Letters — 23 August 2013 — by Beatrice Geban, M. Ed.

Dear Editor,

Kindly allow me a space in your leading newspaper to bring to the general public an awareness of cyberbullying, which has now become commonplace amongst our digital natives and a society that has become fixated on sexuality and acts of crime against minors. The intention of the article is to take an in-depth analysis of what is cyberbullying, adverse effects on the victim, the bully and his role in cyber-attacks, parental involvement in preventing cyber -attacks and how our youth can safeguard their privacy.

Cyberbullying has become a ubiquitous phenomenon, impacting the well-being of individuals, educational institution, family and peer relationships of many young people. According to an online research the legal definition of cyberbullying refers to: actions that use information and communication technologies to support deliberate, repeated, and hostile behaviour by an individual or group, that is intended to harm another or others; use of communication technologies for the intention of harming another person; use of internet service and mobile technologies, such as web pages and discussion groups as well as instant messaging or SMS text messaging, with the intention of harming another person.

Cyberbullying constitutes communications that seek to intimidate, control, manipulate, put down, falsely discredit, or humiliate. The actions are deliberate, repeated, and hostile behaviour intended to harm another or the recipient.

A cyberbully may be a person whom the target knows or an online stranger. A cyberbully may be anonymous and may solicit involvement of other people online who do not even know the target. This is known as a “digital pile-on.”

Recently in Belize, cyberbully has become the norm. Social media sites which can be of great benefit to everyone, particularly of economic interest through investments and networking, have been used in inappropriate ways for personal gratification of individuals seeking revenge on others because of limitations which they might possess. There have been recent cases of young women/girls posted on facebook in very demeaning and disturbing ways by individuals who lack moral fibre. Questions that come to mind include, why would someone post naked pictures of another person on Facebook? How will the bully benefit by scandalizing someone else? Why do the bystanders commit the same crime as the bully by passing the pictures around via their phones and computers? How will these bystanders react if it was one of their family members being degraded in such a manner? What led the victim to take pictures of such nature? Why are our young females so naïve to flirtation and charm?

Malcolm X’s famous quote indicates, “If you don’t stand for something, you will fall for anything.” Individuals who participate in gross misconduct such as child pornography by passing along and emailing others nude pictures of someone are considered just as guilty as paedophiles.

In our society we have been hearing about bullying occurring in most/all schools for a quite a while now. Traditional bullying involves acts such as teasing, name- calling, kicking, fist fighting, exclusion due to economic status/ differences in ethnicity, taking away of someone’s break money or snacks, the removal of someone’s property without permission and the list goes on. In this century, traditional bullying has been upgraded to a new level. Technological devices have become the weapons of destruction. Bullies are said to be mean individuals who at times have been abused themselves. They commit violent crimes against people who appear to be vulnerable and who might not have the support system in place they readily need to protect themselves.

In addition, it is observed that some bullies are encouraged by their parents and so they are never reprimanded nor given the proper guidance they need to become a more responsible person. Readings suggests that young males tend to be the primary perpetrators and victims of traditional bullying behaviour; however, there seems to be some contradiction where cyberbullying is concerned. Recent research has shown that cyberbullying appears to follow a gender pattern opposite to what occurs offline. Girls tend to report slightly higher involvement than boys in this form of bullying, both as bullies and victims.

All forms of abuse have a detrimental effect to a person’s mental and physical health. Victims can experience significant social isolation and feel unsafe. It can lead to emotional and physical harm, loss of self-esteem, feelings of shame and anxiety, concentration and learning difficulties. Incidents of young people committing suicide have also been linked with cyberbullying.

Readings indicates that students who experience cyberbullying are more likely to:

Use alcohol and drugs as a means to hide their emotional pain
Skip school so as avoid perpetrators
Experience in-person bullying
Experience drastic change in school performance resulting in poorer grades
Have lower self-esteem and self- image
Suffer from more health problems such as headaches, upset stomach, trouble sleeping/insomnia
Develop a fear of technology
Exhibit depression and anxiety
Change in dress style: A few start wearing dark shades to hide who they are or the situation they are in
Have increased thoughts about suicide that may persist into adulthood. In one study, adults who recalled being bullied in youth were three times more likely to have suicidal thoughts or inclinations.

Contrary to popular belief, bullies often have high self-esteem. Bullies can lose their moral compass when driven by their peers. Literary pieces on bullying emphasize that friends of bullies that encourage and support them in mischief making make them stronger. Friends become the catalyst for bullies to continue demoralizing others.

Catherine Bradshaw, a developmental psychologist who studies bullying at the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore, suggested in her research that children bully because of creating exclusion and it’s all about a struggle for achieving power. The power brings them popularity and high social status amongst their peers.

Bullying expert Dorothy Espelage, a psychologist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, indicated in her research that bullies and their supporters go through a peer socialization process. Bullies tend to have more friends than their victims and that bullies are not socially rejected. They portray an image as though they are untouchable and they instill fear in those considered vulnerable.

