How to Stop Cyberbullying: Digital Citizenship for Children

Last updated on May 24th, 2018 at 05:07 pm

“Cyberbullying” or “electronic aggression” means deliberately using technology such as smartphones, the internet, social media, or gaming environments to harass, humiliate, badmouth, or threaten someone. Like any form of bullying, online bullying can poison someone’s joy in life, reputation, and well being. An antidote is a substance that can counteract a form of poisoning, and teaching digital citizenship can be a powerful antidote to cyberbullying.

A citizen is an inhabitant of a place – and the online world is a place where most young people live a great deal of the time. According to Mike Ribble, author of Digital Citizenship in Schools and Raising a Digital Child, parents and educators are often like immigrants to the online world, while their children are like digital natives.

Many adults are intimidated because technology changes constantly and rapidly, and it can be hard to keep up with it unless you grew up with it. Fortunately, the values and behavior of a good citizen are the same regardless of whether you are online or in the “real” world.

A commitment to act with respect, safety, and kindness towards yourself and others knows no boundaries. The knowledge of how to protect yourself from harmful words, whether you hear them or see them, is the same. The importance of staying mindful is relevant no matter where you are. And bullying is unsafe, disrespectful behavior, whether it happens in person, on paper, or with electrons.

Here are five steps that parents and educators can take to teach their children and teens about what it means to be a good digital citizen in ways that will help to prevent and stop cyberbullying.

1. Set a good example.

Remember that the actions of young people’s close adults have a powerful influence on what they will do. As one teacher told me, “At our small private school, parents were gossiping, online and offline, about the troubles of one family. It is not surprising that their children started posting insults about a boy in that family who was having a hard time.”

Let the children and teens in your life see you choosing to stay respectful even when you are upset. Let them see you reaching out to communicate in person directly and respectfully with someone with whom you have a problem rather than complaining behind this individual’s back. Or, if this doesn’t work, going in person to someone who is in a position to do something about the issue. Let them see you state disagreements objectively and politely, without name-calling or sarcasm. Let them see you choosing NOT to “like” or share a post or photo that is hurtful or disrespectful, even if it seems amusing. If you make a mistake, let them see you saying so – and showing how you are going to make amends.

State your disapproval when people in positions of power and prestige act in harmful or disrespectful ways, even if you appreciate their winning a game, enjoy their music or films, or agree with their politics. Model balance by turning your technology off and doing something together out in nature or with other people without being connected electronically.

2. Stay connected with your children’s worlds online and everywhere else.

Every day, thousands of kids think about ending their lives because of cyberbullying. They endure torment their own parents don’t learn about until an emergency, such as a suicide attempt, calls the problem to their attention. Tragically, this is sometimes too late.

Protect and supervise kids until they are truly prepared to make safe and wise choices themselves. Kids are safest when their adults know who is with them, what they are doing, and where they are going. Remember that with technology, even if you are side by side with a child, you won’t necessarily know what online content they are consuming unless you are looking at the same screen. Discuss the Kidpower Protection Promise with all the young people in your care: “You are very important to me. If you have a safety problem, I want to know – even if I seem too busy, even someone we care about will be upset, even if it is embarrassing, even if you promised not to tell, and even if you made a mistake. Please tell me, and I will do everything in my power to help you.” Point out that cyberbullying is a safety problem.

3. Treat kids’ freedom in the use of communication devices as a privilege, not an automatic right.

As one mother explained, “I was horrified when I learned that my daughter had texted embarrassing photos and attacking remarks about a couple of kids on her swim team. I heavily restricted her use of her devices until she wrote an essay about the harm done by cyberbullying and gave it in person along with an apology to her teammates and coach that she rehearsed with me ahead of time to make sure that it was respectful and clear. Although she was furious with me, I felt that my child needed to understand the seriousness of this kind of behavior and to make amends.”

Make clear agreements so that young people know what their responsibilities are as digital citizens. Kidpower’s free Digital Citizenship and Safety Agreement provides a template you can use and adapt for your specific needs.

4. Teach kids not to do anything online that they wouldn’t want the world to see.

One transgender teen was shocked when they found out that a boy they had trusted had encouraged them to text about their feelings about their gender identity – and then forwarded these very personal messages to a bunch of other kids, along with sneering comments. The boy who did this was shocked to discover that he got into big trouble for cyberbullying that he had thought no adult would ever know about, especially since he had deleted the forwarded messages.

Young people need to understand that even though a communication seems very private and anonymous, and even if the developers claim their platform is private, what they do using technology leaves an electronic footprint that can become public, including to potential employers or college admissions offices. In addition, even if they delete it later, an electronic communication can spread very far and very fast, with much greater consequences than they ever intended. Sending or receiving sexually explicit photos of anyone under 18 years old, even if intended to be privately shared, and even if the photos are “selfies,” can be considered child pornography and trigger serious legal consequences.

5. Teach young people how to take charge of their safety and well being, online and everywhere else.

Part of good citizenship is knowing how to act if you have a problem that harms the well being of you or someone else. If you get or see a threatening or harmful message, don’t answer back and don’t delete. Take a screenshot, and go tell an adult you trust. One boy, “Max”, asked his parents for help after a couple of former friends had put up a Facebook page saying “I hate Max” that was “liked” by hundreds of kids in his high school. As you can imagine, this experience was devastating. Max says, “What helped me was having the support of my parents who got Facebook to take the page down and who kept telling me that what happened was not my fault; going to a counselor; going to a Teenpower class to practice what to do when you have problems with people; and finding some new friends.”

Practice Kidpower ‘People Safety’ skills such as how to: protect your feelings from hurtful words; set boundaries with yourself and others; communicate and connect with people in positive ways; stay in charge of what you say or do no matter how you feel inside; move away from trouble; and be persistent in getting help from busy adults. Practice ways to speak up, say “No” and “Stop”, and use other peer diversion tactics, and practice persisting in the face of negative reactions. Practice putting your hands down and stepping away from the technology when you feel tempted to post, agree with, or share something hurtful or disrespectful. Kidpower International provides educational materials and training in how to teach these skills to people of all ages, abilities, cultures, beliefs, and identities.

Finally, understanding about digital citizenship is useful for much more than stopping cyberbullying. As defined by Mike Ribble, digital citizenship has nine major themes for describing appropriate and inappropriate uses of digital technology (Ribble, Bailey & Ross, 2004; Ribble & Bailey, 2004a). They include: Rights, Safety, Security, Access, Communication, Etiquette, Responsibility, Education, and Commerce. CommonSense Media has a free curriculum with k-12 lessons based on these themes.

 

About the Author

Irene van der Zande is the Founder and Executive Director of Kidpower Teenpower Fullpower International, a global nonprofit leader dedicated to child protection advocacy and teaching people of all ages and abilities life skills for safety and success. Families, schools, and organizations worldwide use Kidpower's effective and empowering curriculum to prepare children and teens, along with their adults, with skills and strategies to prevent and solve problems with people and to stay safe from most bullying, abuse, kidnapping and other violence. Irene is the author of many publications including The Kidpower Book for Caring Adults: Personal Safety, Self-Protection, Confidence, and Advocacy for Young People; cartoon-illustrated Safety Comics and Teaching Books; the Relationship Safety Handbook for Teens and Adults; and Solve Bullying With Kidpower. Since 1989, Kidpower has served nearly 5 million people through its workshops, partnerships, and educational resources. https://www.kidpower.org

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