Bullying has taken on a whole new dimension by hitting the cyber world. Now kids can bully at all times of day and night and hundreds of people can see it at a time.
Sticks and stones are not the only schoolyard weapons that can hurt kids. Words can hurt just as badly, and cyber bullying has taken it to the next level.
The Pinellas County School District, individual schools, Juvenile Welfare Board, and Gulf Coast Jewish Family and Community Services are all working together to combat this problem so kids across the county can feel safe coming to school.
A changing world
Bullying is nothing new. Even several centuries ago, bullying was documented in literature, said Shelba Waldron, senior program consultant with the JWB. In some ways, bullying today has not changed much since today’s adults were young.
“Outside of social media, outside of the Internet, I don’t think it’s very different,” Waldron said. “Even at young ages, in elementary school, kids bully each other and it’s still the same level.”
Kids still pick on the kids seen as “different,” she said. Kids still bully on the bus and in the bathrooms and in other places where adults are not present. And the younger the kids are, the more likely they will bully by socialization and isolation. For instance, kids may deliberately exclude another child from their games or groups, Waldron said.
However, the prevalence of the Internet now takes things to a whole new level, she said. Now, rather than a bully just saying mean, nasty things to someone’s face in front of a limited number of people, they can text those things to the victim and then forward the message to a dozen people, Waldron said. Then those kids can each forward it to another dozen people. Or if the bullying takes place on social media or other areas of the Internet, hundreds if not thousands of people can see it.
“It just keeps multiplying,” Waldron said. “And what happens to the victims, they now go to school in a total level of fear. They no longer know who is bullying them. They don’t know who knows what. Whereas before, if you’re just bullying on the bus, you know it’s just the kids who were on the bus and maybe a couple of friends they’ve told. But now we can tell kids at 2 a.m. So now I can bully you on the bus and I can go video it. I’m going to take pictures of it, and now I’m going to go put it on the Internet and now all the school is going to know.”
This is where criminal charges and the new laws start coming in, she said. Especially if it involves sexting. Every cellphone now comes with a built-in camera, and kids don’t always realize that if they take a sexy picture of themselves, not only can the wrong person get a hold of that and forward it on to the whole school, but if the person is underage, it also could count as being in possession of child pornography.
Social media is a huge battleground for bullying. Even though most of those sites require a user to be at least 13 years old to have an account, kids who are younger are gaining access to it, said Joan Reubens, bullying prevention specialist with Pinellas County Schools.
“The reality is the cyber world has really opened it up (for bullying,)” Reubens said. “The students, even as young as kindergarten, have cellphones and social networking sites like Facebook. I’ve spoken to kindergartners about it. Usually it’s an older sibling who has set them up with an account.”
The immediacy and permanency is what is so damaging and traumatic, Reubens said.
“When they send it electronically, kids see it over and over again,” Reubens said. “And masses of people see it.”
What is bullying?
More people are talking about bullying, which is good, however therefore sometimes kids label everything as bullying, Waldron said.
“‘She looked at me strange, she’s bullying.’ No, that’s not bullying,” Waldron said. “Sometimes, they’re using that natural childhood bickering that’s going on and they’re saying everything is bullying.”
True bullying is about power and control, Waldron said.
“It also has to be long-term; something that occurs more than once,” Waldron said. “And it usually occurs in similar settings because they want to create fear. So I’m going to make you afraid of getting on the bus. That’s the job of the bully. I’m going to make you afraid to go online.”
When adults are trying to determine if a child is being bullied, it is important to ask the right questions, she said. Is it the same person or group who is picking on the student? Does the child feel like the other person is controlling them? Has this type of thing happened on a regular basis in a similar location? If those questions yield “yes” answers, then most likely it is a bullying situation.
Waldron said that one student told her that she was bullied so much in eighth and ninth grade that she had to withdraw from school and be homeschooled for a year. The student said that it was lonely being homeschooled, but it had been even lonelier in school with all the bullying.
