“They all just kept saying such mean things about me…I don’t feel like getting out of bed anymore…I don’t know what else to do to make the pain go away.”
As a Licensed Professional Counselor with a practice focused on working with children, adolescents, and their parents, I have no shortage of stories about how cyberbullying impacts the lives of my clients. In my practice, 80% of the youth I work with have disclosed being taunted, teased, or mocked through social media apps like YouTube, Instagram, and SnapChat at least once, with more than 50% sharing repeated instances of cyberbullying. Even when children are not the victims of cyberbullying themselves, bearing witness to their peers attacking one another in semi-anonymous platforms online changes the way children live their lives. Some of my clients avoid engaging in activities that they enjoy for fear of being mocked online, while many others find themselves being swept up in the cyber-storm of making fun of someone online in order to be part of the crowd. Unfortunately, bullying has always been part of growing up, but the nature of bullying has changed – and so must the way adults address it. Consequences to deter bullying might help, but by and large the underlying causes of bullying behavior, as well as the aftermath for victims, remain linked to mental health, an issue that is silently eating at today’s youth.
How is Cyberbullying Different?
Cyberbullying is not your parents’ bullying, literally. Before the days of cell phones, bullying took place primarily in the school yard, with teases and taunts being the primary weapons of choice. Many adults remember being told by their parents to just tell the bullies, “Sticks and stones will break my bones but words can never hurt me,” and to ignore those who would mock them. Today, bullying takes place in cyberspace; an intangible arena that is public, anonymous, permanent, and ever-present. Without having to face their victims in person and relying on the ability to hide their identity, bullies are often less empathetic towards their victims, typing messages that are more vicious than they would ever say in person. And since these messages are all online, there is no limit to where or when bullying can take place. Children and teenagers connect to their world through their cell phones and essentially carry their bullies with them everywhere they go.
What has been done to address this issue?
School officials tend to be the first to find out about bullying incidents, since the school is often the first place parents contact to seek an intervention when their children tell them about being bullied. New Jersey is a leader in legislation addressing harassment, intimidation, and bullying, also known as “HIB.” The robust NJ statute outlines the procedures for school officials to follow when a HIB incident is reported in a way that takes bullying seriously and doesn’t minimize the issue. Other schools across the country are following suit, creating laws ensuring that bullying incidents are properly handled. However, in New Jersey as well as other states, there is a lot of information that must be collected in order to meet the requirements for a HIB incident report. This can be a tedious process and requires that students report incidents in full to school faculty which may place a large burden on the victims and witnesses of bullying.
Getting to the heart of the matter
Reports of behavior incidents are important to record, and then confirmed for accuracy. Anything that can be done to deter and reduce this behavior is very important, but some cyberbullying continues to happen and proper action is needed. HIB paperwork can be cumbersome to complete, but its effects reach far beyond addressing singular incidents of bullying. Children who are victims of cyberbullying are at increased risk of:
- school phobia
- low self-esteem
- suicidal ideation and attempts
Of the youth that share cyberbullying stories with me, each one of them has also reported at least two of the bullet points listed above and almost 30% of these youth have met the diagnostic criteria for Major Depressive Disorder.
Victims aren’t the only ones who suffer, though. Those who bully others often exhibit these mental health risks as well and may even be victims themselves.
Troublingly, many children who bully others have a history of significantly stressful or traumatic life events. There are already a limited number of therapists who treat children and teenagers, and all too often these children fall through the cracks, not receiving sufficient services or care to address these emotional challenges. HIB reports are one way identify those children who are most at risk for emotional or behavioral challenges. HIB reporting offers the opportunity to address the underlying issues of bullying rather than being purely punitive or reactive. By identifying both the victims and bullies, schools and parents can work together to link students with professional counselors who can assess mental health risks and help children and teens develop coping skills to respond to bullying and build resilience against future stresses.
And in New Jersey at least, strong HIB regulations seem to have meaningful impact. For the most recent one year period available on a national level, 2015, the rate of suicide in New Jersey for youth age 10-24 remains lower (5.5 per 100,000) than the national rate (9.2 per 100,000). Still, suicide remains the third leading cause of death for youth aged 10-24 in New Jersey.
(NEW JERSEY YOUTH SUICIDE REPORT, www.nj.gov, New Jersey Dept of Children and Families)
The bottom line – the effects of bullying can last years beyond childhood and adolescence. It is imperative that schools and parents work together to make addressing the underlying issues of bullying a priority.
I believe tools like STOPit, which allow for anonymous reporting and make (confirmed only) HIB reporting easier and more efficient enables parents and officials to focus on what is really important: the health and safety of their students. When at-risk children are identified as either bullies or victims, schools and parents are given the opportunity to connect these children with therapeutic counseling services and break the cycle of bullying.
Dr. Jenna Meyerberg is a Licensed Professional Counselor in the state of New Jersey and specializes in working with children, adolescents, and families. She is the owner of Meyerberg Counseling, LLC in Parlin, NJ and a therapist at Developing Wellness Therapy Group, LLC in Brick, NJ. Learn more at: http://bit.ly/2zg6Glr.
If you or someone you know is experiencing thoughts of suicide, please call the National Suicide Hotline at 1-800-273-8255.