Ernest Dempsey — The suicide of the Canadian teenager Amanda Todd has hit newsrooms around the world as fiercely as it has thepeace of parents some of whom take bullying as something routine. With Amanda Todd’s suicide, the role of cyber bullying has again come to the spotlight as something no less than life-threatening for youngsters, while at the same time the powerful influence of social media and its abuse are also worth discussing to create awareness about this issue.
Holli Kenley today joins me to talk about bullying, in particular cyber bullying, and its psychological impact on the victim. A therapist and educator, she is expert on the topic of bullying and the author of the book Cyber Bullying No More: Parenting A High Tech Generation (Loving Healing Press, 2011).
Ernest: Holli, thank you for taking time for talking about this topic. First, what do you think about Amanda Todd’s suicide?
Holli: Once again, I am sickened and saddened by the ‘silencing’ of another young person – Amanda Todd. As a mother myself, I cannot imagine a worse nightmare. While watching the TV last night, I saw the news and heard about the tragic end to Amanda’s life. From all of the information that I have been able to gather, I absolutely see this as a result of bullying. More importantly, Amanda said so ‘in her own words’.
Ernest: Is it something new that teenagers would go to this extreme as a result of bullying?
Holli: Tragically, we have added a new word to the English vocabulary – bullycide or cyberbullicide: a suicide attributable to the victim having been bullied – either in person or via social media. Although there are cases as far back as 2003, I first heard about bullycide with the death of Megan Meier in 2006 as the result of chronic bullying and cyber bullying. Phoebe Prince took her own life in 2010, after years of bullying/cyber bullying. Unthinkably, after cruel and disgusting comments were posted on Phoebe’s internet memorial page, it was taken down. Many of us also know of Tyler Clementi’s cyberbullicide – a college student and a gifted violinist who took his own life after having his private life ‘outed’ on the internet. As is true with most suicides, the victims do not see a way out of their pain. They just want it to stop.
Ernest: Please tell our readers how cyber bullying works against young people’s well-being and what is the role of social media in it?
Holli: Social media (or any other electronic form of communication) is the ‘vehicle’ for which bullies can effectuate their antagonistic agendas. A young person who is cyber bullied (especially over time) suffers from depression, anxiety, PTSD, and other mood disorders. They feel helpless, hopeless, fearful, insecure, and alone. Many times victims do not report because they are afraid no one will believe them; they do not think anyone can or will do anything; and often times, they believe they will be blamed. Thus, most cyber victims suffer in silence.
Ernest: Is the psychological impact of cyber-bullying as strong as bullying in person?
Holli: I am not aware of any research that suggests that ‘traditional bullying’ is more or less psychologically detrimental than ‘cyber bullying’. What we do know is that the longer the bullying occurs (traditional or cyber), the higher the degree of distress on the victim. However – with cyber bullying – because of the bully’s ease of access, the ‘anonymity’ which protects and detaches the bully from the victim, and with the ‘power differential’ between the bully and victim (often with countless bystanders), cyber bullying lends itself to repeated and limitless victimization. Dr. Martin H. Teicher, Director Developmental Bio-psychiatry Research Program (McLean Hospital; Department of Psychiatry, Harvard Medical School) has reported in recent research (2011) that MRI films showing the changes in the brain and the emotional toxicity to youth from exposure to ridicule and humiliation from parents and peers parallel that of sexual abuse by a non-family member. When I look at a standard definition of cyber bullying – “…an aggressive, intentional act, carried out by a group or individual, using electronic forms of contact, repeatedly and over time, against a victim who cannot easily defend him or herself” (Smith, et al. 2008), I have only one interpretation. Cyber bullying is a form of abuse. Our children suffer the same damaging effects.
Ernest: Do you think parents are generally aware of the force of cyber bullying?
Holli: I do think there is a percentage of parents or guardians who are not aware of the force of cyber bullying because they are not actively involved in the monitoring or supervision of, or learning about their child’s ‘on-line life or relationship with technology’. At the same time, I believe most people are not aware of the myriad of different types of cyber bullying (flaming, denigration, outing, trickery, exclusion, harassment, social combatting), and thus, are not aware of their disastrous implications. Another important point to be made is that many parents and guardians who are aware of cyber bullying or traditional bullying have not been able to secure the resources and support needed to help them in addressing the problem.
Ernest: Amanda Todd is said to have become extremely lonely and apparently she ended her life to stop the pain of no one being there for her. Now, I would like to know how living in a high-tech society is making our children feel so lonely, so abandoned.
Holli: This is a very complex question, and an extremely important one. First of all, we need to remember that ‘behavior is the problem; technology is the vehicle’. However, because we are living in a time where ‘aggression’ is becoming more and more of a normative behavior and because individuals have such accessibility to their ‘vehicles’, we see that cyber bullying itself is becoming a normative behavior – not just between bully and victim, but in ordinary relationships as well.