According to Frank Peretti, there are two basic reasons why kids bully. One reason a child bullies is because he (or she) has a deep troubling need of his own and is picked on or feels that he does not have a very successful life.

Arguably, another reason kids bully is that they may fall into a trap by thinking that bullying is just “the cool thing to do,” especially in front of their friends. Sometimes bullies are those kids who are good students, athletes, or the kids who seem to have everything going for them.

Presently, there are several families affected drastically by the acts of cyberbullying in Belize. Pictures and sexual images of individuals are circulated with the intention to defame and slander. Some individuals who are familiar with these families affected by cyberbullying speak out and offer support to the families to cope with the backlash and ripple effect, while others only protect their interest because it does not affect their teenaged son/daughter.

As the cyberbullying practice continues, there have been reports that even our educators have become intertwined with such malicious behaviour. Teachers post up messages attacking teachers, students attack teachers and visa-versa. The entire educational system becomes under scrutiny when teachers fail to act maturely and show professionalism. The cyber war has gone viral and will spiral if there are no policies in place to protect individuals who are maliciously attacked.

Cyberbullying will never stop unless legislation/s is implemented to protect victims and families both at the school and judicial level. Support groups and NGO’s that protect young people need to become stronger advocates and bring about changes that will benefit all young people rather than sweeping certain problems under the rug. Some individuals adopt the view that since it does not affect their family they don’t need to show any interest.

Some teenagers feel that they have to participate in the right to passage to belong to a particular clique. In other words, they will do whatever it takes to belong and feel as though they are part of the group. If parents don’t fill the void then our young people will be recruited by individuals with greater influences.

Some teenagers make very bad decisions as they progress through puberty that affect their reputation and the way people perceive them. Cyberbullying is just the tool used to distort and destroy them when those pictures/images that are explicit fall into the wrong hands.

Some affluent kids are of the opinion that they can infringe on the rights of everybody because they have a better economic status and their parents can pay an elite attorney to represent them no matter what the situation might be. Cyberbullying will be their tool of destruction since some believe when pictures/messages are sent their ip address can’t be located.

Cyberbullying has found its place into the Belizean culture and that there is a cadre of personalities that is in delight with fetish images.

Media houses need to become pioneers and beacons for more positive changes in a society that has become polluted with filth that is aired and broadcast on a daily basis. In addition, media houses should be the avenue by which positive programs promoting values, respect and all the other character traits are infused into the society.

Parents need to monitor everything that their child is doing on Facebook and open the door for active dialogue to occur. Only through communication will parents know what their child is experiencing or even doing. Simultaneously, parents should screen their children’s friends in an effort to minimize peer pressure and negative influences that could be learnt through socialization.

All schools in liaison with their education board, the Police Department and legal representatives need to develop policies with more stringent repercussions for such heinous crimes. Many schools do not have cyberbullying policies in place and so the administrative team finds it difficult in dealing with such infractions. The entire school becomes under disrepute when one student is scandalized. Therefore, there is a great need for such processes to be included in disciplinary plans.

Parents who recognized that their child is a bully need to be realistic and seek professional help. Bullies are human beings and they are also hurting inside. An intervention is needed to address the problems and curb behaviours that ultimately may destroy the person.

As we embrace another academic school year I advise all parents to dedicate some time everyday to assist their child with his/her work. Don’t take things for granted. Our children need us regardless of their age. It might appear to us that they have all grown up because they are attending high school but this is a very crucial time in their lives. Peer pressure is so influential and damaging.

Here are a few things that you could do to open the door for communication and to safeguard your child’s privacy.

How to protect your child:

Talk with your child about netiquette, how to behave and communicate politely over the Internet and mobile devices. Importantly, teach children to never say something about someone online that they wouldn’t say to that person face-to-face. Bullying others, online or in person, is never appropriate behavior. Make sure your child understands that comments and images posted on the Internet can be long-lasting and have a global audience. Teach your child to keep the passwords to their online accounts private. Create passwords that are a combination of letters and numbers and are difficult to guess. Passwords should not be shared with friends, not even a best friend. Talk to your child about how to handle strong emotions, such as anger. It is never appropriate to send a message or post a comment on the Internet when you are angry or emotional.

If your child receives an angry or taunting message, teach them to refrain from responding and to tell a responsible adult. Responding to these types of messages could encourage a bully to continue to pick on the victim.

Know how much time your child is spending on the Internet and mobile device. Enjoy the Internet with your child. If you are unable to sit down together at the computer, at least know what activities they are doing online. Consider installing parental control software to monitor your child’s activities and limit the Web sites that are available.

Encourage your local schools to educate the students on cyber ethics and the law.

Sources:

http://www.boystown.com.au/downloads/rep/BT-Research-Report-Cyberbullying.pdf

http://news.discovery.com/human/psychology/bullying-phoebe-prince-teens.htm

http://www.mysecurecyberspace.com/articles/family-room/a-parents-role-in-putting-a-stop-to-cyberbullying.html

Beatrice Geban, M. Ed.
Principal
St. Mary’s Primary School

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