If you caught the all-female remake of “Ghostbusters” this past summer, you may have recognized its breakout star, Leslie Jones, from her work on “Saturday Night Live.” What you may not know is that the comedienne has been a victim of vicious cyberbully attacks since the movie’s debut, to the point that she closed her Twitter account. And she’s not alone; Chrissy Teigen, Amy Schumer, Kesha, J.K. Rowling and Blake Shelton have all been targeted by cyberbullies and online haters.
It’s bad enough when cyberbullying happens to celebrities and adults, but what about our vulnerable teens and tweens? Data collected by TeenSafe shows that of today’s youth:
- 87% have witnessed cyberbullying
- 34% acknowledge being the victim of cyberbullying
- 24% don’t know what to do if they are cyberbullied
- 39% don’t enable their privacy settings on social media
- 33% feel more accepted online than in real life
As medical director of a very busy adolescent psychiatric emergency room and inpatient unit at Medical City Green Oaks Hospital , I am witness to the fact that teens feel more isolated than ever. By the time these children knock on my door, they are already thinking about harming themselves or others, and parents are both oblivious and blindsided. In the moment of crisis, almost universally, these parents talk about missing the signs that their children were faltering, including:
- Increased isolation
- Worsening mood swings
- Physical complaints
- Self-harming behaviors (such as cutting or burning themselves)
- Declining grades
- Obsessive investment in checking social media and texts
- Over-indulgence in depressive recreational activities (such as reading dark books, watching gory movies and playing sad music)
As parents, our children come first — at least we tell ourselves that they do. But it’s often difficult to ensure that our kids are our first priority amidst the myriad of other things that fill up our lives. These days, it’s likely that both parents work in some capacity, and as a result, parents have less emotional reserve and physical energy to keep up with their kids. As families, we spend less time around the dinner table engaged in dialogue about the important or trivial aspects of our day. Instead, we are overly absorbed in texts, television and tweets.
Herein lies the key to intervention: The more engaged and invested parents are in the lives of their children, the more willing children will be to talk about difficult topics (like cyberbullying) and the more confident they will be in reaching out for help.
Meet your children where they are.
Investment and engagement ultimately means meeting your children where they are developmentally, emotionally, socially and spiritually.
- Connect on their level. If you have a child who loves to play Xbox Live, connect through gaming using this platform. In doing so, you will gain intimate knowledge of the cyber personalities with whom he is interacting.
- Insist on being “friends.” Friending your children on social media, having their usernames and passwords in case of emergencies and frequently monitoring their cyber activities are crucial in keeping them safe from cyber predators.
- Teach them about bad people. Helping children understand and identify cyber predators while equipping them with the tools and knowledge of what to do if they are targeted is also crucial. Have discussions with your children about what bullying (in general) and cyberbullying (in particular) look like.
- Listen objectively. Have an open door policy that allows children to talk to you honestly about difficult subjects. Help them identify adults in their lives that are there for their protection. Monitor their texts and emails frequently and use parental electronic controls as much as necessary to ensure their safety.
You’ve got the power to fight cyberbullying.
If your child becomes the victim of cyberbullying, do you know what to do? Believe it or not, you both have more power than you know to control what flows in and out of your cyberspace.
- DO NOT RESPOND TO or forward threatening messages — you want to preserve the evidence in as pristine a manner as possible.
- Save, screenshot, print and file all of the threatening and derogatory messages to present to law enforcement, school staff and web administrators. In most cases, parents can press charges or file for protective orders to limit the contact children have with bullies. In several states, schools are required to address cyberbullying in their anti-bullying policy, including when it occurs off campus. If school administrators take action, parents should insist that their child’s school routine be preserved and instead, the bully’s is altered. This will prevent your child from having to endure further victimization by being forced to change his or her school routine.
- Record dates, times and descriptions of what occurred and when. This hard copy information will be crucial in allowing you to take definitive action.
- Highlight those aspects of the printed information that may be threatening in nature, including sexually explicit materials or photos (which might be evidence of sexual abuse), contain evidence of stalking or extortion or specifically target children who are considered particularly vulnerable (such as children with disabilities and LGBT kids).
- BLOCK THE BULLY from your child’s social media or restrict the phone number being used by the bully to text your child.
- Have your child take a break from social media and internet activity to decrease the likelihood that the bully will re-victimize her under a different screen alias. Here’s how 17-year-old Nicole Edgington did it — and turned her cyberbullying nightmare into an opportunity to help others.
- Use the time off from social media to further connect with your child or encourage her to try a new activity. Kids who engage in sports or other extracurricular activities have more chances to form social networks with their peers and gain confidence from activities in which they both enjoy and excel.
Getting children out of the house and off the screen is actually good for their brains. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends limiting screen time for children and teens to two hours per day, and this should really be more high quality, educational content. Excessive media use by children and adolescents has been linked to obesity, attention problems and decreased academic performance.
If you have a child who is struggling with depression, anxiety or other emotional problems, do not hesitate to ask for help. Enlist your child’s school counselor or find a community-based therapist or psychiatrist near you. Make sure your child’s teachers and school staff are informed about what is occurring, as they can be an infinite resource in keeping your child safe at school. If your child is suicidal, call 911 or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline to ask for help. Together, we can all do our part to keep our children safe.
About Elizabeth Ucheoma-Cofield, MD
Elizabeth Ucheoma-Cofield, MD (lovingly known as “Liz” by friends and family), is an avid reader and writer who enjoys spending time with her family, catching up on her fair share of reality TV and engaging in clothes and shoe shopping at frequent intervals. She loves to travel and going to multiple countries on every continent is on her bucket list. Exercise is her passion and she is very much interested in holistic health (mind, body, and soul) for all of her patients. She truly believes that working with children is her calling and life’s work.