March 3, 2024

Sticks and Stones...and Cyberbullying

Bullying is evolving with the times, but there are ways to stop the cycle
By Jillian Manning | Nov. 12, 2022

For those of us in the Millennial through Silent Generation brackets, getting picked on looked a lot different when we were kids. Without the full force of technology and social media, bullying was based on physical acts of aggression and cruel words at school. Once we left the building, there was a respite.

Today, 20 percent of students—or 1 in every 5—ages 12 to 18 report being bullied. But they can no longer leave their troubles behind at school, as the device in their pocket follows them wherever they go. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that nearly 16 percent of high school students experience cyberbullying, which can happen on social media, via text/instant message, and even in online gaming forums.

“What’s so troubling is that there’s no safe space for these kids. The way they connect through social media, through the internet, is also the way in which they’re bullied,” says Elizabeth Carrillo, director of clinical services for Traverse Bay Children’s Advocacy Center.

Northern Express talked with the experts to see what trends are unfolding with bullying, how friends and family members can spot red flags, and what we can do to support kids who need help.

Who’s Involved
Rebecca Swenson is a licensed clinical psychologist focused on working with children, adolescents, young adults, and their families. She opened her practice, Birchwood Psychology, at the Grand Traverse Commons in fall of 2020, and says that many of her young clients report being bullied.

“It’s peaking around ages 11 to 13—some in early high school for freshmen, sophomores, but then tends to decline. I don’t hear about it as much from older teens,” she says. “When kids get older, they’re also less likely to tell adults about it, because they have a lot of shame about being bullied. And by adolescent age, unfortunately teens are learning that they don’t really trust in adults’ ability to help them solve a problem.”

Swenson says the victims of bullying haven’t changed much over the years, that the kids who are “different in any way” are often targets. She points to physical appearance and especially weight as the “most frequent trigger,” but other factors like sexual orientation and gender idenity, religion, and being neuroatypical can all draw unwanted attention from a bully.

“It’s not just having differences,” Swenson adds. “Kids that do bully tend to pick out kids that are more anxious and insecure, kids that lack assertiveness and don’t stand up for themselves or don’t know how to stand up for themselves. They pick on kids who have big reactions, kids who get visibly upset when they’re picked on. And they pick on kids who don’t have a lot of friends or other support to stick up for them.”

While we can always hope the next generation will be kinder, those bullies still exist. Swenson believes that bullies are “driven by that need to gain and demonstrate peer status,” aka popularity. She also notes that bullies can have lower empathy and social understanding of people and feelings. Being aggressive gets them what they want, partly because they are often lacking the social skills to get what they want on their own merits.

“This can also be kids with mental health issues,” Swenson says. “So kids that are bullied tend to have mental health issues, and kids who do the bullying also have some mental health issues.”

What’s Happening
While the players haven’t changed much, the game certainly has. Swenson says that face-to-face bullying is showing signs of decreasing, but cyberbullying is gaining ground. And the two aren’t mutually exclusive: A youth could be picked on both in-person and virtually.

There’s some nuance, too, when it comes to these interactions. There’s the classic example of getting beat up for your lunch money or mocked for your clothes—direct physical or verbal bullying. But things like social exclusion can be just as devastating, when a kid is intentionally left out of an event or activity. Female students report experiencing the latter more, along with being the subject of rumors.

Sticks and stones can definitely break our bones, but it appears they weren’t right about words never hurting us. That’s become especially clear with cyberbullying, which is all about what is said or unsaid. And it’s easier than ever for bullies and victims to engage 24/7.

“The pandemic, in some ways, kept people physically isolated, but it didn’t necessarily offer the same sort of emotional protection because of social media,” Carrillo explains, “[A kid] might be sort of in the quote-unquote safety of their home—if it’s a safe place for them to be—but there is no safety because social media permeates everything.”

She continues, saying, “They’re inundated with this immediate and constant feedback at a time when they don’t really even know who they are. They’re trying to develop a sense of self, and everyone has an opinion. And things that people would say to each other … over text, over email and social media, are not things that people would say in person, typically. But for some reason, there’s a sense of anonymity … or permission to be even more cruel on social media than you would be in person.”

