Bullying: A Big Complicated Problem with Many Simple Solutions

If each one of us untangled one string at a time...

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Sexting 101 for Parents

Sexting. I can't get my head around it. Why would kids do that? How do we handle it as a parent?

When our babies were born, we didn't look into their sweet little eyes and imagine that they would share photos of their birthday suits over a phone.

Nancy Gifford, a former federal prosecutor in the District of Connecticut, a consultant to the Family Online Safety Institute (FOSI), and equally important, a mom of 3 young children, talks about the seriousness of this new trend.

What Is It?

Sexting is the act of teenagers sending sexually suggestive nude or nearly nude pictures via digital media (e.g. cellular phone, computer).

How many kids are really involved in sexting?

A recent survey by the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project calmed some fears when it reported that only 4% of cell-owning teens between the ages of 12 and 17 have sent such images of themselves. This was a dramatic difference from an earlier, less scientific, online survey that reported 20% of teen girls had sent a sexually suggestive photograph of themselves. Both surveys explained that the teens who engage in this behavior often do so as either means of flirting with someone they are interested in dating or as part of an ongoing romantic relationship.

The Pew survey reported a more troubling statistic: 15% of the same teens had received sexually suggestive images of someone they know. The discrepancy between the number of teens involved in creating a sext and the number of teens who have received a sext highlights one of the dangers of sexting – the images, created for one purpose (i.e. as a form of “romance”), are easily sent and forwarded for another purpose (i.e. as a joke or creating of rumors).

What happens when those embarrassing photos get forwarded?

In some of the most tragic sexting incidents, the greatest harm occurred when the image left the original recipient and was forwarded on to others. The case of Hope Witsell is instructive. Hope was 13 years old when she sent a topless photograph of herself to a boy she liked. The photograph was opened by another person who was using the boy’s phone and was sent to several others. The image then was forwarded to others and quickly spread throughout her school. After 3 months of taunting from her peers, Hope committed suicide. Although sexting rarely leads to suicide (only one other case is known, that of 18 year old Jesse Logan), the humiliation and bullying that can occur when a sexted image is passed is quite common.

Now that it's part of teen culture, what do we do as parents?

How can we help our teens? As it so often is, the answer must include communication. Sexting provides an opportunity for parents, educators and others to promote the idea of digital citizenship and creating a positive digital reputation. Importantly, the discussion needs to focus on both the creation of sexted images and the receipt of images.

As for creating images: Use the Pew study as an opportunity to discuss how very few students are actually sending sexually suggestive photographs of themselves. For too many teens it can seem as though “everyone is doing it.” The study may help support your child’s decision to not engage in sexting by giving them the confidence that he/she is part of the vast majority of kids.

Long Term Consequences

Discuss the long term consequences that can result when you create a sext. Use the cases of Hope and Jesse to illustrate the idea that a sexted image is irretrievable. Any photograph sent or unkind comment made online – even if intended for just one other person – can easily become widely distributed. A photo taken during an impetuous moment can come back to haunt them years later when they are looking for scholarships, college admissions and employment opportunities.

Explain to teens that part of being a good digital citizen is to help your friends make good decisions online. For example, if a friend tells you that he/she is going to send a sext, discourage him. Many images have been created when friends “egg each other on.”

Receiving Images

As for receiving images: Have a discussion with your teen about what to do if he/she receives a sext. Remind the teen that some of the greatest harm happens when the images were distributed far beyond the initial recipient. Don’t give in to the inclination to want to pass the information on to others. If everyone stops forwarding the images, their potential damage can be limited. Resist the urge to keep the “joke” going. Again, Hope’s and Jesse’s stories provide a “teachable moment” to discuss how the teens who forwarded the images or engaged in the taunting may also feel regret or guilt for their actions.

Don't Keep A Secret

As a final word, it would be helpful to tell your teen that keeping a secret about sexting can be dangerous. Whether your teen was involved in creating, receiving or sending an image, there is potential for emotional, reputational and legal consequences. These consequences have been used by some to blackmail teens to continue sending images or to engage in sexual relations. Let your teen know that, even if they have made a mistake, you want to be involved and want to help them deal with any issue they might have.

