October is National Bullying Prevention Month, and as if on cue the Pew Research Center released its latest research on the topic. According to their comprehensive report, more than half of U.S. teens (59%) have experienced "some form of cyberbullying."
It's easy to feel alarmed by this data. After all, that's an awful lot of kids. However, it's important to take a closer look at what researchers actually discovered. According to their report, the most common form of abuse kids experience is "offensive name calling" (42%), followed by "spreading of false rumors" (32%).
Certainly, both of these behaviors can feel hurtful to the intended target, but by definition they might fall shorts of actual "cyberbullying." According to the Cyberbullying Research Center, cyberbullying is the "willful and repeated harm inflicted through the use of computers, cell phones, and other electronic devices." In my work with middle school students, I simplify this definition by telling students that cyberbullying is:
So unless an offensive name is used or a false rumor is spread repeatedly
, the behavior in question might actually be old-fashioned meanness. Surely, many of us remember mean behavior like this from our own youth. That much about being a teen has not changed.
What has changed, however, is that digital devices make it easier and faster to say, send, and spread cruelty. Digital cruelty can also be save, to be viewed again and again. All of this can make it feel particularly painful.
But digital devices also give kids the power to put a stop to online cruelty.
Being an Upstander
Recently, I visited a middle school in Los Angeles and asked a group of 8th graders if they knew what the word "upstander" meant. While quite a few knew that an upstander is someone who "stands up to cyberbullying," many thought that meant engaging in direct confrontation with a bully. That's not something many kids, or adults for that matter, relish doing.
But it's possible to upstander, I explained, in these less-confrontational ways:
- Give Comfort. You don't have to "stand up" to the perpetrator of online cruelty to be an upstander. Confrontation, online or offline, is uncomfortable for many and that's okay. Giving support or simply sharing a kind word, online or off, may be just the help a target needs.
- Report the incident. You don't have to be target of online cruelty to report it. Take a screenshot, tell a trusted adult, or report the incident to the social media network where you see it take place. Here's a great list of contact information for most social media sites and gaming networks: https://cyberbullying.org/report
- Kill cruelty with kindness. Some kids do have the courage to stand up to perpetrators of online cruelty and to them I say, "Fight cruelty with kindness." Never sink to a bully's level. Instead, try disarming them with a message of concern or kindness. Comedian Sarah Silverman did this expertly by responding to an online troll with this message: "Your rage is thinly pain...see what happens when you choose love."
Imagine an online world filled with such kindness and concern. Now that would be upstanding.
For more information, check out this video titled How To Be An Upstander.