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Help me, I’ve been cyber bullied! Would you know how to respond?

I mentioned in my last blog that technology has been embraced by young people. As a result, the nature of our social interaction is changing, moving increasingly online. According to a recent report by Ofcom (2015), 12-15 year olds are now spending almost 19 hours per week on the internet, whilst as many as 4% of children aged 5-7 are reported to own their very own smart phone! Whilst technology can, and indeed has, proved very beneficial for our children and young people, it has also facilitated the emergence of new risk – cyber bullying.

Whilst specific definitions of cyber bullying do exist, in my view, bullying is bullying, whatever form it takes. Bullying is the behaviour, and just as is the case with physical, verbal and emotional, ‘cyber’ is merely the medium through which the bullying behaviours are perpetrated.

“The repetitive, intentional hurting of one person or group by another person or group, where the relationship involves an imbalance of power.”

Anti-Bullying Alliance, 2016

Unlike traditional bullying, cyber bullying does not require any physical interaction. People can say things and make comments to others that they wouldn’t normally do or say during face-to-face contact. It can arguably be more invasive than traditional forms of bullying, as victims can be targeted within the perceived safety of their own home and at any time of day or night. Coupled with the apparent ability for perpetrators to remain anonymous (note: they are not as anonymous as they may think), and distribute hostile or aggressive comments, pictures or videos to large audiences in a short amount of time, the intensity of cyber bullying becomes apparent. I intend to write a further blog on the reasons behind cyber bullying perpetration in the coming weeks.

It is no surprise then that cyber bullying can have a number of detrimental consequences on all of those involved. ChildLine revealed that cyber bullying was mentioned within over 4,000 counselling sessions between 2014-2015, and was within the top five reasons for children contacting the service for support. Research has associated cyber bullying with a range of negative outcomes, including school truancy and academic decline, and Natasha Devon, the government’s mental health champion, recently cited cyber bullying as a contributory factor to the mental health crisis facing children and young people today.

During my career, I have responded to hundreds of reports of online bullying. I have seen first-hand the harm that such behaviour can have on victims, including the ultimate negative outcome, through the family of a young male victim of bullying who saw no other way to escape his victimisation than ending his own life. I have, however, also seen how the harm caused by bullying can be exacerbated by the way in which we as parents, carers or professionals respond, despite our very best intentions.

During my time within the police service, I had recall having to inform a Mother that her 14-year-old son had been a victim of online bullying. Her reaction (which is unfortunately not overly uncommon) was one of initial shock and anger. In her anger, she started shouting, and informed her son that she would be confiscating his device in order to keep him safe. Now was this Mother deliberately directing her anger at her son, who was not at all to blame? Of course not. Was this Mother incredibly desperate to protect her son and keep him safe? Absolutely. But unfortunately, she went about it in completely the wrong way. Her response was one in which her son, the victim is this situation, was being punished rather than supported. As discussed in my earlier blog, removing a child’s access to technology, however tempting it may be, is not the solution!

With the above borne in mind, how should we respond? I am often asked by parents, carers and practitioners how best to respond if a child discloses that they are being bullied. Clearly, there is not a one-size-fits-all response, and for practitioners, it is important that you always abide by your own policies and procedures when responding to a bullying situation. That said, there are five simple things that I would ask you to incorporate in to any response to a bullying disclosure – think, “P.L.E.A.S.E”:

P.L.E.A.S.E

P- PRAISE

Praise the child for disclosing that they are being bullied. Disclosing bullying takes a huge amount of courage. We as parents, carers and/or practitioners should not underestimate the fear and anxiety that can precede and often prevent a disclosure. The way we chose to respond is vital in shaping whether or not the child is likely to seek support from us again in the future. If we respond positively, through praise, we are positively reinforcing that the child has done the right thing by seeking help. This will increase the likelihood that they will feel reassured enough to be open and honest about their situation. If we respond negatively, the opposite is true. We may lose the child’s trust, and damage any potential chances of them seeking help again.

