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A Cyberbullying Protection Plan
"Kick a Ginger Day." Fair to say, the majority of adults reading this article have no idea what this means. A bunch of junior-high-aged kids in Calabasas, California, did, however. On November 20, 2009, at least four girls and two boys were subjected to physical and/or verbal bullying and abuse because of their red hair, freckles, and pale complexions. Ginger. Gilligan's Island. Redheads. It's quite a leap.
What makes this bullying story relevant is that the call to action was initiated via a Facebook invite to a day of "Ginger bashing," sent by a thirteen-year-old boy who was inspired by a South Park episode in which the Cartman character describes people with red hair, freckles, and pale complexions as "evil" and "soulless." The Los Angeles County sheriff's office reported a number of incidents throughout the day. Two twelve-year-old boys were detained and booked on charges of "battery on school property because of cumulative incidents through the day." The thirteen-year-old who created "National Kick a Ginger Day" was booked for cyberbullying or making a threat via electronic communication. Sheriff's officials say at least eight played some role in the bullying of redheads that day.
Clearly, the sarcasm and parody of racial prejudice intended by the South Park episode was lost on the thirteen-year-olds and the message didn't translate. The larger issue and lesson for camps, schools, and parents, though, is how quickly and easily this kind of online bullying activity can escalate. The stories of how one comment leads to five comments, which leads to a Web of communications, which leads to abuse and even suicide, are becoming more and more commonplace. Anyone working with kids has to know what cyberbullying is, appreciate that it is everywhere, and realize that all kids are at risk of exposure. In this article we will discuss what cyberbullying is, define the dangers, and talk about what camps need to do to reduce its ugliness.
Cyberbullying is any bullying activity that occurs in a Web-based medium, such as text, e-mail, social media, and/or any other kind of electronic format. It is also referred to as "digital disrespect." The National Crime Prevention Council (2010) defines cyberbullying as "when the Internet, cell phones, or other devices are used to send or post text or images intended to hurt or embarrass another person." StopCyberbullying.org (n.d.) defines cyberbullying as "a situation when a child, tween, or teen is repeatedly 'tormented, threatened, harassed, humiliated, embarrassed, or otherwise targeted' by another child or teenager using text messaging, e-mail, instant messaging, or any other type of digital technology." Other researchers use similar language to describe the phenomenon.
Bullying, while it has many forms, is going to take place among our youth wherever and whenever there is a lack of a respected adult presence. That is a fact. The Internet could not be a more opportune place for this kind of activity. When online, kids have lots of access with little to no supervision. And the Internet is available all the time — twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. Through mass e-mails, social media sites, and public Web sites, a message or threat can haunt a victim for weeks, months, or years — and the effect of this can be toxic. Research has found that boys initiate mean online activity earlier than girls do, as early as second grade. By the time kids reach middle school, however, girls are more likely to engage in such activity by a two-to-one margin (Haber & Haber, 2007).
Cyberbullying is more difficult for camps and parents to manage for several reasons: Many parents and camp administrators have no experience with this type of bullying; they can't relate; or they are inept at maneuvering the various technology platforms in which it exists. For camp leaders, too, there is a limited window of direct involvement with staff or camp families. Trying to monitor or manage the relationships kids maintain with each other outside of camp is laden with obstacles, which makes this a tough problem throughout the year.
Further, kids grow up with technology and internalize its rhythms and language. Studies show that most adults significantly underestimate the amount of time kids spend online. An LG Text Ed Survey (2010), conducted by TRU Research and sponsored by LG Mobile Phones, found that parents are not even clear about what children are doing when they are online.
Finally, the permanence of Web-based information leaves those in charge with a very difficult burden — how to make it "go away." Content on the Internet may live forever and often goes viral. In a recent article in New York Times Magazine, "The Web Means the End of Forgetting," Jeffrey Rosen (2010) notes, ". . . far from giving us a new sense of control over the face we present to the world, the Internet is shackling us to everything we have ever said, or that anyone has said about us . . . ." Kids, having so little appreciation of the concept of "forever," can't begin to appreciate the potential risks inherent in Internet content.
Dangers of Cyberbullying
It is widely known that face-to-face bullying can result in long-term psychological harm to victims, including low self-esteem, depression, anger, school failure and avoidance, and in some cases, school violence or suicide.
With cyberbullying, these dangers are magnified for a number of reasons:
- It is permanent. What's on the Web (or Facebook, or MySpace, or blogs, etc.), stays on the Web (or Facebook, or MySpace, or blogs, etc.).
- It is anonymous. There is no face-to-face communication, making mean and abusive words easier to utter.
- The breadth and depth of the audience is massive and viral.
- More people know of the bullying, so there is more potential for embarrassment and humiliation.
- Social networking sites allow for campaigns or ganging-up against a person.
- The speed in which harmful messages travel online exacerbates the damage.
