Bullying will never go away. So how can we minimize the impacts?

The harsh reality is that bullying will never go away. As long as there have been people, there have been bullies. They just have more potent, far reaching tools with which to wield their power. Therefore we need to manage it. To contain it. Make it unattractive.

My third-grade daughter has seen bullies since at least first grade. There’s a group of mean girls that gave her grief starting then, and while second grade was a nice reprieve (they set their sites on others) she’s seen some of that this year. It’s starts out subtle, and continues when they get a reaction. As a parent, it’s painful to see – and since she has a great group of NICE friends, not too tough to manage thus far. Especially since they’ve not yet started using social media.

So how can we parents manage the bullies? More important, how can we teach our kids how to fend for themselves? I don’t pretend to have the answers but let’s think out loud here.

Since we can’t eliminate bullies, I see two possible approaches:

  1. Help the bullied and non-bullies. This involves setting expectations for engaging online – what you share and who you share it with. Know as best you can who your friends are.
  2. Help the bullies. Yes, go right to the source. Show them a healthier way to engage online. I can’t imagine many bullies feel good about themselves. Insecurity breeds such behavior.

I’m currently reading Switch by the Heath brothers about how to facilitate change. It talks about approaching big change by focusing on the easiest, smallest solution. Things you can affect when you don’t have any power. The key analogy is the elephant and the rider. The elephant is your emotional side and the rider, your rational side. You can guess who usually wins and therefore why you need to find a way to appeal to both.

For your kids, set them up for success by instilling a sense of confidence and security knowing they’re valued, worthwhile people. Particularly, girls need a lot of support during their teenage years – even when they think their parents are stupid and don’t want them around – they DO WANT them around according to Michael Gerber in the Wonder of Girls. They’re not ready to be independent adults as much as they pretend they want to be. It’s during this time that he says many parents pull away thinking their kids are becoming self-sufficient and don’t need them as much. But they do. So no matter how hard it is as a parent, we gotta stay in the game. (Not that we don’t, but . . .)

Help kids develop a healthy network of friends – I’d like to believe that if there’s a strong network willing to support each other, they can overcome the negative effects of bullying and make it less attractive. Online or off.  I tend to believe that the more unattractive we make bullying by minimizing the impact, the less likely the bullies are to continue.

Help the bullies find more productive outlets. One of the examples cited in Switch was a kid who was an extreme trouble maker in school. Always disrupting class, he spent much time in the principal’s office and didn’t seem to have much hope of changing. One person, however, looked at the 20% of the time he succeeded. What was different. Turns out the teacher in the class he did better politely greeted him at the door each day. Treated him with a bit of respect whereas the others, avoided him more or less. What if we looked at the times when bullies were nice? What was different? And then try to extend what worked.

As a society, it seems we need to make bullying unattractive. This is a bigger nut to crack as unless you’re either experience bullying, have kids who are, or simply aware and care, you’re not going to focus your attention on it. Let’s face it, most of us have plenty of things clamoring for our attention. Particularly in tougher economic times. And I’d suggest it’s these times that breed more bullying. When people struggle with making ends meet they’ll look for an outlet for their frustrations.

So let’s get the ideas on the table. None are too simple. In fact, from what I’ve gleaned from Switch, it’s the simplest ideas that can be the most effective because they snowball. Let’s start small and see where this goes. Join #smsafety this evening at 9:00 EST.

– Patrick Prothe


You Are Loved

When the whole world seems grey, it’s hard to believe that there is a sun above the clouds.

If you are being bullied now, or if you have been bullied recently, know that they do not speak for the majority. You are loved. You have hope.

Let us know how we can help you.

You’re fine the way you are

When I was a kid, I got bullied all of the time. You see, I am a little person – not a dwarf, but I stand at about 4’5. I would walk down halls and kids would crouch down and point. I would be asked by teachers, custodians, and bus drivers if I was sure I was old enough to be in high school. When I was a sophomore in high school, I went to a restaurant and was offered a sippy cup.

When your differences are on the outside, out there for everyone to see, it can be really hard to keep your chin up. Even if no one said anything, I would feel different. I would know that I was not like everyone else. But people did say things. People did cruel things. And I would get really sad as a result.

One day, when I was feeling particularly down, my mom took out a ruler. She said, “Okay, let’s think about the height you wish you could get to, which is five feet. Now, what is the difference between where you are and that height?” She pointed to the space on the ruler. It was such a small difference. All of these people were making me feel miserable, and it was all over a difference that could be covered in the span of a wide-open hand. I can’t say it made the bullying easier to take, but it made me realize that the fault was not mine. The people who made fun of me had a much bigger problem to deal with. They were small on the inside.