Monday, January 25, 2010

One Man's Fight -- School By School -- Against Bullying

John Halligan knows all too well what Phoebe Princes' parents are going through tonight. Phoebe was a 15 year-old freshman at South Hadley High School in Western Massachusetts. Authorities believe she took her own life after being bullied off and online. John was there six years ago when his 13 year-old son, Ryan, took his own life for the same tragic reasons.

The pain is incomprehensible.

It made me realize that taunts at school and online can bring down whole families. But instead of retreating and becoming bitter, this dedicated father has travelled to dozens, maybe hundreds, of elementary, middle and high schools around the country telling kids Ryan's story.

Recently, I asked John the following question:

After travelling the country and speaking to thousands of kids, what reaction to Ryan's story are you most amazed or surprised by?

The responses are always overwhelming. I'm always so touched by seeing eyes well up with tears as I speak and look around the auditorium. And when I pause between sentences, the silence tells me they are truly taking this in. When it is over, I'm so heart warmed by students who come up and give me a hug. And what really surprises me is to receive e-mails months and years later from students who heard Ryan's story. Most tell me that Ryan's story changed their life for the better. Many confessed they were the bully and have since apologized to their victims and changed their behavior for the better. Understanding now how truly loved they are by family and friends, many students confide in me that they gained the courage and strength to get help for a friend or for themselves for suicidal feelings. This is why I keep telling Ryan's story.

When I heard Phoebe's story, I immediately thought of John and his wife, Kelly, and Ryan's brother and sister. Their hearts must break every time they hear about another victim. They are certainly doing everything they can do to spread the word to stop this madness but they need more help. Obviously, the message didn't get to South Hadley.

This is happening way too often. We know that kids are basically good. The fact that John sees that when he visits each school is hopeful. What can each of us do to cover the towns, schools, communities that John can't?

Start talking. Start Listening. Start stepping in. Don't tolerate your children being mean off or online. Don't accept it from anyone else.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Do Kids Know What the Word "Bully" Means?

No. Not always.

Take for example, a recent trip I made to two seventh grade classes in a relatively small Catholic school. The mission was to conduct a survey on bullying. It was a set of 10 simple questions, including "Have you ever been bullied?" and "Have you ever seen other students bullied at school?"

Although I'm tallying the answers right now and it's extremely interesting, the most eye opening part was the short discussion BEFORE taking the survey. I asked them, "What IS bullying?"

Hands popped up.

"When you kick someone."
"When you take something of someone's."
"When you spread rumors."
"When you punch someone."
"When you gang up on someone."

What they didn't say:

"When you ignore someone, including not giving them eye contact."
"When you exclude someone."
"When you tease someone. Not in fun but to make fun of."
"When you gossip."
"When you whisper in front of them."
"When your text is mean."
"When you're mean online."
"When you say or do anything meant to hurt someone's feelings."
"When you use a few ways to make someone feel bad."

How often does this simple conversation happen? Kids don't often label the things they do as "bullying." It's "I was JUST teasing," "He got in my way," or "She's not my friend. Nobody likes her. I don't have to have her part of my group."

Being more specific can go a long way to helping the situation.

Maybe I'll experiment next time I give this survey. It would be interesting to give the survey without discussing what bullying is, then after collecting the survey, discuss what bullying means. Then give the survey again. I would venture to guess that the answers to some of the questions will be very different, including, "Have you ever bullied someone else?"

And I'll go a step further to say that most parents and most teachers don't know what it is, either. And I don't blame them. Things have changed. Especially with the online and texting component.

In a nutshell, bullying is mean, repeated behavior intended to make someone feel bad. It's ALL those things mentioned above and probably a few I left out.

When it's really bad, it's "peer to peer abuse." Plain and simple.

