The Cyberbully: Bullying in the age of Facebook and YouTube
When bullying a child with special needs goes off the playground and online
Marcia Jones experienced first-hand the number one fear of all parents in America: cyberbullying. Her son, Jacob, was the victim of a schoolyard bullying incident that was videotaped and posted online for all to see.
In the video, Jones’ son, a 12-year-old with autism spectrum disorder, is trying to avoid a confrontation on a middle school playground. A boy flashes by the camera lens, jumps and tries to kick Jacob, who appears to deflect the kick before trying to walk away. Then, another boy jumps into view of the camera and lands a hard kick to the boy’s stomach, knocking him to the ground. “Those boys just drop-kicked me out of nowhere,” Jacob said. “It was just awful.”
“Cyberbullying occurs when an individual uses the Internet, cell phones or other devices to send or post text messages, videos or photos intended to hurt or embarrass another person,” according to The National Crime Prevention Council. Cyberbullying involves harassing someone or spreading rumors about an individual through e-mail, chat rooms, text messages, instant messages or social networking Web sites. Top researchers in this newly emerging field state that “ We feel reasonably confident in estimating that about 20% of teens have been the victim of cyberbullying at some point in their lifetime (Smith, Mahdavi, Carvalho, Fisher, Russell, & Tippett, 2008).
According to a national survey commissioned by Care.com, Inc., bullying and cyber bullying have eclipsed kidnapping as the greatest fear that parents have regarding their child’s safety. Nearly one in three (30 percent) parents of children 12- to 17-year-old fear bullying and cyberbullying over kidnapping, domestic terrorism, car accidents, suicide or any other incident. Of parents whose children are under 12-year-old, more than one in four (27 percent) parents say that they fear bullying and cyber bullying only slightly less than kidnapping (30 percent).
Children with special needs may use the Internet as much as, if not more than, other students. Four out of 10 adults with disabilities conduct business and personal activities online, spending an average of 20 hours per week on the Internet which exceeds the average general use (U.S. Census Bureau 2007). While the technology provides a more fluid means of interacting with peers and opens up a new potential pool of social contacts researchers also know that it provides a completely unfiltered method for bullies to attack and harass students with special needs outside of the classroom. More research is necessary to gauge what kind of a threat cyberbullying is to children with special needs.
Dr. Sameer Hinduja, co-director of the Cyberbullying Research Center in the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Florida Atlantic University says that, in some cases, the use of computers and technology may be a child with special needs only social outlet.
“I am particularly interested in this population,” says Hinduja. “These youth are especially susceptible because of the difficulty they have with conversation, social convention and integration, and response to nonverbal cues. In addition, they struggle with motor clumsiness, a difficulty articulating a need for help and a resistance to change. Finally, Internet-based communication is absolutely essential in meeting their daily relational needs because online interaction eliminates many of the conversational nuances that they wouldn’t pick up on (in face-to-face conversations).”
“Not only do these factors (and others) cumulatively lead to children with special needs being cyberbullied online, many are easily manipulated by mischievous bullies who goad them to cyber bully others, download child pornography or hack into other computers – and they agree to do it, simply because they want to fit in and be well-liked,” said Hinduja.
“We definitely have a large proportion of very vulnerable youth who are in need of our help. We also need to realize that what may seem normal to us – in terms of social interaction – is not normal to children with special needs, especially children on the autism spectrum,” says Hinduja. “We have to venture into their definition of ‘normalcy’ to fully empathize with how they are struggling. The traditional ways that we help neurotypical children may not bear much fruit when working with this population, just like it is useless to implement multicolored lights on an instrument panel when the operator is color-blind.”
“Personally speaking, I have found that children with Aspergers syndrome tend not to ask for help, not because they prefer isolation or independence, but because it does not naturally occur to them that another person will have a different perspective, different experience/knowledge and, thus, might find a different or better solution. I always advise parents and teachers to encourage children with special needs to tell you how they are feeling, even though they may not respond. If they can’t answer directly, perhaps they will share their thoughts on how the same instance of cyber bullying might make another person feel. That might clue you in to the emotions they are wrestling with.”
Dr. Hinduja recommends when a parent is trying to share advice or suggestions of prevention and response, repeat the message often for reinforcement and heavily use logical explanations. It may be wise to create and use simple flowcharts to depict human behavior. These can show actions, the way in which the actions affect others and the way in which others’ responses then affect the subject to aid their decision-making processes. For example, ‘if I do X, it will cause effect Y on other people, which will cause them to respond to me with Z.’
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Fundamentals about online activities
When working with cyberbullying victims, it may be useful to jointly analyze stories, characters, plots and motivation in fiction, point out tropes and story cues and figure out why characters act as they do. Also, try using comic books or comic strips, which often convey some of the story through characters’ emotion-laden expressions, but in simplified “cartooned” art that is easier to comprehend. Comic strips with humor that relate to real life situations are especially good as they teach typical motivations, reading faces, understanding humor, decision-making and coping/response mechanisms all at once.
All children with special needs should be taught some basic fundamentals about online activities:
- Teach a child to never reveal personal information online. According to Jodee Bianco, a leading expert on bullying in schools, “parents should view the tools of technology as ‘lights on in your bedroom with the drapes wide open.’ Everything is visible for the world to see.” Help children understand why it is important not to reveal details others should not “see.”
- Limit a child’s online time. Set firm rules as to when and how long a child can be online. It’s a good idea to only allow a child to go online when parents are home to supervise their activities. Installing Internet security filters and other protection software is also a good way to regulate a child’s online experience.
- Through role playing or social stories, teach a child what improper photos, videos or threatening conduct might look like or feel like. If such instances occur, impress upon a child the immediate need to not respond to the messenger, but, instead, to report it to a parent or another adult.
- Keep copies of inappropriate messages, but, as a parent, do not respond.
- Do not dissuade a child from using technology such as cell phones for text messaging or Facebook for communication with peers. These tools are becoming increasingly a part of the way in which youth communicate and to leave them out of such communication streams isolates them more. Instead, teach them the proper use for the tools and always insist that a parent become your child’s friend on Facebook.
- Research screening programs that allow one to “see” all the dialogue that your child has online.
- Check text messages on cell phones frequently to make sure that derogatory messages are not being sent to a child.