There is more information now on how bullying affects people and how to deal with bullying, Waldron said. Even 10 years ago, administrators would put the bully and victim together in the same room to try to work out the situation, she said. Now they realize that is a bad way to handle it, she said.
Research now shows that bullying can have real serious effects, Waldron said.
“We know that with the kids who are truly bullied, it’s very similar to a victim of domestic violence,” Waldron said. “You’re in a constant state of fear. You’re in a constant state of heightened awareness of violence that could potentially come. With domestic violence, it’s always that potential. What’s he going to do tonight? If I talk to my friends, am I going to get yelled at? So it’s that same kind of PTSD that occurs – ‘If I don’t bring money to the bully, what’s he going to do?’ And that is still a very popular form of bullying.”
Even if the retaliation doesn’t come that day, the victim knows that it could be the next day or the day after that. Living in that kind of fear makes it impossible to concentrate in class or learn, Waldron said. In both scenarios, the perpetrators gain control by instilling fear in their victims.
One of the things that has gotten the public’s attention regarding bullying is the kids who commit suicide because of it. However, both Waldron and Reubens say that in reality, those instances are the rare. In fact, Reubens said that to her knowledge, there have been no bullying suicides in Pinellas County. Waldron said that often in those cases, bullying is just the final catalyst leading to the tragedy.
“One thing about the suicides is that bullying is the straw that broke the camel’s back,” Waldron said. “A lot of times, they’re connecting mental health issues with the kids who are killing themselves. And one thing I try to tell the kids when I go work in schools is that actually suicide is not as prevalent as we think it is. It’s just what’s getting the attention.”
The Pinellas County School District has an online system where students and parents can report allegations of bullying, Reubens said. In 2012, there were just over 3,000 reports of bullying and harassment, and about 577 of those were substantiated, she said.
Both the good and bad news is that overall, the kids involved in bullying is actually a small percentage of the overall student population involved in bullying, even though those who are victimized by it feel huge effects, Reubens said. Overall, she said, about 15 percent of kids are victims of bullying, and about 10 percent of students take part in bullying.
“So if you want to look at it in a positive light, 90 percent of the population is not engaged in bullying,” Reubens said. “Most of our kids do not bully, but it’s that 10 percent of the population that makes it seem so severe because kids don’t know what to do about it.”
What can parents do?
The first thing parents should do is watch for various warning signs of bullying, Waldron said. Part of it begins with what Waldron calls “traditional parenting.”
“Know who your kids’ friends are,” Waldron said. “Know who they’re talking to, who they’re hanging out with. Because if you can get a grasp of that a little bit and then they start eliminating those friends or they start wanting to quit a sport or activity, (then you know something is going on.)”
Other signs that a child may be bullied mirror classic signs of depression, Waldron said. For instance, they may not want to go to school, or younger kids could fake stomachaches or give other excuses to stay home.
“Also, stolen items out of the backpacks (is a sign,)” Waldron said. “Stolen backpacks. Stolen lunches. If your kid comes home hungry every afternoon because someone was stealing their lunch.”
The key is to look at patterns, she said. One stolen lunch one day is bad, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it is because of a bullying situation. However, if it is happening multiple times a week or every day, then it is probably bullying. Other signs include lower grades or lower self-esteem, Reubens added.
The other major thing parents should do is monitor computer and cellphone time, Waldron said. At this point, it seems inevitable that kids will have their own cellphones, but there needs to be rules that go along with them, she said.
“One of the things we know is that kids often bully at 2 a.m.,” Waldron said. “It’s a very common time. So what they do is they take the cellphone or the smartphone into their bedrooms after lights out, and that’s when a lot of the bullying occurs – when mom and dad are asleep.”
However, Waldron said that she and the JWB are trying to teach parents that it is imperative to set boundaries and guidelines with phones, just as there would be rules for using the family car or TV.
“We have to teach parents about the rules,” Waldron said. “Like, the phone comes into my bedroom at 10 p.m., depending on the age of the child. Or, you can keep your phone, but if I find you’re texting at 1 a.m. or 2 a.m., you’re going to lose your phone for a week.”