Not every school has the money or the time to bring in formal bullying prevention programs but encouraging this simple conversation between adult and child on what it means is an effective way to start the process. It's equally important to do this at home.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Compassion: The Anti-Bully

The horror in Haiti is unreal. The feeling of powerlessness is overwhelming. The compassion we feel for every one suffering is palpable.


At the very least, perhaps this is a teachable moment to pass along to our children. To honor all those in Haiti, perhaps we can be more compassionate toward our peers.

A friend of mine seized the moment when her sons, ages 9 and 11, asked what could be done for the people of Haiti. They decided to ask for pledges for "silence." In return for a small donation, they are going to sit in silence for an hour this coming Saturday. Brilliant.

Building on that teachable moment, we can encourage our kids to be silent instead of saying something to a classmate that might be hurtful. In a small way, it may help teach compassion.

Gossip Girls and Boys Get Lessons In Empathy, a New York Times article from last April made me think of all the simple ways we can teach kids empathy. Not expensive but the most valuable.

For all those involved in helping the people of Haiti, thank you. It's humbling.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

If You See Something, Say Something

Shawn Hornbeck's message is directly aimed at the "bystander." It's ok to teach our kids and encourage each other as adults to step up. It doesn't have to be in a "tie your superhero cloak on and fly in to save the day" kind of way.

It can be done in hundreds of ways. And it can be the little things. Like teaching your kids to tell you when they've been mistreated or they see someone else being mistreated. Or they can give the bullied child a little emotional support, even a smile of empathy, or they can be the person who doesn't participate in something mean-spirtied, or they can include someone in a game in the schoolyard.

As they get older, they can be more assertive in telling classmates to "knock it off" or not to forward that embarrassing text.

The more parents, teachers and administrators do this, the less uncomfortable kids will be with the role of active bystander.

Shawn's message is intended to help avoid kidnappings but it's true for all situations. It's basically saying, "Care." Which is a lifesaver in itself.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

When the Teacher is the Bully...or When the Teacher's Behavior is NOT Acceptable

When I couldn't find any easy answers to the question, "What do parents and children do when the teacher is the bully?," I turned to someone I really respect in the field. Stan Davis, author of "Schools Where Everyone Belongs: Practical Strategies for Reducing Bullying" and "Empowering Bystanders in Bullying Prevention" to get some advice.

Stan's response:

"I would reword the question: What if a teacher is saying and or doing things to your child that you find unacceptable?

As with childrens' verbal, physical, or relational aggression toward peers, the word "bullying" is so emotionally loaded that it can make dealing with the issue more difficult.

The first step is to keep an objective, factual record of behaviors, dates, places, and witnesses. When you have a record of what you see as unacceptable behaviors, I would suggest reviewing the list with a few friends who have good judgment to make sure you are not over-reacting to teaching behavior that is not pleasant but is acceptable.

As I see it, every student will have some teachers and some work supervisors who they do not like. At the mild end of that scale, learning to get along with a somewhat unpleasant teacher can be a good learning experience. As with peer aggression, there are behaviors that a student should be expected to deal with. There are behaviors that a student should try dealing with for a while and for which a parent or guardian should then intervene. There are teacher behaviors for which a parent or guardian should intervene right away.

When it comes time for parent or guardian intervention with unacceptable behavior, I would suggest deciding whether it will be useful to communicate with the teacher her or himself or whether the parent or guardian should go directly to the principal. This decision would be based on the behaviors in question, on the student's degree of concern about possible retaliation, and with the family's past experience with the teacher or other educator.

In either case, I would suggest bringing in the list of behaviors and asking that they stop. It will help to have a list of positives about the teacher as well if possible. If meeting with the teacher leads to resistance or to no change, it is time to meet with the principal. In this case I suggest that people document the earlier meeting and ask the principal if the behaviors described on the list are acceptable to her or him.

If the administrator finds the behaviors unacceptable, ask for a plan to change them or protect your child from them. If the administrator finds the behavior acceptable and you as a parent do not, the next step is to move up the chain of authority in the school system.

