,” the Boston Globe reports. These are important pieces of the puzzle, but I hope that school officials, legislators, and parents 1) don’t create policy and law based solely on the worst tragedies and 2) do help children learn how to maintain perspective, self-respect, and respect for others amid the info and behavioral overload of the digital age. This is the protective nature of social-media literacy and citizenship – the new online safety.

Related links

* Whether or not they all make sense for your family, at least some of Marian Merritt’s 7 household tech-use rules (at the bottom of her post) can help parents help kids keep “The Drama” under control. Merritt, Norton’s Internet Safety Advocate, is blogging about the Kaiser Family Foundation study on US 8-to-18-year-olds’ media use – I posted about it here.
* Youth (and parent) mentor Annie Fox helps a girl having suicidal thoughts: “For teens: What can I do about these rumors?”
* How the social Web helps stop suicide (in The Daily Beast) and an example of suicide averted, thanks to social networking
* The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline says peers are the best source of referrals to the Lifeline, usually via social network sites, especially MySpace – not a toll-free phone number – but that number is 1-800-273-TALK. The Lifeline coordinates the work of more than 100 toll-free help centers around the US, getting calls and cases to the center nearest the person needing help, and help not just for suicidal crisis, but depression, domestic violence, and all sorts of needs (more people need to know about that).
* “Online Safety 3.0: Empowering & Protecting Youth”
* Our “Tips to Help Stop Sexting”

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