How is modern technology changing the behaviour of bullies?

With October marked as Bullying Prevention Awareness Month, we look at how social media brings a new form of bullying and how you can keep your kids safe

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From mean notes to physical attacks, there’s a strong chance that all of us have experienced bullying in some way at school.

But with the popularity of Facebook and Snapchat, the social media age has brought with it a new form of bullying.

With cyberbullying on the rise, we ask the experts what to look for and how to protect your child from abuse online.

The antisocial network

As a form of harassment over technology, cyberbullying occurs on computers, phones and tablets, as well as through chat websites, email and social media platforms like WhatsApp and Facebook. This has essentially altered the way bullies target others, often making it more difficult to spot.

Dr Junaid Hassim

Dr Junaid Hassim

“It’s very easy to see bullying on the playground, but it’s not easy on social media,” explains Dr Junaid Hassim, clinical psychologist at the American Center for Psychiatry and Neurology.

“You can’t always identify the person’s identity and what they’re saying unless you monitor every bit. What makes it difficult then is how do we control the content or behaviour?”

Cindy Wuerch, school counsellor at GEMS World Academy Abu Dhabi, agrees.

“Years ago, bullying was much more overt, but now they can just go to their phone and type a message,” she notes.

“There’s the feeling that when you’re behind a screen, you can say whatever. I often tell the children that anything they say can never be erased, so if they wouldn’t tell their grandmother, they shouldn’t send the message.”

With one of the key reasons for online abuse attributed to anonymity, Dr Junaid notes that it’s not a one-way street.

“Today, bullies can remain totally anonymous, and that suggests that it is changing as a concept with the advent of social media.

“Psychologists used to assume that bullies were people with low self-esteem, but in fact they feel quite powerful,” he adds.

“But by the same token, social media has also allowed potential victims to fight back with their own anonymity.”

Seeing the signs

As methods of bullying have changed, it can be difficult to spot when your child is the victim of online abuse. So what should you look out for?

“The child might become withdrawn, or even act aggressively,” Cindy notes. “They might not be sleeping well or enjoying things they usually would. Parents know their child and will likely pick up when something might be off.”

Cindy Wuerch

Cindy Wuerch

Dr Junaid agrees, noting that parents need to put themselves in their child’s shoes and be vigilant.

“The way adults see bullying is very different to how children and teenagers see it,” he explains. “We see it as destructive and abusive, but for children and teens, they don’t yet have the mental capacity to appreciate what those concepts even mean.”

And whether your child is feeling cornered or is the aggressor, Cindy notes that awareness and communication are key.

“The child needs to be encouraged to speak to a trusted adult, someone they have a connection with,” she says.

“The biggest thing I try to emphasise with my students is awareness of what behaviour constitutes bullying. It’s very important to create a conversation with the children.”

Expert tips

DO develop personal skills
“Social groups, which allow for the development of independence and assertiveness, are quite important. Interpersonal training, such as supervised playdates, help show children what non-toxic relationships look like,” says Dr Junaid.

DON’T respond
“It’s really difficult when they get an abusive message, but they should not reply,” Cindy notes. “Block the individual.”

DO monitor online use
Cindy advises parents ask their children to show them their social media profiles to monitor any online abuse. “You also need to limit computer time and take away their phone at bedtime.”

DON’T get left behind
“Kids can get around anything,” Dr Junaid says. “There are smaller platforms like school communities online where bullying can take place.”

DO communicate
Dr Junaid explains, “Parents need to develop a secure attachment with their children so they can learn and explore, but also know there’s a safe place they can come back to.”

WORDS Camille Hogg

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