If you are being bullied right now because of something on the outside – if you are too small or too tall for your liking, if you feel too thin or too overweight, if you have freckles or pimples or glasses or braces or anything else that people might be giving you a hard time about, I can tell you that eventually, all of those people, all of those unhappy times – they will come to make you laugh. I laugh at the people who offered me booster seats at restaurants. I laugh at the people who let their kids point at me. Because you know what? They are laughing at this carrier case I’m in, and that’s all. They have no idea of who I am, and therefore I know it can’t possibly be about me. They see me, or you, as a chance to make themselves feel better. They have to push someone down so that they can feel better. We can just be ourselves.

If you are being bullied, do not despair. You can get through it. You can be the victor. Just hang in there.

Image by Andrea De Stefani. http://www.sxc.hu/profile/deste

Who do we empower first?

Imagine this scenario.

Someone you care about – a son or daughter, a sister or brother, a friend – tells you that someone is posting really nasty things about them on Facebook. Mean pictures maybe, or spreading rumors online. This person goes to school and everyone laughs at them because of the stuff that’s showing up online. They come to you, and they ask for help. What do you say?

What you might say is, “Well, have you told a teacher or a principal about this? They should be able to help you.”

I was told a story today about a high school freshman who is getting bullied online. She did go to her principal. The principal said nothing could be done. It wasn’t criminal.

So who do we help first? Do we help teach everyone what to do to protect him or herself, or do we help to teach parents, principals, teachers, coaches, and scout leaders how to help first? Which is the higher priority?


Image by torun basu. http://www.sxc.hu/profile/torun

Kids Can Be Cruel

I was a middle school teacher. Most people cringe when I say that (including myself). It’s a tough age to teach and it’s a tough age to be. I knew that and it’s why I chose to be a middle school teacher.

You see, I was an underdog in school. I was a brainiac, a nerd, a Jesus freak, or whatever the label of the moment was. I was “accused” of being a lesbian because I didn’t have a boyfriend in high school. I felt lonely and alone, much of the time.

It sounds odd because I also hung with a popular crowd. I was one of those kids that could assimilate themselves into any group. I just never actually belonged to any of those groups. It was painful but luckily I had an older brother an sister. When I was going through tough times in high school, I would spend a weekend with my sister at college.

All of her college friends thought I was the cool little sister. It was the light at the end of the tunnel for me. I knew that if I could just make it to college, I would find the right people to surround myself with. I had hope. I knew I would find acceptance.

As I got older, acceptance of myself is actually what became more important. It’s been a long hard road to get to acceptance. And it’s all because of my adolescence.

When I was studying to become a teacher, I had to take a course in Adolescent Psychology. They stressed to us how important peer acceptance is at that age. They didn’t have to tell me. My self-esteem has suffered for years as a result.

I did go on, though, to gain my teaching certification and taught middle school science for a year and a half. It was important to me because I knew how critical that time was for these kids, many of whom came from underprivileged backgrounds. Every day was a struggle. I saw the misfits. I saw kids getting picked on. I saw kids remaining silent because they didn’t want anyone to bother them. I saw the smart kids hold back.

I tried my best to be a crusader in the classroom. I didn’t want to admit that kids can simply be cruel. I wanted to teach them to accept one another. Ambitious, I know. I did my best to protect the kids that needed protecting, to stand up for them. I have to tell you, it doesn’t always help.

It was such a tough job for me that when I relocated to another state, I chose not to go back into teaching. I also had strong feelings about never having children. It was difficult and stressful. It was thankless. And sometimes, it was downright cruel.

As the years went on, I took a chance on parenthood, knowing there was no return policy. But I also knew I had approximately 13 years to shape my son into who wanted him to be. He’s 3 years old now. I’m pretty proud of him. He’s almost 4. For the most part, he’s loving, caring, compassionate, thoughtful. And he has a temper. He is 4 after all.

At 4 years old, we’re seriously thinking about his school experience. And it keeps me up at night. I want to hide him away from the evils of the world. I don’t want him to encounter a single cruel person in his life. Ever.

I think about sending him to private schools. I think a lot about a Montessori education where they seem to value and celebrate diversity. But a physical building doesn’t guarantee protection from bullying. It happens at the playground. It happens online.

My son is growing up in a world where words like text, email, and tweet are commonplace. He throws them around. He told me before bathtime last night that he had to finish his tweet (he obviously listens to his mother very intently). He plays games on his iPhone (a non-working old version from Mom and Dad). He’s played online games.

But I’m there. I watch everything he watches. I send him only to websites that I pull up. I haven’t taught him how to navigate the web. He’ll probably figure it out on his own anyway. When the time comes, I will ensure there is every parental control enabled.