All these factors make the emotional effects of cyberbullying much more devastating. Cyberbullying can make victims feel out of control and without resources for getting back in control. The tools youth commonly know to use to communicate together, as well as the lifelines they use to maintain their friendships, have now been turned against them. If they can't communicate with their friends safely or directly, they start to feel more hopeless, isolated, and alone.
Types of Cyberbullying
Cyberbullying can take on many shapes and sizes, as there are an infinite number of ways kids can use and manipulate information on the Internet.
Some of the more common include:
- Exclusion/Gossip Groups
Sending abusive messages repeatedly through the Internet or by using a mobile phone. The messages are often threatening in nature, and instill fear that the stalking might move offline and into the target's real life, even becoming physically threatening.
Corresponding through chat rooms, e-mail, and instant messenger via electronic communication. Flaming refers to arguments or messages that are supplemented with graphics, specific images, and harsh language to drive home a point. Examples include photo and video postings and sexting.
Singling out and/or excluding an individual from a group. An online equivalent of relational bullying, the group then taunts the excluded person using the Internet or a mobile phone.
An individual disclosing private information online to friends that is then disseminated over the Web through social Web sites and/or mobile phones. That person is "outed," with devastating effects. It is often these situations that have lead to the teen suicides of late, as these targets do not know how to regain control of their lives after such broad public humiliation.
Sophisticated forms of cyberbullying in which an individual creates a false identity and harasses another while pretending to be someone else. Masquerading or impersonation can include theft of another person's login information to broadcast harassing or humiliating information about the target online.
Examples of Camp-Related Cyberbullying
The breadth and depth of cyberbullying run wide and deep. For a victim, it can seem as though there is no way to get away from it. For camp friends, the viciousness can be even worse. Kids are usually from other states or towns, so when they go online to hurt another, the hurt is very remote with no direct contact. There is no seeing that girl in school or that boy at a soccer game. With less face-to-face confrontation comes greater anonymity, and with greater anonymity, the cycle of cyberbullying is more likely to continue.
Scenarios of cyberbullying among camp friends can take various forms, such as:
- Someone takes a picture of a girl or staff member leaving the shower and sends it via their phone to other kids not at camp.
- Rumors started by campers between seasons against a girl, telling people private things about her — some true, some untrue — are broadcasted on online social networks.
- An online hit list of those kids who are hoped will not return to camp.
- Online exclusion of a camper from get-togethers coupled with others commenting and sharing stories online after the event is over.
- Someone writes something about a cabin mate or staff member on an Internet page that isn't true or is really mean.
- Someone shares/sends to another person an e-mail, text, or instant message that includes confidential information from a camp friend that was not to be shared.
- Someone impersonates a camper by logging into an e-mail account or Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, or other Internet account without his/her permission and starts rumors about other campers or lies about camp experiences.
- Someone puts embarrassing pictures and/or videos of a camp friend on an Internet page without permission.
- Someone videotapes or photographs a camper during an embarrassing camp moment and shares it with other people online.
- A camp friend is pressured by another camp friend to send him/her naked pictures or videos and then these photos or videos are shared online.
- One camper impersonates another camper and uses e-mail, instant messaging, text messaging, or sites like Facebook or MySpace to say he/she is interested in dating someone else from camp, and later saying he/she was just kidding.
Some Science of the Teen Brain
As a camp leader, school administrator, or parent, we often shake our heads in disbelief as we witness some of the decisions and activities (or more often, non-activities) of the teens around us. Who has not commented in jest about a particular kid's lack of brain power or inability to make a reasoned decision? In actuality, it's not a joke. Scientific studies have concluded that the teen brain is truly a work in progress. It's not fully developed until the early twenties and this has consequences for how we handle our youth.
MRI technology provides scientists with very real evidence that, during adolescence, the brain is in one biological state, and exits this period in a very different biological state. MRI studies have been used to see brain activity at work.
One key study found that when identifying emotions on faces, teens often activated a region of the brain called the amygdala, the brain area that experiences fear, threat, and danger, whereas adults more often activated their prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain linked to reason and judgment. Teens reacted from the gut, adults from the intellect. Teen brains are suited for the issues of teen life, but are not mature or developed enough to make reasoned decisions, resist impulses, or inhibit inappropriate behaviors which lead to real limitations in judgment (The National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, 2005).
Bullying comes into play because of the need and/or desire for social dominance. Kids seek their place on the social ladder and no one wants to land on the rung on the bottom. The juggling for social status becomes more intense as kids' needs for social currency grows and they begin to separate emotionally from their parents and family. This is a natural evolution that starts early in life, escalates in middle school, and continues into adulthood. Many people shrug off bullying as part of the growing-up process without realizing that the effects of bullying often cause damage that lasts a lifetime.
While the research on developing brain activity continues and becomes more exact, it is clear that in the adolescent years, it is incumbent upon camp leadership, counselors, administrators, and parents to support teens as they develop those skills that will lead to appropriate adult behavior. This kind of nurturing attention is shown to be very influential in growth and maturity of teenage brain development.