It is often best to begin approaching teachers and administrators in a calm and nonconfrontational way, assuming that they want to know that a set of actions is having a bad impact on your child.

Tangled Ball follow up question:

What does a parent tell a child when their teacher is acting poorly towards them or for that matter, to someone else in the class?

Stan's answer:

"As with peer bullying, there is negative behavior kids should learn to deal with (maybe a teacher is a little brusque but not insulting, maybe the teacher isn't encouraging kids as much as your child would like, maybe the teacher doesn't give as much positive feedback as another teacher) - but the teacher has other strengths. In these cases I think we could point out that all teachers are different and that this teacher does somethings very well......

There is negative behavior kids shouldn't learn to deal with: being insulted or seeing another insulted, being told they are stupid or lazy (or hearing another child called that), angry yelling, etc....

In that case I think kids should know that not all adults act in a way that you as a family think they should and that when you as a family believe something is wrong you have to take action to make things better- just as if we don't like what our government is doing we have to make things better. In neither case do we have to tell the child or teen that the teacher is a bad person, rather that we find some actions unacceptable."

This is a tough one and the only thing I'd add is to try to lessen the child's stress. A laugh, a bowl of ice cream, a little help with homework or whatever your child needs to help fill their soul after they get the stuffing knocked out of them a little bit. It's like having a bad boss. Eventually and hopefully you get promoted or the boss leaves or there is some divine intervention before you hit retirement age. Luckily for a kid, the school year is 9 months and if you can keep them feeling ok about themselves, you're a step ahead.

I hope Stan agrees because he walks the walk every day.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Helpful Links

Highly Recommended

Overall, I found Common Sense Media and iKeepSafe to be the most comprehensive and most helpful on all things including online, video, cell, movies and television.

Common Sense Media


The Department of Health and Human Resources developed the Stop Bullying Now site which covers more on "traditional" bullying:

Stop Bullying Now

Great site to check out before your child buys a video game:

Entertainment Software Ratings Board

This is a short list. Feel free to leave a Comment with additional suggestions. Hope this helps and remember...


Net Cetera

Who said Twitter was silly? I just found this great resource recently published by the Federal Trade Commission on Parenting and Online Safety through Twitter.

Net Cetera

If you're a school, you can order these in bulk FOR FREE.

Bravo FTC. The more quality materials the better.

And thank you to Sue Scheff who led me to this great info through Twitter. Sue is the author of the Google Bomb Book.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

When the Teacher is the Bully

Anyone have advice on this one? It's a common problem and a reason many kids don't want to go to school. It's a tough situation, though, because the teacher is in control and will often act differently with the parent and principal than with the child. And they're in a great position to intimidate or use grades as a weapon.

It's a problem not often discussed so any suggestions of resources or advice are greatly appreciated.

Feel free to leave a comment.

Thanks for your help!

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

"Heaps of People Sees But Nobody Knows"...

Are words from a very wise woman who was a part of my life as a child. It was her way of saying "always be nice and don't judge."

I thought of these words yesterday as I was skipping through channels trying to find CNN. (Time Warner has moved CNN to Channel 78 from Channel 10. Disappointing but that's for another time.) It was serendipity because I came across the Tyra Show. It just happened to be about "hazing," and it was one chilling story of extreme gang bullying after another. The show included stories starting in middle school through college. As one of the experts said, the scary thing about hazing is that girls do this "right of passage" as much as boys and it's in the spirit of "bonding." In other words, you're not supposed to feel humiliated for life, you're supposed to feel close to your tormentors. A huge confusing, damaging double message.

One of the male audience members said something to make me reflect on Nina's words from years past. He said that after having to be home schooled in eighth grade because kids picked on him for being gay, "I never give anyone a hard time because I don't know what they're going home to."

So true. "Heaps of people sees, but nobody knows." Although kids may look like they're functioning fine, you don't really know what's going on inside their heads, hearts or their homes.

Feel free to pass along Nina's words. She'd feel honored.