Last week, a fellow volunteer in our high school ministry asked me for some advice about a student in her small group who is being bullied online. Specifically, the attacks are coming from anonymous accounts on Instagram, Facebook, and Ask.fm. My friend told me that the student had already talked to the school counselor about it, but the attacks hadn’t stopped and were now affecting her school work, sleep, etc.
I wanted to share the advice I gave as a starting point for other youth workers, educators, parents, and individuals faced with the same issue. (Obviously, I’ve edited this a little bit to make it general.)
Cyberbully Action Plan
Cyberbullying is vicious.
One reason it is vicious is that it’s super difficult for most people to figure out where it’s coming from. At it’s root, most cyberbullying seems to happen when people think they are being funny. But then there’s that 1% of it that happens very intentionally, seeking to hurt and destroy.
So, as a trusted adult, what do you do? Here’s my advice.
- DISCLOSE Her parents need to know. Even if she thinks her parents won’t understand or won’t care, they need to know.
- ESCALATE It needs to be escalated at the school. Being entirely practical, the school is probably best equipped and most experienced to deal with it. Nearly every school has an anti-bullying policy in place. It’s great that the student has reported it already, that’s the first step, but if things have continued it is really hard to know if the counselor is taking it seriously. A simple escalation would be asking the parents to follow-up with what she has reported to the counselor. If they don’t feel like the counselor is doing enough, they should report it to the principal.
- REPORT In most cases, the police can’t or won’t do anything about it. It’s pretty hard to prove that a crime has occurred. So unless it’s truly vicious, life-threatening or making threats against her person, not much can be done… especially if the parties involved are minors. It’s not because law enforcement doesn’t want to help, it’s more because the laws are behind the curve, investigating cyberbullying is time consuming, and many local jurisdictions just don’t have the resources/training needed to catch someone. All that to say, if things have crossed a line, I’d go ahead and file a police report.
- REPORT Facebook (Instagram is a Facebook company, too.) will act on reports. (Facebook help topic / Instagram help topic / Ask.fm abuse policy) Make sure that she’s reporting these accounts that are targeting her, spreading lies about her, etc. Facebook will disable the accounts and can actually block that person’s IP or phone from creating new accounts. I don’t know if Ask.fm will act on abuse reports, but I would suggest going through the abuse report process for the sake of documenting what’s happened.
- BE PROACTIVE The fastest way for her to make it go away? Don’t go to Ask.fm, delete the apps from her phone. It might not be fair to her but it really will make it go away because it’s only “fun” or meaningful to the person targeting her if she is impacted by it. If she just doesn’t go there anymore and she tells her friends she doesn’t want to hear about it… it won’t be worth it for them.
- ACTIVATE It’s really important that she get her friends protecting her instead of playing a part in terrorizing her by telling her every time someone does it. It sounds like her friends are inadvertently playing part of the problem when they should be defending or protecting her from it. “If you hear someone gossiping about me, don’t bring it to me, tell that person to shut up.“
Reminders for Adults
Because of my work in schools and churches with teenagers I talk to a lot of adults who find themselves dealing with cyberbullying, well beyond their expertise or even understanding. Commonly, I hear things like “Why don’t they just ignore it? How come they can’t just delete the apps?”
As Danah Boyd points out in her book, It’s Complicated you need to understand, as an adult, that you and I use social media in an entirely different way than the teenagers in your life do.
For adults, a lot of social media apps are socially optional… they are how we network or connect with far away friends. Many adults use social media because someone told them they should, for work or networking purposes.
But for teenagers– who largely have no physical place to hang out that’s adult-free, online places are what Danah calls, “networked publics.” In other words, online places like Ask.fm or Twitter serve the same functional purpose as when you or I hung out at the mall. So to simply walk away from those networked publics is literally walking away from their social life… and that’s so difficult that many teenagers would rather deal with the abuse than be disconnected.
Additionally, cyberbullying is hard, developmentally, for a teenager to understand. The asymmetrical attack feels so personal, degrading– exposing their worst fears about what people might be thinking about them but not saying. And since they can’t figure out where it’s coming from they may start to think that EVERYONE is somehow agreeing with the attacker. Since it feels like it’s coming from everywhere and no one seems to be able to stop it, it’s easy for a teenager to deduce that everyone must agree with the attacker… “That’s what everyone secretly thinks about me, even my best friends.”
Of course that’s not really true. It can be difficult for a teenager to speculate why the attacks are happening. And it might be too abstract– even more difficult– to understand that hurt people bully others to try to make themselves feel better and that they are just the object of someone else’s insecurities.
As an adult, we know that you just have to stand up to bullying. We know that you just have to tell your friends and the anonymous person… “Until you are ‘man enough’ to stand up to me and say those things to my face, you’re just a weak wanna-be bully.”
Adults know that only a scared, injured, weak person would ever seek to terrorize someone behind the veil of perceived anonymity.
But for a teenager? Standing up to the abuse might not seem to be the right way to go. That feels risky because while it might be the right thing to do in real life, taboos are different online– and breaking a taboo could get her ostracized even more.
Meanwhile, her some parts of her culture are telling her that she shouldn’t stand up for herself… she’s the victim… she should have others stand up for her.
I share all of this because as an adult, you need to acknowledge that this is a real catch-22 for your teenager. It may seem cut-and-dry for you. But for her it’s a real dilemma.
To review, I don’t think ignoring it is going to make it go away. She needs to take some steps to report it and make it clear she won’t be a victim.
At the same time, you and her parents need to be on the lookout for how this is impacting her. Cyberbullying can quickly spin into a dangerous depression. There have been LOTS of instances where this has turned into suicide attempts or on campus violence. The fact that she told a trusted adult was a HUGE step, so three cheers for her on taking that risk.
Now, as that trusted adult, it’s your responsibility to help her find resolution.
If you’ve found this helpful, please share it with other educators or youth workers who might benefit. If you’re looking for more advice on social media, please see the Stuff for Parents tab in the menu above. Lastly, I co-authored a book with Mark Oestreicher called A Parent’s Guide to Understanding Social Media, which shares six principles of social media and how to integrate them into your goals as a parent.
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