The computer is the other area that parents really need to supervise, Waldron said. Parents need to stress that the computer belongs to the parents, not the kids, and it is a privilege that can be taken away if it is abused.
“The younger the kid is, the more the computer has to be in the family room,” Waldron said. “The bullying is most often happening in middle school. It’s still happening in high school as well, but in the middle school years, when we’re still really training kids how to use the Internet, it really needs to be in the family room or the kitchen. In a place where mom and dad can walk through and see what’s on the computer.”
The Internet and especially social media has scared a lot of parents, Waldron said, because they don’t know how to keep on top of it – especially since new social media sites seem to be popping up all the time. However, the first step in monitoring that is to mandate that the kids “friend” their parents on every social media site that they are on. That way, parents can see what their kids are posting and what is being posted on their walls and newsfeeds.
“And if kids start throwing a fit, we say to take away the computer,” Waldron said. “That they can only use it for school and use it to do their homework and look up school-related stuff.”
Waldron also encourages enforcing age minimums for having social media accounts. Sites such as Facebook require members to be at least 13 years old to hold an account, but kids have been finding ways around that or are lying about their age. The older kids are when they begin using social media, the less likely there will be problems with bullying, she said.
There are a lot of reasons why a child might become a bully, Waldron said. Maybe they are being bullied at home or have low self-esteem and want to feel a sense of power. Other times they just want a sense of belonging and don’t know a constructive way to get that attention. One way parents can help their kids is to get them involved in positive extra-curricular activities, Waldron said.
“Get the kid involved in the arts or in sports,” Waldron said. “Get a good coach on them to help build up their self-esteem. Find something that they love.”
This can help in several ways, she said. Being involved will help them develop a group of friends with similar interests that they can grow with. This helps prevent kids from becoming bullies because they can already have that sense of belonging and don’t need to seek out negative attention. Additionally, it can help kids who may be a victim of bullying because now they will have a support system. There will be other kids to help stand up to the bully, and in some cases, it even helps the would-be victim to just shrug off any attempts of bullying, which could cause the bully to get bored and stop.
It’s also important to help children and teens understand that no matter how bad they think it is or how embarrassed they are, it is not the end of the world, Reubens said.
“When kids keep it in and say, ‘I don’t know what to do; I don’t know who to talk to,’ then they can’t see beyond today,” Reubens said.
Therefore, it’s important that they have a trusted adult to talk to. Teach kids to tell someone they trust – even if it is not a parent or their main teacher, Reubens said. It could be a coach or a teacher they had in the past, but they need to tell someone so they can help them deal with the situation.
What is the school district doing?
The school district as a whole is doing its part to prevent bullying, Reubens said. Many schools throughout the county are part of the Olweus (pronounced ol-vey-us) bullying prevention program, which helps create a culture across the whole school and community, including parents and teachers that teaches and enforces positive social behaviors that help minimize bullying and harassment, she said. The county also has Safe Teams across the schools, which helps train about bullying, explaining what it is and what it is not, and how to deal with it as an entire school, not just in individual classes. It also helps teach people how to report bullying.
“And really focusing on the students who are the bystanders, and having them report in a safe way if they see something happening to a friend or someone they don’t even know,” Reubens said.
One major tool is the ability to go online to www.bullying.pcsb.org to report a suspected case of bullying, she said. Every case is investigated, and that way appropriate action can be taken. There is no one set punishment, and different schools have different policies, but based on the individual situation, punishment for bullying could be at least a disciplinary referral or additional loss of privileges, detentions or even a temporary suspension.
The important thing is that each case is reported so that appropriate action can be taken before the situation gets out of hand.
This is the first of a two-part series on bullying. This week will address overall bullying, what the Pinellas County School district as a whole is doing to address the issue, and what parents can do to help their kids. Next week will highlight the Violence Prevention Program, which is a program in 10 Pinellas County middle schools through a partnership between the schools, the Juvenile Welfare Board and Gulf Coast Jewish Family and Community Services.