Sunday, March 23, 2014

How to Handle Cyberbullying: Insights from the frontlines of science

I am writing this week from Austin, TX where I am attending the biannual meeting of the Society for Research on Adolescence, or SRA. SRA is an interdisciplinary society focused on the theoretical, empirical, and policy research issues of adolescence. These issues can range from biological development through the pubertal transition to risky driving to parent child relationships to social media use. Given that the mission of ScienceForWomen.org is to share recent research findings with all of you, I thought I would highlight the findings from one of the symposia I attended.

This symposia was on cyberbullying, which is a problem for many of the children and adolescents I have treated, but has also been featured in the news of late. What was most striking at the outset of this presentation was the international and ubiquitous presence of cyberbullying in the lives of young people today. The presenters in this talk were Sarah Coyne of Brigham Young University, Stacey Bradbury of Bowling Green State University, Kay Bussey of Macquarie University, and Cigdem Topcu, Middle East Technicial Univerisity.  

Cyberbullying can be defined in many ways, as I learned while listening to these experts today. For our purposes we can simply define it as using forms of digital media and communication to hurt another person. For some people this can be spreading rumors, editing photographs of people in embarrassing ways, intentionally excluding a person from events or activities, or anonymously and/or publicly threatening or insulting a person.

As a child & adolescent clinical psychologist, I see cyberbullying play a very negative role in the maintenance of low self-esteem, social anxiety, depression, and eating disorders every single day. Despite my tendency to be an early adopter of new technology, I am also a person who didn’t grow up in the world of Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook, I can’t necessarily relate to the experiences of being vulnerable to some of the nasty, degrading, exclusionary, and humiliating experiences that could occur 7 days a week, 24 hours per day for today’s school-aged youth.

The overarching theme of these talks centered on who is at risk for being cyberbullied, who kids disclose these experiences to, how kids cope with cyberbullying, and what we can do about it as adults in their lives. I won’t go into my usual detail about how each of the studies addressed these questions, but I will lend my summary and interpretation of their findings.

First, it’s pretty clear that middle school is the time when cyberbullying becomes a big problem, for girls first and then for boys. This may be because girls are more social, and therefore have more motivation to engage in multiple types of social interactions. This could also be because boys predominantly engage in cyberbullying of a sexual nature, and they develop later in that arena than girls. Related to this, patterns of cyberbullying don’t appear to be much different than typical gender and age differences in the use of relational aggression. This is reassuring in some ways because psychologists, parents, and teachers have been helping to teach their children not to use aggression for a very long time. This is not new. Unfortunately, we have been studying childhood relational aggression so well, we know that aggression is best prevented rather than treated, and the best time to intervene is during the preschool-early school-aged years. So, all the more reason for us to continue teaching our youngest the importance of interpersonal problem solving without tying to hurt others, which will not only prevent traditional aggression but also its newest manifestation, cyberbullying.

That point was even further solidified by the next study, which looked at how kids cope with cyberbullying differently than traditional bullying. The short story is: they don’t. Kids who were able to cope with in person bullying, or relational aggression, were also able to cope with cyberbullying. The coping strategies measured in this study were problem solving (thinking carefully about how to react to a distressing situation in order to achieve your goals), distancing (taking a third person’s perspective on the situation in order to react less emotionally), distraction (engaging your mind in a neutral or enjoyable activity in order to reduce the immediate negative emotions of the situation), and retaliation (trying to do to another what they did to you). Kids who reported “effective coping” or the lack of long term negative perceptions of cyberbullying experiences and believed that what they did was helpful, did so in both traditional and cyberbullying experiences. There were no differences in their perceptions of impact for either if they used adaptive coping through problem-solving, distraction, or distancing, instead of retaliation. So, as a parent or a teacher who is tasked with helping children deal with the stress of growing up in this day and age, these skills are widely applicable.

Another of the presentations focused on children’s disclosure of bullying experiences. What they found was that children prefer to disclose bullying experiences to people who can help, either by helping deal with it or intervening effectively. Imagine that! They found that girls were more likely to disclose to their mothers, while boys were more likely to disclose to their friends. Unfortunately, teachers were not a preferred confidante in cases of bullying or cyberbullying, likely because teachers report that there is little they can do to help and kids report little faith in their teachers to intervene. In an effort to do my duty as a psychologist, I would like to remind all people who take care of children of the diffusion of responsibility: if a child is being bullied, be that in person or via the internet or by the spreading of cruel rumors or exclusion from activities, you should help them or no one else will.  

One of the audience members asked the panel of speakers whether adult intervention is sometimes more hurtful than helpful because it could result in more bullying. I thought this was a great question given the complex social dynamics of high school. One of the speakers responded that adolescents are always benefitted by adult involvement when being bullying. Now slow down, this does not mean fighting your kids’ battles, this means providing your support by listening to them and helping them cope. Dealing with the problem directly for your child will only allow them to avoid developing effective interpersonal skills which will be useful when they have colleagues, roommates, partners, and bosses. Alternatively, there are likely effective school- or community-based ways to systemically address or reduce the occurrence of bullying in the lives of children generally. Providing the support of being a confidante and helping kids practice effective, non-retaliative, coping skills helps kids feel better which is the most important outcome, even if it doesn’t stop the occurrence of bullying.

Perhaps even more informative, the experts were clear that, at this point in history, somewhere around 80% of youth social interactions occur electronically and that simply taking access away creates more problems than it solves. In my clinical work I have come across countless well-intended parents whose solution for the negative impact of cyberbullying and social media on their child’s mental health has been to eliminate their child’s access to it altogether.  Under most circumstances, that decision would further isolate youth from their positive peer relationships, thus increasing their risk and even perpetuating their problems with depression, self-esteem, and anxiety.  Instead, parents can familiarize themselves with how to use different social networking and gaming programs to help kids to establish privacy settings. This will help bullies have less access while still allowing the child to feel trusted and not isolated from their friends. 

In summary, the most important message to be taken away from these talks is that even though we didn’t grow up with the threat or experience of cyberbullying, we are not useless in helping kids deal with these experiences. The skills we learned while growing up (distancing, distraction, and problem-solving) are just as helpful when facing cyberbullying as they are with everything else.

Dubow, E.F. (Chair, March, 2014) Cyberbullying and Cyber Victimization in Early Adolescence: Coping, Disclosure, and Implications for Intervention. Symposium conducted at the meeting of the Society for Research on Adoescence, Austin, TX. 

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