Are Kids Meaner Than Ever?

The Internet has provided an outlet for a whole new level of bullying.

While bullies now have social media to spread their hurtful words, some still stick to old-fashioned schoolyard taunting. (Photo: trix0r/Creative Commons via Flickr)

School bullies have been terrorizing children since the days of the one-room school house, but they’ve only recently become the focus of political campaigns and media attention.

Today’s bullies take cruelty and meanness to a whole new level, making the lives of victims so unbearable that some are even driven to suicide.

Last month, a nationwide Associated Press-MTV poll of 1,355 kids ages 14-24 found that 56 percent were the target of some type of online taunting, harassment, or bullying.

The percentage of youngsters who frequently saw people being mean to each other on social networking sites jumped from 45 percent in 2009 to 55 percent in 2011.

Dr. Sameer Hinduja is an Associate Professor at Florida Atlantic University, as well as codirector of the Cyberbullying Research Center. He cowrote Bullying Beyond the Schoolyard: Preventing and Responding to Cyberbullying, and works both nationally and internationally with the public and private sector to reduce online victimization and its consequences.

In a recent interview with TakePart, Dr. Hinduja suggested that while it may seem like kids today are crueler and more relentless than the bullies of yesteryear, they simply have more sophisticated communication tools at their disposal.

“I don’t think kids are meaner than they used to be,” he began. “I just think that cyberbullying has unique components to it....Victims often do not know who the bully is, or why they are being targeted. The cyberbully can cloak his or her identity behind a computer or cell phone using anonymous email addresses or pseudonymous screen names.”

Not only does technology make it easier for kids to say and do things they wouldn’t face to face, but it increases the potential audience of onlookers.

“The hurtful actions of a cyberbully are viral,” Hinduja explained. “A large number of people (at school, in the neighborhood, in the city, in the world) can be involved in a cyber-attack on a victim, or at least find out about the incident with a few keystrokes or clicks of the mouse. The perception, then, is that absolutely everyone knows about it.” 

Hinduja said that although digital victimization rates still tend to be lower than real-world bullying, both forms of aggression often occur simultaneously because teens spend so much time tethered to technology.    

“Many kids go online every day for school, work, to keep in touch with their friends, to play games, to learn about celebrities, or for many other reasons. Because the Internet and cell phones have become an important part of their lives, it’s not surprising that some kids have decided to use technology to be malicious or threatening to others.”

RESPONSE AND PREVENTION

For parents wondering how to help cyberbullied children, Hinduja offered several pieces of advice.

First, he recommended conveying unconditional support. Children need to feel safe and secure, he said, and know that caring adults are willing to work with them to end the abuse.

If necessary, parents should explain the importance of scheduling a meeting with school administrators or a trusted teacher. 

Moms and dads might also consider contacting the parents of the offender, or working with their Internet service or cell phone provider to investigate the issue and remove offending material. 

While it may seem like kids today are crueler and more relentless than the bullies of yesteryear, they simply have more sophisticated communication tools at their disposal.

If physical threats are made, or a crime has possibly been committed, parents should not hesitate to contact the police.

What if parents discover that their own child is the aggressor? 

“Depending on the level of seriousness of the incident, and whether it seems that the child has realized the inappropriate nature of his or her behavior, consequences should be firmly applied and escalated if the behavior was repetitive,” Hinduja suggested. 

“If the incident was particularly serious, parents may want to consider installing tracking or filtering software as a consequence…Kids need to learn that inappropriate online actions will not be tolerated.”

Hinduja’s overall message was that parental involvement and monitoring were key factors in promoting responsible behavior and keeping kids safe.

In addition to actively participating in children’s online experiences, parents should consider asking kids to sign an Internet Use Contract and a Family Cell Phone Contract to, as Hinduja put it, “foster a crystal-clear understanding about what is appropriate and what is not with respect to Internet participation and interaction.”    

For more helpful tips, strategies, and resources, visit the Cyberbullying Research Center’s website.

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