The best way to combat bullying is to help your kids achieve social sucesss in school and online, Dr. Elizabeth K. Englander told a group of 75 parents at Doherty Middle School Wednesday night.
Englander is Director of the Massachusetts Aggression Reduction Center (MARC) at Bridgewater State University and has done extensive research into the problem of bullying in school and online, especially with middle school age children.
Using a powerpoint presentation, Englander defined what factors complicate bullying today, and how parents can help their kids avoid the issue.
Although bullying has been around a long time, she told parents that the aggression today is less physical and more psychological. In school, it can be as subtle as a stare, a sneer or exclusion. It is harder for the schools to intervene as quickly.
She advised parents to look at their kids as to whom may be vulnerable.
"While it used to be that if a child is successful and has friends, you didn't need to worry about them. We are finding that those students can still have problems particularly online," she said.
It is no longer a school-only issue because of its broader impact, and kids look at being online akin to meeting up with their friends at the Mall, she explained.
While Englander insisted that she is not against computers and children going online, she said there is little guidance or education to help kids use it.
"They don't often understand the repercussion about positing inappropriate things online," she explained.
She said that social networking is the biggest problem. She gave the example of Friend Facts, a Facebook app that allows kids to comment on their "friends." Some of these comments can be negative, but she said kids participate because they get points which allow them to see what others write about them.
"People can write anything, and the kids are essentially inviting others to abuse them," Englander explained. When asked why they do this, she said that peer pressure is the paramount reason.
Besides computers, the new mobile phones contribute to the problem. "We say we are giving our children a phone, but they do not use it to make phone calls. 80-90% of the time they are online, texting and posting," she said.
Parents, she said, need to know what they doing. Giving a child a phone, but not allowing texting and online until they are in high school can help avoid some of these issues. She explained her research shows most of the bullying occur in middle school and is done by high school.
She said that girls are especially vulnerable, and when they participate in digital venting, this can escalate conflict. For example if they have a fight with a friend, then post about it online for everyone to see, that minor altercation evolves into a huge feud.
Englander said they need to understand the impact on a friendship. Her research shows that girls more than boys attack friends, and while boys may see some of the attacks as a joke, girls mostly see it as mean and hurtful.
"Girls need to be taught how to handle conflict and abide by the 24-hour-rule before posting anything online," she said.
So how else can parents help children avoid and cope with bullying? Englander compared social skills with math skills. While some are good at it, others need tutoring. She suggested that parents can help with social skills by maximizing fun social activities with other kids.
She explained that is up to the parents to take the initiative, and it's okay for them to always be the host. This could be a movie, sports event, or just hanging out at the house. She also emphasized family time activities, and although kids may say they do not want do things with their family, they really do.
Englander said she strongly believes that parents should monitor their kids online. She explained that kids need to learn that the internet is not private, and "they must think before they click." Software is available that records keystrokes and is web-based. But she cautioned against being sneaky. "Let them know, and they will be less likely to post inappropriate things if mom is watching."
She reminded parents that School and online issues are not separate and what can start in school, can continue online and back in school.
Englander said that parents also need to talk to the school about interceding when there are issues. Although off campus speech is protected by the First Amendment, schools can still educate students and have a informative session if they suspect an offender. School personnel can also support victims by keeping an eye on the situation, she said.
Englander suggested that parents start talking to their children when they are young about these issues.
Parents can download support information from the MARC website, can call them at 508-531-1784 or email email@example.com.