The digitization of everything has decreased the degrees of separation between everyone. While that interconnectedness has solved many problems, old and new, digitization has worsened one age-old problem: bullying. An online bullying epidemic is now pushing parents, teens, teachers and technology companies to try even harder to mitigate the misery inflicted on its victims.
The connection between bullying and suicide is deeper than once believed, an updated report from the American Academy of Pediatrics indicates.
Suicide was identified as the No. 2 cause of teen deaths in Suicide and Suicide Attempts in Adolescents, published last month in Pediatrics. The AAP’s 2007 report on teen suicide found it was then the third cause. Unintentional injury was the No. 1 cause of teen deaths in both reports.
Although girls were twice as likely to attempt suicide, boys were three times more likely to succeed at suicide attempts, according to the latest research.
About four out of five of the teens who commit suicide do so without giving any clear warning signs, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Because warnings are so seldom expressed, the AAP has asked pediatricians to take note of heavy Internet usage and bullying when screening for suicide risk.
Parents and doctors are accustomed to screening children for signs of physical damage. They also may need to look more closely for virtual bruises, breaks and infections. Young people also may be at risk of losing control over their online interactions and developing an Internet addiction.
Back to Basics
If there were an easy solution, the bullying problem would be on the decline instead of worsening. Instead, everyone from parents to policy makers must rely on finding time-tested mitigation tools through education, professional insights, research studies and books.
One way to combat bullying is to inform teens about the damage it does, noted Dorothy A. Miraglia, a contributor to the upcoming book, The Use of the Creative Therapies with Bullying and Aggression.
All teens need to remember to think before they post, she emphasized.
“Some teens may not understand words hurt, or exactly what cyberbullying is,” Miraglia said. “Teens should be taught what is appropriate to post and not post.”
It’s critical to offer guidance to those victimized by cyberbullying and other forms of online abuse, according to Naomi Katz, author of Beautiful: Being an Empowered Young Woman.
“Guide young people to cultivate a sense of confidence that can help support them when facing challenging situations,” she said. “Encourage young people to remember that social media is only a small part of our social lives. Help them develop meaningful friendships that support positive growth.”
Another way to attack cyberbullying is to reduce the harm it causes. Facilitating a dialog between the victim and the attacker can help, Katz suggested.
“Most people would never say to someone face to face the things they would say online,” she pointed out.
Parents and counselors also should reassure children who have been bullied. They should help them reconnect with their self image, and reengage in activities that remind them of how talented, interesting and beautiful they are.
When their children become victims, parents “need to explain that they did nothing wrong and help build their self-esteem to avoid depression,” Miraglia said.
Software Solutions for Hard Problems
Smart things and cloud computing are driving newer, more sustained interactions among people. Those who craft such experiences increasingly are being called upon to build in protections for their most vulnerable users.
Bullying is more visible than ever in the digital age, said Devin Redmond, vice president of digital media security and compliance at Proofpoint.
Further, roughly 80 percent of victims don’t wear their hurt on their faces, sleeves or shoulders, as the CDC has noted.
“One of the most alarming trends is the piling-on that happens on highly visible public forums and social accounts,” Redmond says.
That piling-on of harmful and fear-inducing remarks can kick off in mere minutes, and under a variety of conditions. Often, a victim merely posts the wrong thing at the right time for a bully, hungry for attention, to turn a virtual mob on that person.
“You now have a very public, wide-reaching, and highly exposed incident that hurts the individual, while also reflecting poorly on the owner of the popular social account,” observed Redmond. “It is a key area that social account owners should guard against to stem the rise in bullying and protect teen audiences.”
While Facebook, Twitter and others try out new tools to stop online abuse, STOPit, founded by Todd Schobel, is taking a more targeted approach to tackling the problem.
STOPit’s antibullying app removes the friction from the reporting process. It allows victims and concerned parties to snap shots and capture video to send to school officials, along with offering a proprietary messaging tool that lets schools “see the smoke before the fire,” he said.
All of that is supported by DOCUMENTit, a case management system that protects the integrity of evidence and improves the investigatory process, according to Schobel.
“Schools say that after a few months of launching STOPit, they have seen a decrease in all types of issues, proving that STOPit is a powerful deterrent for all types of inappropriate behavior both online and off,” he said.
With the STOPit app, Schobel is hoping to empower kids to “become upstanders rather than bystanders.”
While it may start with the spark from an app, or a law, or a new reporting tool on a social networking site, permanent progress may come only with a cultural shift. Right now, things appear to be trending the wrong way.
“The fact is,” said Schobel, “cyberbullying and digital harassment have become global epidemics.”
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