L- LISTEN

As illustrated in the example of the 14-year-old boy above, sometimes we react to a situation before giving ourselves an opportunity to truly hear what we are being told. It is vital that we provide children with the space and opportunity to speak openly about their situation. We must resist the temptation to respond emotionally, and instead, provide our children with the time needed to disclose their situation without interruption and/or irrational reactions.

For practitioners, disclosures always tend to come at our busiest times; on route to teach a lesson, late for a meeting or dealing with a crisis involving other students. If you can’t make the time to speak to the victim there and then, explain that you will make time at the earliest opportunity. Another option may be to find a colleague who can help, but remember, the child is likely to have chosen you specifically because they trust you. They may not want their situation handled by somebody else.

E- EMPOWER

This is arguably the most important element of any response to bullying. If we refer back to the Anti-Bullying Alliance definition of bullying (above), bullying is characterised by an imbalance of power between the perpetrator and the victim. Therefore, central to any response to bullying must be an attempt to equalise this power imbalance by empowering victims to develop a sense of ownership and control over their situation. There are many ways we can do this, for example, empowering the victim to block the perpetrator on their social networking profiles, capture the evidence of their victimisation or report the perpetrators to the sites on which they are causing problems.

A – AGREE

Tempting as it may be, steer clear of the typical, ‘leave it with me, I’ll deal with it’ response. Following on from EMPOWER, it is vital that victims are given the opportunity to have an active role in deciding how they want their situation to be handled. How does the victim want you to respond? What do they want to see happen? Equally as important, what do they not want you to do? Where possible, agree on a course of action with the victim. This may involve contacting school, or in some situations even the police. Equally, it may involve doing nothing, and actively monitoring the situation for an agreed period of time. Either way, be clear about how the victim wants the situation to be dealt with, and where possible, do your best to uphold this.

Of course, it may not always be possible to follow the wishes of the victim for example, where there are safeguarding or child protection concerns. Similarly, sometimes victims may have unrealistic expectations of how they would like to see their situation handled. If this is the case, it is important to maintain an open dialogue with victims and explain the reasons behind your decisions or intentions. Honesty and explanation can often serve to gain a victim’s trust and agreement.

S – SUPPORT and SIGNPOST

After disclosing, victims may need your support both immediately, and in the longer-term. Acknowledge the potential impact of the bullying on the victim, and give them an opportunity to tell you how they feel. Arrange for the victim to be actively monitored following their disclosure, and look out for any subsequent changes in behaviour. Many children appear very resilient, and on the surface, may appear unaffected by their situation. Remember that this may be a façade, and the impact of their experiences may not take a hold immediately. Signpost victims to other support services, whether that be locally or nationally. ChildLine is just one example of an organisation who provide an essential lifeline to children and young people:

ChildLine can be contacted on 0800 11 11 or you can visit their website here.

E – EVALUATE

None of us can be perfect, despite our best efforts and intentions. After you’ve handled a disclosure of online bullying, evaluate your response. Reflect on the situation, and consider – What worked well? What could have been improved? Go one step further and adopt a truly child-centred response to anti-bullying by asking the victim for feedback on how you handled their situation. This will serve to provide the victim with a voice, and once again, empower them to feel as though they have played an active part in resolving their own situation.

The P.L.E.A.S.E response has so far been shared with thousands of parents and practitioners, who are using it as a gentle reminder of the key things to consider when responding to a disclosure of bullying. If you like it, please feel free to make use of it in your everyday practice. I am hoping to create a visual resource that will be available to download on the website in the not too distant future. Equally, if you don’t like the response, please do let me know. I really appreciate feedback and constructive criticism, as it is only through such honest critique that we can continually improve the way in which we support our children and young people.

For information on our Online Safety training, which encompasses cyber bullying, please click here.

Whilst not currently advertised on our website, we also deliver training workshops on Tackling Bullying, including both traditional and cyber bullying. These range from 2 hours to a full day. For more information on the Tackling Bullying workshops, please contact us by clicking here.

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