(Let’s be honest: We adults aren’t always setting the best example on that front.)

How It Affects Kids
Both face-to-face and cyberbullying can have long-lasting effects on a child beyond the hurt of the moment. Swenson says these kids have an increased risk for psychological distress, including anxiety, depression, and trauma.

She adds that “depending on the severity of the bullying, these kids have higher rates of suicidal ideation and self-harm. They have higher rates of substance use as well as a coping mechanism.”

Another less obvious side effect can be educational. If the bully is at school, kids can start avoiding school and are less likely to continue their education.

Devin Moore, a therapist at Traverse Bay Children’s Advocacy Center, adds, “After trauma, there can be a bit of shame, whether it’s to get help or not to get help. Either way, there can be some doubts in our self-worth, our self-confidence, and love we have for ourselves, and that can absolutely trickle into how people see us, how we’re treated, and how we treat ourselves.”

How to Spot the Signs
If they aren’t coming home with bruises, how do you know your kid is being bullied? Our experts gave us a few signs to look for.

Stress over a bad peer situation can lead to somatic symptoms like being physically ill before school, getting headaches, or generally being nervous about interacting in a space where they will see their bully. If the bully is at school, you might start to see your kid disengaging with school, whether that means a change in attendance or a drop in their grades.

Harder to spot but just as important are emotional responses. Is your kid self-isolating in their room? Are they having strong reactions—like crying or yelling—over small things that wouldn’t have bothered them before? Are they demonstrating signs of low self-esteem?

“Just [try to notice] if there’s some of that abnormal or extreme behavior, whether it’s the numbing, the quiet, the isolating, or [the] really loud [and] unregulated,” Moore says. “A lot of the time, we have these big feelings and little bodies…and we’re not often taught how to handle that. That is okay—we’re going to experience these emotions—but we do need to be mindful of how we handle them.”

Moore recommends being curious rather than reactive when outbursts or withdrawals occur and to avoid minimizing the problem.

“Maybe to them, someone not asking them to sit with them at lunch is a big deal. And it might not feel like a big deal to us, but really be cognizant that each of us is different, what impacts us is different, how we respond and react are different.”

What Friends and Family Can Do
Carrillo agrees, noting that kids often feel ashamed of being bullied and blame themselves, so acknowledging the situation and their feelings can be a positive step toward opening the lines of communication and giving them a safe space to express themselves.

“You can advocate,” Carrillo says. “You can ask the child, ‘What can I do for you? How can I help you?’ … But you may not be able to give them a life without this hard experience. And so what you can do instead is to honor how hard it is to let them know you’ll always be there, to let them know they can talk to you at any time and that you will be partners in trying to solve this problem together.”

In some cases, contacting the school, a teacher, or a counselor can help correct the problem, especially with younger children. But Swenson says that many adolescent victims fear that adult intervention will only make their problems worse and may not be open to that route.

Instead, building coping skills could be the answer. Moore says you can have fun with this, building everything from breathwork to dance breaks to taking a walk into your child’s routine. When it comes to facing the bully, Swenson recommends practicing things kids can control, like how to confidently and assertively tell someone to stop picking on them. Brainstorming ways to avoid or ignore the bully, as well as build a stronger support system of peers or adults, can also help.

Taking their mind off the problem with a self-esteem-boosting activity is another good option. Moore says that organizations like Arts for All of Northern Michigan, Peace Ranch in Traverse City, and the Cherryland Humane Society are all free or low-cost places where your child can find an interest and rebuild their sense of value and worth.

Carrillo seconds this, noting that it’s important to find an activity that helps the youth feel they’re making a positive contribution.

“One of the most healing things to be able to do when you’re struggling is to help somebody else,” she says. “And it seems weird, because you would think, ‘I have no resources; how can I help somebody else?’ But what it shows you is that you have more resources than you thought, and, even in your lowest place, you can have a positive impact…and that maybe some of those things that [you’re] hearing about [yourself]—‘Why are you even here? You don’t do anything good!’—those things aren’t true.”

To learn more about Traverse Bay Children’s Advocacy Center, visit traversebaycac.org. To learn more about Dr. Rebecca Swenson, visit birchwoodpsych.com.

Photo by Karolina Grabowska

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