When the Cyberbully Is an Adult

Imagine a softball game your kids are playing. They make jokes, goad each other, trash talk a bit, celebrate together, and have fun the way kids do.

Now imagine the same game, but you’re playing with your peers. You do the same things—joking, goading, trash-talking, celebrating, having fun—but you do it differently. Adults have a different frame of reference. We find different things funny. There’s a different level of appropriateness. And in both games, there are probably players who behave badly, but they behave badly in different ways. When the powers-that-be decide to take on that bad behaviour, they use different strategies. Even though the two games are very similar, they play out differently because of the different ages of the players.

Now imagine a third softball game. But in this game, no one can see who the other players are. Some are kids and some are adults, but no one really knows that. The players try and do all the things they’d like to do (jokes, goading, trash talking, etc.), but it’s hard because the players don’t know each other’s frame of reference. And in this hypothetical game, it’s not hard to imagine a kid annoying the other players just by being a kid. And it’s not hard to imagine some of the adult players, not understanding that they’re dealing with a kid, chastising and even bullying the annoying kid player.

That’s one way that you might have a child online who ends up cyberbullied by an adult. Sure, some bullies are just jerks, but others might have mental health issues, others might behave differently to a screen than they would face to face, and still others might not get that they’re interacting with a kid or they might not understand that their actions are harsher than they think. When we think of cyberbullying, we usually think of it as something kids to do other kids. But anyone could be involved. Even adults.

When No One Knows Who’s Who

There’s an old New Yorker cartoon that’s become a famous way of describing the Internet. It features a dog sitting at a computer telling another dog: “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.”

We make a lot of assumptions about the people we meet behind computer screens. We ascribe things like age, gender, and ethnicity based on flimsy evidence and our own biases. One of our biggest assumptions is that cyberbullying is something kids do to other kids. But this isn’t always the case, and kids need to be aware of this potential.

When Adults Act Like Children

Flaming. Name-calling. Humiliation. Being a jerk for no good reason. This is the stuff that you’d think would be beneath an adult. But here’s the truth: these so called ‘online trolls’ are often adults. And sometimes they target children.

For example, in the past we’ve written about Minecraft griefing. It involves someone getting onto a kid’s Minecraft server, usually by tricking them, and then doing things like destroying buildings, crashing servers, and being nasty to the kids. These people will share videos of their actions on social media to try and get followers and make money.

Tell a Trusted Adult & Be an Adult Who Understands

When it comes to dealing with cyberbullying, we always tell kids to go to a trusted adult. But we know from our research that kids frequently don’t trust adults at all. Kids fear that the adults in their lives will just take away their technology in response to cyberbullying, which is a bit like grounding a kid for getting bullied. Taking their device away removes them from their social worlds, so can feel like a punishment. It’s a response that’s prone to backfire, and one that parents should try to avoid, no matter how worried they are about what is happening to their child online.

Fortunately, you can show your child that they can trust you. First, always take the time to understand what’s going on. Listen to your child’s issue, no matter how convoluted, and empathise and ask clarifying questions. Related to this, try and understand more broadly what the Internet means to your child. As an example, ask your child about Snapchat streaks. To a parent, they seem to be an insidious way for Snapchat to ensure that kids keep coming back to Snapchat. To a kid, however, they represent loyalty and commitment to a friendship, or provide a way to let another kid know that you are interested in being their friend.

One thing you can do to facilitate these conversations is to educate yourself about the sites and social media platforms your child uses. Sign up for sites and engage with it long enough to figure out how everything works. A lot of this stuff might seem weird or silly, but it’s important to your child, and will help them feel comfortable talking to you about it. If you keep talking to them, they’ll keep talking to you.

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3 Online Safety Myths

Some families insist on putting computers in the living room but make no such rules for phones and tablets. Some families think that their children would never, ever engage in cyberbullying—because they know better. And some people think that online anonymity is absolute. But these are myths, so let’s talk about the real facts.

Myth: A Tablet or Phone Is Safer Than a Computer

Fact: Smartphones and tablets have the exact same functionality as a computer.

No doubt you’ve heard the advice to keep your computer in the living room or someplace else public, particularly if you have younger kids. Well, tablets and smartphones can do all the same things that computers do. If you want to monitor the kinds of content your kids are accessing, see whom they’re talking to online, or even just pay attention to their emotional state, you’ll have to treat phones and tablets the same as computers.

If you’d like your child to have a phone for safety reasons but don’t want to monitor their Internet browsing all the time, remember that you can always get your child a flip phone. They’re inexpensive and they can make calls or texts, which is exactly what you’d need in an emergency anyway.

Myth: My Kid Knows Better

Fact: All kids make mistakes.

The world isn’t neatly divided into bullies and victims of bullies. Before they reach adulthood, most kids will engage in aggressive behavour and be the recipient of it at least once—especially around middle school. It’s important to talk to your child about cyberbullying, including all the different forms it might take, but it’s also important to remember that there may come a moment where your child exhibits poor judgement and cyberbullies someone else.

One of the most insidious things about cyberbullying is the fact that it isn’t face-to-face so it can be harder for people who cyberbully to empathise with their victims. As parents, your challenge is to help your child understand that social responsibility extends to online environments as well. Help them imagine how the person receiving a hurtful message might feel, even if they can’t see them.

Myth: It’s Impossible to Identify Who Is Cyberbullying you Because of Online Anonymity

Fact: There is no real online anonymity.

We know that people will say and do things that they wouldn’t do in a face-to-face setting when they feel protected behind a screen. Often they don’t use their real name, but even when they do, the screen provides a sense of anonymity.

Unfortunately, this is a false sense of anonymity. Most people provide enough details under their supposedly anonymous usernames that comments can be traced back to their real identity. And many people use the same usernames across platforms, which makes figuring out who someone is even easier. In more serious cases, law enforcement can trace IPs to investigate anonymous accounts. Indeed, the news is full of people who used anonymous accounts to behave badly, only to be exposed. It’s important for parents to help their children understand that they are not anonymous online, whether they are using their real name or not. Also, everything they put online is permanent and available for anyone to see.

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