Educators, parents, and schools are adjusting to the new reality of remote learning. While this presents pros and cons across the board, the very real threat of cyber-bullying has been pushed to the backseat, and arranging home schools and learning pods are at the forefront.

Although bullying traditionally occurs within the school environment, even faculty members can become a target. It’s easy to create a fake social media page and be anonymous online, and a disgruntled student – or parent – can wreak a lot of havoc.
Just like there was no blueprint for how to handle COVID-19, there are little or no established policies or training for the appropriate response. The research to date identifies the problem, parses data gleaned from surveys, and has made recommendations for addressing cyber-bullying, but very little has actually been established – or more importantly – standardized across the educational system.
The typical schoolyard bully presents its own set of problems, but cyber-bullying is more severe in that it can be an ongoing, 24/7 assault on the victim. As with all bullying – cyber and otherwise – there is the victim and the bystander. The victim lives in a constant state of anxiety and fear; the bystander lives in a similar state to a lesser degree because they don’t want to be the next target.

What can school administrators do? Our educational system is not standardized in its response to bullying, and therein lays the rub. While most schools tout a “zero tolerance” policy for bullying, there are few action items in place to address it. Granted, bullying has a tendency to be underreported, mostly because victims reporting bullying – or parents reporting it – add to the victim’s humiliation.
The natural instinct of a parent is remove the device or social media access from the child. This is in fact, not helpful and can be harmful. The child’s social media access is an early warning system for them, according to Dr. Michael Rich, Harvard professor and founder of Center on Media and Child Health (CMCH). “Parents want to protect their child by removing the vector of harm, but the child’s perception is that the parent is removing their protective shield, their lifeline to what is happening, and possibly a support group or friends to whom they can talk.”

School administrators and leaders often take the tack that they are not responsible if the bullying does not occur on school property, or, they reprimand the bully, both resulting in more victimization. What this does, says Dr. Rich, is it actually reiterates the bullying because the school is now inadvertently bullying the bully.
“We need to think of bullying as a systematic threat to our educational system. Bullying breaks down the power differential because the school wants to protect the victim and punish the bully, but it has the opposite effect,” says Dr. Rich.
Victims of bullying are not only living in a state of fear and feeling unprotected in their environment, but they often exhibit elevated levels of cortisol and epinephrine. “They also tend to assume that any new person is a potential threat,” adds Dr. Rich, “making them wary and distrustful of new people in general.” This, he adds, can be a personality trait that victims carry with them into adulthood.

As parents, how can we tell if our child is being bullied? Some warning signs include withdrawing into their smart device almost completely. This is counter-intuitive because they use their devices more when they are being threatened. What we need to do as parents is to think long and hard about when it is appropriate to give a child a smart device. It is equally important to educate the child on how it is to be used.
“Flip phones are actually making a comeback because it allows for limited contact between the child and the parent, and eliminates social media apps on the device,” says Dr. Rich. “Moreover, parents and guardians need to engage with their child when they are ready for social media.” Dr. Rich suggest asking your child what it is that’s fun about SnapChat, or Instagram, and ask them to show you. Let them teach you what they like and why. The child will be that much more inclined to share it with the parent.”

When your child is ready for a smart device with all the bells and whistles, the child needs to understand that it is a powerful tool. There are predators of every kind in cyberspace, and no child is immune to that. “Parents need to share the digital space with their children, and have an established rapport with them so that they can be their child’s ally, and openly communicate regarding any issues.”

It’s difficult to address the very things from which we want to shield our children. Bullies, predators, age-inappropriate memes and videos, and God forbid pornography. “The reality is, it’s all out there, waiting for one unprotected or unknowing child.”

One of the tenets Dr. Rich tells parents is to tell your children “not to put anything out there that you wouldn’t want your grandparents to see.” This works well because grandparents are often viewed in a halo of unconditional love. He also suggests that handing over a smart device is conditional: your children need to share their passwords and any other login credentials so that parents have access to all social media accounts.

Children do not have fully developed neurological functions. Their world is more immediacy-based rather than factoring in any long term consequences.
Back to the bullying issue. What we need to do is not fight bullying; rather we need to change the narrative around bullying to that of solidarity. Social media is here to stay so let’s use it to change the culture to one that uplifts and praises those that stand up for each other and for any bullying victim. Let’s develop programs for kids to talk about why they love their school, their classmates, or a certain teacher and why. The idea is not to fight bullying, but to reverse it, and use social media for those purposes. Schools can set up older students as mentors, and reward those who identify and mitigate bullying.

This is about building a community with purpose, intent, and a sense of camaraderie. Talk to your school about your ideas, without victimizing your child. Bullying is rampant, and the effects can be devastating. Children drop out of school early, develop health problems either real or imagined, and often turn violent simply because they see no way out.

“It is ultimately not about how cool we are – it is about our limitations and imperfections and vulnerabilities that build relationships and connect us,” says Dr. Rich.

We must not sacrifice real connections with people for connectivity. We need to use the connectivity to connect on a human level in deep and meaningful ways.

Maureen H. Cronin