Another bullying suicide hit the news recently: a 12-year-old Florida girl, Rebecca Ann Sedwick, leapt to her death after enduring a year of cyber taunts and threats perpetrated by a group of 15-year-old girls at her Lakeland school.
This case follows the high-profile 2010 suicide of Phoebe Prince, a 15-year-old Massachusetts girl whose six schoolmates were charged in her death. In Chicago earlier this year, 14-year-old Cynthia Rodriguez killed herself in a park near her home after being bullied on Facebook.
Cases like this – all too common these days – twist the gut of every parent. We have got to stop this vicious girl-on-girl cyber bullying.
1. Educate yourself about your child’s technology usage.
Today’s bullying is not the clique-sniping we faced as teenagers. Most girl-on-girl bullying today takes place virtually. Text messages, Facebook, and other social media sites are all cyber “playgrounds” that are not well monitored by parents or teachers.
So first, even though most teens demand device privacy, as a parent it is important to insist on occasionally taking a peek, despite the howls of protest. Sunshine is the best disinfectant, and if your kid knows you will be looking, some of the potential for abuse is undercut right there. Tell your beloved child what you are doing and why, which should engender a productive conversation about appropriate use of technology. If it gets ugly, your trump card is that you paid for the device and you have a moral responsibility to know what is being posted and witnessed there.
Another trick: ask what sites are popular. Sometimes I give the excuse that so-and-so’s younger kid wants to join a new site, and I need to give my friend advice. The key is to do this only once in a blue moon – randomly and without advance notice. This cuts the chances that your child will feel hounded and motivated to hide certain sites. You can respect their privacy — while also insisting on transparency.
2. Educate yourself about bullying.
If you just read one book, I recommend Odd Girl Out by Rachel Simmons. The book decodes, with a great deal of sympathy towards victims and bullies, the social pressures and psychological competition behind girl-on-girl bullying. Surprisingly, most bullies target their friends – the girls immediate above or below them on the perceived social “ladder.” The last thing you want to do is demonize the bully – she is rarely pure evil – or assume that the victim automatically dislikes her.
3. Take her side but don’t fight her battles.
Make it your priority to shore up the victim every day. Shower her with love, sympathy, encouragement and support. Bullying is personal and nasty – don’t ever dismiss it as “nothing” or harmless. Don’t castigate the victim for letting the bullying get under her skin. Ask yourself: could you take this kind of targeted, sustained viciousness from your peers?
Never take on the bully yourself by creating a fake Facebook account or texting them back. You, as the adult here, instantly become the bully. The consequences can be dangerous and sometimes tragic. You also send a message that the victim cannot stand up for herself, undermining her self-esteem and setting her up for more bullying in the future.
4. Don’t expect the school to stop the bullying.
Your school administration does not have access to a magic wand. Almost all of cyberbullying happens off campus, after school hours. The school has as little control – and as little legal right to intervene – as you do. No matter the facts. No matter the suffering.
A more realistic approach is to talk privately with two to three trusted teachers, coaches, or advisors. Ask them, as caring individuals, to support your daughter and guide the bullies to more productive paths. Ironically, in Odd Girl Out, Simmons describes giving bullies leadership roles – captain of the swim team, for instance – as surprisingly effective ways to channel female competitiveness into true leadership. This may turn your stomach, but it has worked.
Another idea is to ask a few other parents to help you organize a school-wide discussion of girl-on-girl bullying. Pick a book or movie about bullying, and invite all kids and parents to read or watch it. Follow up with a discussion. This approach brings bullying dynamics into the open and fosters resolution rather than combat.
5. Support the victim’s solutions.
The victim herself knows that she can’t fight back against anonymous, incessant cyberbullying. There is always a new website, a new techno tool for bullies to use. The only way to fight back (and often the easiest, most effective way to stop bullying) is for the victim to ignore the taunts. Bullying is like tug-of-war. If one side drops the rope, the battle ends. But sometimes it’s hard for a teenage girl to let go.
This may mean temporarily restricting your daughter’s social media use, or instituting an age threshold. In our family, there are no Facebook pages or social media usage before age 15. This rule has made me very unpopular with my kids, and I wouldn’t be shocked if they cheated a bit. But I found that by age 15 or so, their peers had discovered the pitfalls of cyber bullying — or at least which websites lend themselves to the most vicious commentary. The incidence of abuse decreases dramatically, or at least becomes easier to avoid.
But sometimes, dropping the rope means dropping the class, the school, or a favored extracurricular activity. One of my daughters struggled with a set of sophisticated, socially adept girls for three years. Then one day she announced she has to change schools. There were other factors too – her school was tiny, and she had been there since kindergarten. I had watched her try to ignore the difficult girls in her class, and she had repeatedly tried (and failed) to make peace with them in a teensy-weensy fishbowl.
She finished out the school year with confidence, knowing she had a separate future. Together we found a larger school filled with kids more like her in temperament and life philosophy. She dodged the bullets, and the bullies, which is a fine social strategy to internalize at the tender age of 14.