What Parents Need to Know About Cyberbullying

As parents, we know high school is hard. We think we understand the pressures and risks our teens face every day – after all, we were once their age. But the nagging thought in the back of our minds is the fear that we have no idea. No idea.

Undercover High reveals truths about cyberbullying

Glancing at high school as a parent, it can appear as though nothing has changed. The buildings look exactly like the hallways we walked decades earlier and, in many cases, they are. Teachers still remark to students arriving late, “Nice of you to join us.” Kids still mouth off to authority and self-segregate in the cafeteria in ways that are reminiscent of The Breakfast Club.

But scratch just below the surface and so much has changed.

What is high school like with 24/7 messaging? What is it like with Instagram-curated versions of everyone’s lives on display?  What happens when groups of boys can cybergang up on a single girl and speak about her in the crudest possible terms, emboldened by the fact that no one needs to make eye contact? What is school like with the incessant barrage of Snapchats and messages creating an almost endless string of distractions? What is it like when kids can send out a silent message announcing that they are going to kill themselves with just three letters?

Some of the facts are frightening.

Social Media, Cyberbullying, and Teens: The Facts

  • 1 in 3 teens have experienced online harassment and girls are much more likely than boys to be the victim. (Pew)
  • 18% of older teens have had someone forward or publicly post a private message.
  • The more active a teen is online with sharing their thoughts and feelings or writing a blog, the more likely they are to be bullied.
  • 41% of girls ages 15-17 say they have been cyberbullied.

This is not the offline cruelty we experienced as teens just taken into a different space. With ease of transmission, embarrassing words or photos can be amplified beyond what the original sender could have ever have imagined. Cyberbullying is a whole new realm and the repercussions can be tragic. A very recent study showed that “Children and young people under-25 who become victims of cyberbullying are more than twice as likely to enact self-harm and attempt suicide than non-victims.”

While social media can feel like an area where we are cut out of our kids’ lives, here is the good news. When assessing the extent of undesirable behavior online, researchers found that parents are still the top sources of information for teens on how to use the internet and social media responsibly. (Pew)

What if we truly knew what our kids were going through every day? What if we got a look, a fly on the wall view, of real high school life? Wouldn’t we understand some of the stress our kids endure if we could see those texts and Facebook messages and if we knew what they were really saying to each other?

We recently previewed “Undercover High,” a new docuseries on A&E that follows seven young adults who pose as typical students – attending classes, making friends and participating in school clubs and activities –to provide an inside look at what it’s like to be a teenager today.

One of the many issues that came up during the series is Cyberbullying, how it occurs and how kids are emboldened to denigrate and threaten each other online. The participants went “undercover” at Highland Park High School in Topeka Kansas, along with camera crews, the support of two mental health professionals and select members of the school administration, for a first-hand look at what high school life is like today. As the cameras follow the seven over the course of the Spring 2016 semester, we travel with them, reading their texts, sitting in their classes, eating lunch right alongside them in the cafeteria and relive high school all over again.

Highland Park High School is, a large diverse public high school with, as the principal notes, every type of kid you would find in any high school in America. Why did these administrators allow the cameras into their school and the adults into their classrooms? They wanted to identify issues impacting all youth for a deeper understanding of their reality.

The young adults in Undercover High are all in their early to mid-twenties and are shocked by how much high school had changed since they were there. Yes, well. Is it any wonder that those of us who went to high school in a DIFFERENT CENTURY struggle to understand?

I am not going to tell you that a TV show is going to solve this. It’s not. You will still worry about your teens and often feel out of your depth in trying to understand their world. But watching this show will give you a vantage point I have never seen before and a touch of insight, some of it very sad, of the world our kids live in every day.

The inside look at life at Highland Park High School is riveting, eye-opening, and, at moments, even funny. It’s a glimpse into what digital connectivity does to our kids and how they can navigate its dangers. At its very best, Undercover High can be the jumping off point for a long, very important conversation with our own teens.

Here are a few suggestions from experts and experienced parents on how we can help:

Parenting Teens: What Works

  1. Stay close to your teen. Experts tell us to watch closely for changes in mood, weight, energy levels, grades or sleep and eating patterns. The first signs that your teen is being bullied might look like depression.
  2. Watch for sudden changes in friend groups, avoiding former friends or seeming nervous or agitated while texting or talking on the phone. “Friends” are often the bully and your teen may be reluctant to admit it.
  3. Learn how much information your teen shares online with those they don’t know in real life.
  4. Don’t assume you know anything for certain. Grown and Flown runs a Facebook group of 50,000+ parents of kids 15-25 and a common theme is that many of us think our teens were too well-behaved to engage in whatever form of trouble they now find themselves in.
  5. Familiarize yourself with who is available to provide help at school and urge your child to develop relationships with teachers and counselors before there is a problem. Research shows that the role of mentors is a very important one in young adult’s lives and it is easier to bring a problem to one of these adults if the relationship is already in place. If your teen can’t talk about the problem with you, these adults who are closer to the problem might be an option.
  6. Teens lie. Reckon with that fact and hold it secure in the back of your mind. Studies show that even if they are the victim of cyberbullying they may not come forward with evidence and may even cover it up. Just because they say it isn’t happening, doesn’t mean it isn’t.
  7. Keep in contact with the parents of your kid’s friends. These adults don’t have to be your friends but know them well enough to be able to text or call when you have concerns; they may know things you don’t about what is happening.
  8. While much controversy surrounds tracking apps, think long and hard if you have a reason to worry about your kid and, perhaps, use one. Parents have averted trouble for their teens with Life360 and others. Only you can say if this is right for your family.
  9. Sit down and have your kids explain the power of social media to you in the context of how it is used in their school. Don’t ask for names, or real examples as this will shut them down, but have them give you cases of how it is used and abused.

Talk about the way they feel looking on when online cruelty happens. Talk about how they would feel if they were a target. Put them in the role of teacher. Acknowledge that this is new to you, that parents have much to learn about social media. This is a long conversation, one that will grow deeper with trust. If they know you are wanting to understand their world, not jump in and grab their devices, it will go much better.

Parenting humbles us all. The two best things we can do as parents of teens is to try hard to remember what it feels like to be in high school, and to set boundaries and clear rules about our expectations for our teens. Kids need to know that we understand their challenges, but they also need to know exactly where the limits are.

As we watch one of the adults in Undercover High stare lost and confused during an Algebra 2 lecture, she admits to having failed the class twice when she was a teen in high school. Her sense of frustration, old and new, is painted across her face and she asks, “Why did I do this? I really hated high school and still do.”

Undercover High premiered on January 9, 2018.

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