Secondly, because we, as a society, are spending an increasing amount of time communicating electronically (which is a form of indirect communication), we do not experience the same social restraints as if we communicated ‘face to face’. Although there are extraordinary benefits to technology, as our children continue to increase their dependence upon it for their source of communication, they tend to become more isolated, less socially skilled, and more importantly, they tend to ‘detach from the feelings and emotions’ of another individual. There is increasing research from such behavioral experts as Albert Bandura that suggest that chronic electronic communication accompanied with learned aggression facilitate an increase in ‘moral detachment’ – a lack of empathy for another individual.
Lastly, although we must remember that ‘aggressive behavior is the problem’, we are finding out how ‘technology itself’ acts to reinforce aggressive behavior. When children communicate electronically, there is little or no oversight or monitoring; thus, behavior goes unchecked. When bullies harm another individual, there is often no consequence or accountability for their behavior. Peers and unknowns often encourage and motivate toxic viral messages. All of these factors serve to reinforce and condition unhealthy patterns of behavior. And, all too often there is little or no outside regulation (legal ramifications) to hold the bully responsible for his/her behaviors. Ironically, I have often said to myself, “In a society where we are electronically more closely connected than we have ever been, we are clearly becoming more socially disconnected.”
Ernest: Tell us a little about your book. Is it for parents with teenagers and whether it has some solutions to the problem of cyber bullying?
Holli: First, I want to say that many of us as children were bullied. I know I was. A nine-year-old girl at school, who was bigger and stronger than me, pushed me around and hit me for years. It was awful! As an adult, I started hearing about young boys and girls taking their lives because of bullying and cyber bullying. Enough is enough! I knew it was time to take action and I wanted to do something to help. And from that Cyber Bullying No More; Parenting A High Tech Generation was created. Parents and guardians will learn how to Protect their children, Intervene when their children are bullied (or are bullying), and Prevent cyber bullying from happening. And yes, it has solutions! It is a ‘road –map’ of straight forward parenting strategies – what you need to know and what tools to put into practice to keep parents/guardians on track – so these horrific tragedies do not happen to another family.
Ernest: Holli, you are also an educator. Do you believe our educational institutions need to make special measures to prevent or minimize bullying on premises and in cyber space?
Holli: Of course, schools need to do their part. They need to have ‘Acceptable Use Policies’ (that are enforceable!), and they need to implement ‘Digital Citizenship Classes’ (during advisory or home room periods). They need to have anonymous reporting systems in place with counseling and peer helper programs to serve the victims. They need to have policies in place to protect victims (again enforceable) and programs such as ‘Restorative Justice’ which work effectively to change the attitudes and behaviors of bullies. It does not make sense if a school has a safe school philosophy, but has no policies or programs to support it.
At the same time, schools cannot solve this problem alone! This is a social issue – a toxic societal behavior. Parents need to their part: keep pace, educate themselves, establish trust with their kids, communicate responsibilities, monitor the use of technology, model appropriate behaviors, and work with their schools and communities. Parents and guardians must learn to be present and available in their child’s lives, and they must take the time to guide them as they navigate the cyber world.
Youth must be taught to do their part as well: they need to be educated about the uses, dangers, risks and consequences of technology; they must be expected to honor Internet Use Agreements or Policies and be held accountable if they do not.
Community organizations, faith-based organization, service clubs, and forums for advocacy need to step up and do their part as well. A popular program that is taking hold and growing is “Not In Our Town” – where bullying and cyber bullying are being stopped in their tracks! Why – because everyone is helping out. Everyone cares!
And Law Enforcement plays a significant role as well. They need to uphold the laws, support victims’ rights, and hold the bullies accountable for the harm they have inflicted.
We are all in this together. No ONE is to blame. EVERYONE is responsible in making this better.
Ernest: What advice you have for parents many of whom I am sure are now worried as hell about the safety of their own kids, following what happened to Amanda Todd?
Holli: There is so much to say. The most important message I can send is that in my 30 years of teaching and 15 plus years as a Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist, I NEVER had a parent or guardian or client come to me and say, “Holli, I knew too much.” It was always…. “I wish I had known…. why didn’t I know… I had no idea it was this bad….” Get involved – now! There is a section in Cyber Bullying No More on Intervention that gives parents/guardians tools to break through the communication barriers with their children. You don’t ever want to be the person saying, “I wish I would have known…”
I know many parents and guardians are struggling right now. You are hurting. Please know…. you are not alone. There is help. There is hope. Together, we can turn this tragic tidal wave of toxic behavior around. I, and many others, stand with you.
Ernest: Thank you very much Holli for sharing your thoughts with our readers!
Holli: If this helps to save one more life, I can be more at peace.
For helpful and guiding information on this and related topics, follow Holli Kenley’s blog http://wellnesswithholli.blogspot.com/