I can’t avoid his use of the online world. It’s a part of my daily life and I certainly expect it to become part of his. But until he has the maturity to understand online interactions (which many adults still don’t understand), I will continue to guard and protect and monitor and watch like a hawk. Because my role as a parent is to teach him right from wrong and keep him safe as long as I can. And that’s what I plan to do, online and off.

Chat Round Up, November 10, 2010

Last night we had an information-packed chat thanks to Danny Brown and Safety Web, a company that manufactures software (and most recently a Facebook application) to help parents keep their kids safe online.

Some key take-aways were that it’s important to differentiate between monitoring and spying. While we all want to keep our kids safe, we also can’t deny the fact that kids do have their own lives. The positive aspect of Social Media is also what can make it dangerous. Kids who might not have a lot of friends at school could reach out to online people and make meaningful connections. It’s how we educate our kids to empower themselves that could truly make the difference.

A wealth of information was provided by Danny and the Safety Web folks, so rather than going on and on, I thought I would round up as many of those links as possible. These will be added to our Resource Center soon!

Danny Brown’s post about Safety Web’s App, Find Help (for Facebook)

Safety Web’s own resource-rich website

Is your kid giving out too much information on Facebook? (Very important topic!)

Are you aware of your digital dossier? Something to consider for parents developing “brands” for their children too.

Amazon.com isn’t often thought of as Social Media, but this security breach suggests we need to be very careful over there.

Safety Web featured on NBC Tampa Bay (good way to learn more!)

Danny Brown also told us about the Little Eye iPhone App (worth checking out!)

An overview from Norton on safety for seniors (we need to shine more light on this topic!)

A post by Mr. Brown on virtual stalking. He noted the comments he got were quite eye-opening.

Tips from the Washington Attorney General for Seniors keeping safe online

Let me know if I missed any links. As you can tell, the information was flying!

Huge buckets of gratitude, again, to Danny Brown, Safety Web, and all of our great participants!

Image by Kriss Szkurlatowski. http://www.sxc.hu/profile/hisks

Today it’s different

It used to be that when you were bullied at school, you could go home and escape it. You could switch schools, towns. And leave your past behind. But today your past follows you wherever you go. Bullying doesn’t stay within the confines of school. It may start there or may start online and go there. The implications in the connected social world are serious. Just as social networks can be used for good, they can be used for evil. They give bullies more power. And more opportunities to remain anonymous.

Growing up I was bullied. I feared a lot of the kids around me. Why? I was too skinny and had a voice that just wasn’t becoming of a boy. Rather, it was most definitely soprano. Think boy meets piccolo. Painful at the time, I fortunately gained a real voice, a few needed pounds and became an avid runner. Even lifted weights for a few years but you’d never have noticed. Somehow I was not going to be a threat to any Mr. Universe candidate.

I moved on. Came into my own and have never looked back. But as Daniel Solove so eloquently writes in his book, The Future of Reputation, that’s virtually impossible today. He illustrates this with Dog Poop Girl. Go ahead, Google that. I’ll wait.

Is this what you found? The short story is that a Korean woman’s (link= dog pooped on the subway, she didn’t clean it up, someone took a picture of the scene and posted it online. She was eventually identified and had to drop out of college as a result of the pressure. What’s remarkable about this is the now famous incident happened in 2005 long before we had the myriad tools we have today. Two years before the iPhone launched the smart phone revolution.

No matter where you are in the world, you can read this story as long as you’re connected. I don’t think most people have really thought about the implications of what they share online. And what a scary-good memory Google has.

Bullies may do something in the moment not thinking about the reach. Or long term effects of their actions. Parents likely don’t realize the permanence of Google. Or have the conversations with their kids about the social web. Maybe it’s the kids teaching the parents. The concept of privacy today has been turned on its head. The reality is, we’re living our lives in public. We’re not quite living The Truman Show, but getting closer every year.

We need to start talking with our kids – and spreading the word – about the effects of bullying today. How a few hurtful words today can follow someone for years to come. Eroding their self-esteem or ability to form meaningful relationships and get a job. Or worse. Am I being overly dramatic? I don’t think so.

I encourage you not to wait to have the tough conversations. Share the story of Dog Poop Girl. We can’t assume they’ll think about the impact of their actions up front. Did you always think about the consequences of what you did then? I sure didn’t. Maybe society will catch up with technology and we’ll develop a new set of norms. Maybe we’ll become self-policing.  Maybe we can inspire our kids to spread the word. They’re often smarter than we give ‘em credit for. But for now, spread the word. In the public world, bullying is more serious than ever.