The Camp's Responsibility in Cyberbullying
Camp success is built on relationships both in session as well as outside the camp season. Managing cyberbullying, providing guidance for safety, and taking a stand against cyberbullying and bullying year-round in your camp families is paramount to maintaining these relationships. Be proactive: Be aware of these issues all year long and help your camp families feel your commitment to them.
Cyber Protection Plan for Camps
Camps can begin the process of protecting themselves from cyberbullying by taking the following steps:
Restitution and/or apologies are needed if a camp member is victimized by bullying online. Your camp must send a message that consequences are forthcoming if cyberbullying or hurtful behavior does not cease. Consequences can include: "probation" during camp or "suspension" from camp.
- Develop an Acceptable Internet Use Policy
- Web Site
- Cell Phone Management
- Beyond Discipline
- Serious Cyberbullying
- Designate a "Camp Internet Safety Patrol"
- Role Model Appropriate Behavior
- Parent Partnerships
An Internet use policy should clearly state the rules and the consequences for staff and campers for any online abuses. It should also explain the process for reporting any problems. For example, the policy can state, "If you are a victim of Internet bullying, save and print all messages as evidence and report such abuses to your counselor and your camp director as soon as possible."
Do you fully control the information on your site? Do you minimize personal information available online about staff or campers and upload camp photos without names? Precautions like this will limit the risk of online harassment to campers and staff.
Do you ban the use of cell phones at camp, or have a policy that limits their use during the season? Cell phones with cameras may be used to catch others in vulnerable situations, which can be used to embarrass or humiliate at another time online. If cell phone use among campers and staff is necessary for camp life, clearly define and limit the times for such use.
When information is hurtful, mean, or embarrassing to others, you must take a stand. If situations happen within your camp family, taking a stand shows your commitment to respectful and appropriate behavior — whether it is during the camp season or during the off-season. Families may need help resolving online exclusion and meanness issues, so camp involvement can also show your commitment to an immediate and consensual resolution to such problems — and, in turn, provide an opportunity to be in touch with parents in a meaningful way 365 days a year.
If your campers or staff members are involved in serious situations such as threats, stalking, and the transmission of sexting pictures that have potential criminal implications, call law enforcement immediately. You don't want these issues to escalate and lead to consequences that leave you at risk. Document your efforts to get help from others, if you feel the situation is threatening.
Have a single person or group of staff involved in monitoring the technology arena of camp. This provides an opportunity for you to take a leadership role in camp Internet safety. Find savvy tech personnel who can be trusted to manage this role in a way that makes it clear to other staff, campers, and parents that cyberbullying will not be tolerated.
Documentation of all correspondence and your efforts to manage a problematic situation is your best protection from a future problem. Retain all records of Internet use between campers. This prevents denials by creating objective evidence of situations that arise.
Make examples of those staff members who maintain positive, respectful interactions offline and online all year long.
Working with parents is needed to help defuse cyberbullying situations that do not desist on their own. Encourage quick reporting, and encourage parental discussions of appropriate online behavior with their children. Parents need guidance from you on how to report problems when they arise.
Take Steps to Be Proactive
Cyberbullying is on the rise and is escalating quickly with the increasing sophistication of technology and its use among teens. Cyberbullying is a premier example of how technology can be used to hurt and harm another. Camps need to be protected and offer guidance as this problem continues to emerge. Taking steps to be proactive and offering help to camp families as they deal with this growing problem fosters the bonds of connection to help ensure lasting relationships, which is the hallmark of camp.
LG TextEd. (n.d.). Retrieved from www.LGTexted.com
Haber, J.D., & Haber, S.B. (2007). Cyberbullying: A "virtual" camp nightmare? Camping Magazine, 80(3).
National Crime Prevention Council. (2010). Cyberbullying FAQ for teens. Retrieved from www.ncpc.org/topics/cyberbullying/cyberbullying-faq-for-teens
StopCyberbullying.org. (n.d.). What is cyberbullying, exactly? Retrieved from www.stopcyberbullying .org/what_is cyberbullying_exactly.html
Rosen, J. (2010, July 25). The web means the end of forgetting. New York Times Magazine Online. Retrieved from www.nytimes.com/2010/07/25/magazine/25privacy-t2.html?_r=1&ref=myspace_com
Lenhart, A. (2010).Cyberbullying 2010: What the research tells us. Pew Internet & American Life Project. Retrieved from www.pewinternet.org/Presentations/2010/May/Cyberbullying-2010.aspx
The National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy. (2005). The Adolescent Brain: A Work in Progress. Retrieved from www.thenationalcampaign.org/resources/pdf/BRAIN.pdf
Dr. Joel Haber is a clinical psychologist and internationally recognized bully prevention and parenting expert. His recent book, Bullyproof Your Child for Life: Protect Your Child from Teasing, Taunting and Bullying for Good set the bullying standard for schools, camps, sports, organizations, and families dealing with bully prevention and intervention. Contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Lisa Daley, J.D., collaborates with Dr. Joel Haber and the Respect U team to assist in research and training programs. She is a former practicing attorney who was also responsible for law firm management.