Q. My 16-year-old daughter had become quite withdrawn and irritable the past few weeks. She eventually told me that she was picked on and bullied by another girl online. This girl is from around the area but goes to another school. She had met a boy at a disco a few months go and dated him a few times. He was an ex-boyfriend of this girl and she posted some nasty stuff about my daughter online.
My daughter got angry and retaliated online, then it escalated and the comments were shared with other people. My daughter was very upset but seems to be better now we have talked. I’m not sure if I should do anything now (a friend says I should report it) as it seems to have quietened down and there are no further posts online. Also my daughter was a little culpable as she said some nasty stuff back to the other girl.
A. While young people have always been falling out and saying mean things about one another, your question highlights how this problem can be made a lot worse when these disputes occur online. Comments posted on social networking websites have much greater potential to hurt as they can be more widely distributed and form a permanent record on the internet.
Further, there is evidence that people can be more “disinhibited” on the internet, making them more likely to make more virulent and nasty comments than they would in face-to-face communication. It is good that your daughter spoke to you about what happened to her and that you were there to support her. Having an understanding ally in a parent makes such a difference to young people in dealing with difficult social situations and bullying.
What to do next really depends on how serious an incident it was, how your daughter is affected and whether it will be repeated. If there has been no recent follow-up, then the best thing may be to let things lie for the moment and help your daughter learn from what happened and to move on.
There is a lot for her to learn about understanding jealousy in boy/girl relationships and also how to deal with difficult people online. As it may be just a one-off incident and in the context of a relationship dispute, there may be no need to report the incident but you should keep a record of the communications in case you need to take action in the future.
Here are some tips for parents on how to prevent and deal with bullying on the internet that you might want to discuss with your daughter.
Emphasise the importance of respectful communication online
Rather than waiting for problems, it is important to discuss with young people an “etiquette” for communicating online. It is important for them to be aware of how some banter or mildly negative comments can be perceived as offensive online. In fact, to avoid offence, everyone needs to be much more careful about what they write online than what they might say in face-to-face communication. In addition, you need to remind young people that comments impulsively made can get them into trouble and this will be more the case in the future as guidelines around online bullying in schools are more strongly enforced.
Tell a trusted adult
Encourage your children to tell you or a trusted adult if they witness nasty comments or bullying behaviour online. Dealing with issues alone or keeping things secret fuels bullying. Telling a supportive adult is a really important step in breaking isolation and in gaining support to take appropriate action.
Be in control of how you respond
It is important that young people don’t retaliate or over-react to bullying online. It is tempting to “give as good as you get” if you feel mistreated or to plead with the person who is making the comments. However, such responses may fuel the bullying behaviour and could also get the young person into trouble.
Sometimes it is best to show no response, to block the person from communicating, and to tell someone trustworthy what is happening. At other times, it may be helpful to communicate assertively and to warn the person making the comments by saying something like “Listen, it’s untrue what you are saying, take those comments down or I will report you.” Encourage your teenagers to first talk to you so you can plan a response together
Don’t collude with bullying
It is also important to teach young people not to collude or to be a bystander to bullying online. They can be encouraged not to read or share bullying comments about others as well as enabled to challenge others bullying online, perhaps by defending a person or telling people to stop posting nasty comments about others. Young people regulating their own communication is the best way to eliminate bullying in the long term. There are some good resources for young people working together to eliminate bullying such as watchyourspace.ie. You could review those resources together with your daughter.
Report bullying if it persists
If the bullying persists, you should of course consider reporting the person to the relevant social networking website, to school authorities if it is in a school context or to the internet service provider and also to the police in serious cases. For this reason, you should always keep records of communication in case the situation escalates.
Help your teenager put things in perspective
As a parent you can’t protect them from all negative experiences but you can help them think through the issues, and respond appropriately. Just because someone calls them names does not make these things true and it says more about the other person’s problems than their own. By helping your teenagers put things in perspective, you can help preserve their self-esteem and to learn from the experience.
Dr. John Sharry, Irish Times, February 2013. John writes in The Irish Times Health Plus every Tuesday.