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Cyberbullying expert says validating youth experiences is critical to healing

November 25, 2012

Parents’ failure to validate their children’s concerns about being cyberbullied can cause more emotional damage than the bullying itself, an international expert told a Wayne State audience last week, stressing that interventions must stem the problem without demonizing the participants or the technology.

Telling children to “ignore” cyberbullying or simply “turn the computer off” can cause them to mistrust their feelings, believe they deserve to be bullied, and withdraw from their parents, said Faye Mishna, dean and professor at the University of Toronto Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work, during a Nov. 15 appearance at the WSU Community Arts Auditorium. Mishna, who delivered the School of Social Work’s 25th Annual Edith Harris Endowed Memorial Lecture, said “lack of adequate attunement and responsiveness to a child’s reactions may make the pain [of bullying] unendurable.”

“Being believed is absolutely critical,” said Mishna, who has worked in children’s mental health for two decades and recently published the book Bullying: A Guide to Research, Intervention, and Prevention. “Not validating the child can have significant effects that are more serious than the original bullying.”

Parents also err by stripping children of cell phones, computers, and other means of digital communication in their attempt to protect them from cyberbullying, Mishna said. First, this approach is futile, as children have ample access to these devices outside the home. Second, this tact ignores the permanence, pervasiveness and utility of digital communication in the lives of today’s youth. In this digital age, Mishna said, parents must teach their children to use these powerful tools, which will underpin their private and professional lives.

Cyberbullying versus conventional bullying

Research indicates that 93% of Americans between the ages of 12 and 17 go online every day, using a variety of social media that include networking sites, email, blogs and YouTube. These “digital natives,” as Mishna characterized them, develop technological competencies much faster than their parents but lack the emotional and cognitive ability to handle the autonomy of cyberinteractions or the discord they can engender. This poses unique challenges for families, Mishna said, because parents – or “digital immigrants” – must provide guidance to their children in a milieu they don’t understand or navigate with equal sophistication.

Fortunately for parents, said Mishna, research indicates that the majority of young people’s online interactions are positive or neutral. Moreover, cyberinteraction has proven benefits among this population, serving to diminish social isolation, promote identity exploration, and furnish support systems for youth struggling with disabilities, chronic illness, or anxiety concerning their sexual orientation. But when negative cyberinteractions do occur, they can have devastating consequences, placing youth at risk of sexual solicitation, exposure to violent and pornographic images, predation by populations with low self-esteem who advocate exploitive behaviors, and – of course – bullying.

Measuring the prevalence of cyberbullying is difficult, according to Mishna, who said statistics on the number of youth who have been a party to cyberbullying are as low as 10% and as high as 70%. Cyberbullying, which most frequently centers on appearance, race, school performance and gender, shares many hallmarks of conventional bullying, most notably a perpetrator and a target, a power imbalance between these two individuals, and the intent to cause harm. Both also involve repetition and, often, witnesses. Cyberbullying is unique, said Mishna, in that the audience is potentially enormous, the harassing content cannot be retrieved, and the harassment follows children home to an environment that is protected from conventional bullying. Moreover, she said, certain features of communication technology increase the likelihood and intensity of cyberbullying, namely the perception of anonymity, the absence of the social or contextual clues that accompany face-to-face interactions, and the frequency and spontaneity of messaging, which is increasing due to the rapid adoption of handheld devices. Finally, the number of “perpetrator-targets,” or individuals who both bully and are bullied, is thought to be higher in the cybersphere.

Whether or not cyberbullying is traumatic for targets depends on a number of factors, Mishna said, including frequency, severity, the nature of the bullying, and whether or not the target is aware of being victimized. Traumatization can cause victims to experience depression, avoid school or perform poorly in academics, use drugs, carry weapons, and experience a host of social difficulties. Perpetrators are also damaged by the behavior, being at higher risk for aggression or violent behavior, and witnesses can be traumatized by feelings of fear, guilt, and even power. Consequently, said Mishna, it’s important that interventions be educational, not punitive.

While removing technology from children who have been cyberbullied is not a solution, Mishna urged parents to actively monitor cyberactivity, block sources of harmful content, and establish ground rules for digital communication. Empathy is critical, she added, saying that parents should validate their children’s concerns before addressing poor online practices.

“First, help them to feel better about themselves, then teach them better behaviors,” she said.

Noting the lack of research on the role of shame and humiliation in bullying, Mishna enjoined the field of social work to further investigate how the cyberworld can intensify these emotions

“Humiliation is a critical factor that precipitates suicidal ideation due to relationship problems,” she said.

Jerrold Brandell, a distinguished professor of social work at Wayne State who has previously presented at several national conferences with Mishna, most recently on the topic of infusing psychodynamic content into the graduate social work curriculum, called cyberbullying “one of the most germane issues for anyone who teaches or practices social work.”

“Cyberbullying is a salient mental health issue that is now being confronted in an array of clinical venues, including school counseling offices, family service and community mental health agencies, and private practice,” Brandell said. “But legislators and policymakers are also beginning to address this form of violence. Consequently, knowing how to identify, address, and prevent cyberbullying becomes critical at both the micro and the macro levels of social work practice.”

A number of social workers attended the lecture to receive continuing education credits to maintain licensure in Michigan. Also on hand were representatives of the School of Social Work CyberMentoring Project, through which B.S.W. and M.S.W. students coach Detroit high school students in responsible electronic messaging. CyberMentors encouraged lecture attendees to sign an anti-cyberbullying pledge signaling their commitment to respect others and encourage positive statements on the Internet, and report cyberbullying to authorities.

Edith Harris was a graduate student in the School of Social Work from 1966 to 1968. Her memory is honored annually by the presentation of the Edith Harris Memorial Endowed lecture, featuring a prominent speaker and expert on the mental health of individuals and families. This yearly event is made possible through the generous support of the Harris Foundation.

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