Cyberbullying: Advocates for victims speak out
Kirk Smalley, of Perkins, Oklahoma, is president of Stand for the Silent, an anti-bullying organization that has reached more than 3.2 million children through talks at 4,276 schools across the United States. In his talks, Smalley retells the devastating story of the day his son, Ty, took his life after years of being bullied. Since then, telling children they can make a difference has been his full-time job — his schedule shows more than 275 days on the road annually.
The problem touches every school in the country. One of every four students reported being bullied during the school year, according to figures released recently by the National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES). The suicide risk for bullied children increases threefold, and many cases go unreported.
“I get messages either on Facebook or Twitter or email, literally by the hundreds and thousands,” Smalley said. “I get them from kids who say, ‘I was going to kill myself until I heard you speak.’ I get them from bullies who say, ‘I never knew what I do could cause this. I’m going to stop. I’m going to try my hardest to make it stop.’ I get them from the victims of bullying who say, ‘I’m glad somebody is willing to do something.’”
Smalley urges parents to monitor social media for signs of bullying, so that parents can find out who is bothering their child and take immediate steps to correct the problem. Deleting social media accounts doesn’t help, he said, because the attacks can then continue behind a child’s back, and away from a parent’s supervision.
“We don’t really grasp the concept of how kids rely on communication through social media,” he said. “A lot of times the parents don’t realize what the kids are doing online.”
Is the problem getting better or worse? While bullying is still a serious problem in schools across the country, there is evidence that awareness, legislation and activism are working. In 2019, about 22 percent of students ages 12–18 reported being physically bullied at school during the school year, which was lower than the percentage reported in 2009 (28 percent), according to The National Center for Education Statistics.
Unfortunately the trends with cyberbullying are quite different. The COVID-19 pandemic has led to an increase in kids and teens using digital platforms. As schoolwork has moved home, so has bullying and harassment. More children are using online platforms to socialize during their quarantine and social distancing. Concurrently, there has been a notable increase in levels of bullying and abusive language among children.
Across communication channels on social media and popular chat forums, L1ght, a tech company that created artificial intelligence guardrails to curb online toxicity on company’s online platforms, has identified an 70% uptick in instances of hate speech between kids and teens during online chats. In fact, about 37% of young people between the ages of 12 and 17 have been bullied online; 30% have had it happen more than once, according to NCES.
Cyberbullies can conceal their behavior. Some apps, most prominently Snapchat, deliver images to other users that quickly disappear, making it difficult for parents or victims to prove an incident has occurred. Other apps, sometimes called “photo vault” apps, can hide messages, files and photos behind a screen that looks innocuous, such as a calculator. One app called Private Photo Vault even offers a premium, paid feature that allows users to set a “decoy” password that opens a separate photo library to give the illusion of access.
What should you do if your child is being cyberbullied by a classmate?
Kevin Epling, a prominent anti-bullying advocate in Michigan and national co-director of Bully Police USA, has this advice. “If apparently something is happening, the base response is to try to save everything you possibly can, whether it be on your phone or your computer. That becomes proof,” said Epling, whose son took his own life in 2002 after a hazing incident. “Then get your school’s policy. All states now have a law, but they vary on what they cover. Correspond the law with your school’s policy (so) you’re better armed to ask questions. Also look very closely with how they treat technology — many will only hold students accountable if it’s school equipment.”
To check the bullying legislation in your state, visit https://www.stopbullying.gov/resources/laws