Toward solving ‘cyberbullying’

Where teen online behavior's concerned, "accountability" is a more relevant term than "cyberbullying" for parents and educators to use and think about.  

By Anne Collier

Is the following what your teenager would think of as "cyberbullying"?: "Caustic comments, once passed around class as folded notes, are now immortalized on semi-public Web pages, where they can be viewed by thousands. Students are called fat, their sexuality is questioned and their fashion choices critiqued, often in language not fit to print in a family newspaper," the Washington Post reports, citing a number of specific such incidents in Washington-area schools. Educators, online-safety advocates, and many other adults often use "cyberbullying" as a blanket term for all that and more, basically any sort of harassment online. When some friends recently used the term in a conversation with their teenager, the basic response went something like: "Huh? What does this have to do with me? There's no lack of civility at our school." And yet just this year a teacher at that school was "trashed" by students in a social site. It just could be that "cyberbullying" is pretty meaningless to teens. They're familiar with the full range of behaviors but not this new blanket word whose use may actually undermine parents' and other adults' efforts to engage them in conversations aimed at helping kids think about these behaviors.

One Post source suggested that parents occasionally ask their kids if there was "any bullying on Facebook today?" Maybe it'd be better either to read up on some of the specific online behaviors and incidents in the news and talk about those, using them as "teachable moments" they can relate to. Or just ask questions about their school day – the kinds of questions our parents asked us. Then we can ask if they've noticed those things going on with their friends (or them) on MySpace or Facebook and how they'd handle it.

The Post reports that one principal "identified MySpace as the possible source of a conflict" that got physical at school and in a local mall. MySpace wasn't the source; its role was more like that of the school or the mall, the place where the behavior occurs. When we're talking with our children, it'd be helpful to understand this, too. Yes, their MySpace use can help expose their attitudes and behaviors to a lot more peers simultaneously and that certainly is a problem, but MySpace, Facebook, etc. are not the source of their behavior. Social sites are no more responsible for mean gossip or bullying than a locker room is.

Parenting young people who see little distinction between online and offline will get more effective when we stop blaming the places where antisocial behavior occurs (because we're better informed than that) and start asking relevant questions based on their own social experiences on the Net and everywhere else. When we can communicate in language they can relate to, sending the clear message that they are accountable for their social behavior online as much as offline, we'll move much more quickly toward solving the cyberbullying problem.

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