Bullying moving from schoolyard to cyberspace

Published 12:02 am Sunday, April 18, 2010

NATCHEZ — Schoolyard bullying certainly didn’t let the times pass it by.

As life improves with better technology, so does the art of bullying. Only now, the bullied sometimes have the tools or just the modern world gumption to fight back.

School shootings, suicides and bomb threats are realistic dangers, and often these crimes find their root in bullying.

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Schoolyard name calling and double dog dares are now cyber bullying and cyber stalking. But it isn’t just the escalation of bullying techniques that has school administrators and mental health professionals worried.

“Bullying is not a new phenomenon,” said family therapist Mary Ann Simons. “What we are seeing are dramatically different consequences. It was once that the bullied kid would just hang (his) head and go on, but now we have kids that are taking guns and going on school campuses and shooting other kids.”

No age group is immune to bullying, said Simons, who specializes in children, adolescents and families at Swoveland and Simons Family Therapy in Natchez. The behavior that seems like “kids play” at 5, 6 and 7 escalates to demeaning and harassing behavior when students enter upper elementary and junior high grades, Simons said.

“Once children become really verbal in kindergarten, first and second grade, parents start hearing things like ‘so-and-so won’t be my friend because I don’t have that toy,’” she said. “But by the time these same children are 12, 13 or 14 the aggressive behavior has turned into ‘you’re fat,’ ‘you’re stupid,’ ‘he’s a geek,’ ‘he’s a nerd.’ It develops and continues many times with the same children being bullied by the same children.”

The situations are difficult to diffuse because children have a tendency to internalize feelings and fear retaliation or escalated harassment if they were to tell a parent, trusted adult or school administrator about the problem, Vidalia Junior High School Principal Whest Shirley said.

He said school officials do all they can to monitor students and student relationships, but many times the bullying happens out of sight of adults.

“Communication is the key to ending the bullying,” he said. “We have an open-door policy for students to walk in and talk to someone about any problem they are having, but many times the bullying goes unreported. We can’t fix something we don’t know about so the struggle administrators, teachers and counselors face is getting students to open up about what they are experiencing.”

It’s not easy to find a child who will talk openly about bullying.

For the aggressors, there’s the fear of punishment. For the victims, there’s the fear of future victimization.

“In our practice you don’t see many (bullying victims) come in,” Simons said. “The common thought is that if a child goes and tells a teacher and parent, and the bully finds out, it is just going to get worse.

“I don’t think we have nearly enough reporting going on.”

Vidalia High School Guidance Counselor Cynthia Smith said in her experience at both the middle school and high school level, students are afraid to repeat the verbal harassment for fear that the words being said about them are, in fact, true.

“Bullying is often a verbal thing rather than physical, especially at an upper elementary or junior high age, and a child develops a sense that maybe what they are calling me is true,” Smith said.

“They are hesitant about saying anything to an adult because once they verbalize it, they feel like they own that characteristic, and I think that may be why sometimes they are a little hesitant to report something like that or talk about it.”

With the widespread popularity of cellular phones and social networking Web sites like Facebook and MySpace, what victimized children hear from bullies is often exacerbated through the use of technology.

Shirley said bullies feel safe using text messages and Internet postings to harass their victims.

“These kids will say things on Facebook or in a text message that they would not be brave enough to say to their face,” Shirley said. “Cyber bullying is what we see on the rise.”

And seeing insults and insinuations in print has more impact for some victims, Simons said.

“It’s a whole different world on Facebook,” she said. “Technology has power to do a great deal of damage that we haven’t seen before.”

Smith said bullying manifests itself in different was as students age.

“They tend to be more violent at the middle school, and that is historically true. It is just the nature of that age group,” she said.

“It seems to level off in high school as they mature, but the devastation is already there and some of the self-deprecating behavior you see from (victims) comes out in the high school years.”

The question on everyone’s lips is how to stop bullying, Simons said.

She said just as bullies sometimes operate in groups, creating a safe pack mentality for bullying victims is the first step to stopping bullying.

“Recent research shows that stopping bullying is most effective when it is addressed in a group,” she said.

Simons said creating a team of adults or even older students to act as a bully intervention team in schools is the newest, and in her opinion, the most effective way to address a bullying problem.

“What you are doing in that way is having group therapy for both the bullied and the bully without singling anyone out,” she said. “What it does is bring the actions to the surface so the bully realizes what he or she is doing and gives the bullied the feeling of not being alone.

“It is not a type of intervention that is meant to hurt anyone’s feelings. It is meant to deflate the bully’s need to feel important.”

With much bullying happening away from school, on the Internet or through cell phones, Shirley said adults have to be aware of who their children are communicating with.

“If something is posted on Facebook at 10 p.m. on a Saturday night there is not much I can do right away,” he said. “My children have cell phones, and they know not to delete a single text message because I’m going to look at them, and when they are on the Internet we have an island in our kitchen where they can be on the Internet, because they know we are going to be looking over their shoulders.

“You have to know who your kids are talking to to be able to protect them.”

Often, those who are being bullies don’t even realize what they are doing when they have a personal campaign to point out what they perceive to be a flaw with another person, Smith said.

“We might get them together and let them understand that that is bullying and harassing and that there are consequences for that, and they have never really thought about it that way,” she said.

Smith said she sometimes addresses bullying by having role playing exercises that allow the aggressors to see things from the victim’s side of things.

“They think it is cute, they think it is powerful, and once they realize their power is because of someone’s misery, they tend to understand that it is not OK.”

But while there is not one foolproof method of stopping bullying and harassment, Simons said one thing is true — steps must be taken to protect victims and educate bullies to the devastation their words and action can cause.

“Bullying is not something that is just a fluke,” she said. “It’s huge; its widespread; it’s in every school and in my opinion there is one bully in every class, minimum.”