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How to Handle Cyberbullying

Israel C. Kalman

In recent years, kids have found another way to pick on each other: the Internet and cell phones. This is being called “cyberbullying.”

It is natural to get upset when other kids write terrible things about you, either to you or about you, in emails, IMs (Instant Messages) and websites or blogs. Your parents may also get upset if they discover you are a victim of cyberbullying. Parents often want the school to handle the problem. Sometimes parents even get the police or the FBI involved. They would like society to protect you from everyone else over cyberspace. Unfortunately, as hard as they may try, they will never be able to protect you from everyone. And if you get the police or the FBI involved against other kids, they are likely to hate you and want to be even meaner.

It would be really fantastic if you could live a life in which everyone is always nice to you. Unfortunately, no one is so lucky. You may have heard of a place in which everyone is always nice to each other. It is called Heaven. But as long as you are alive, you are going to have to deal with people being mean. In fact, there is a good chance that the people who are meanest to you are your own family members! And a very easy place for people to be mean to you is the Internet. So stop expecting everyone to be nice to you and learn what to do when people are mean. The sooner you learn how to do this, the better the rest of your life will be.

Your parents would never give you a car and tell you to drive it, expecting the government to protect you from all dangers on the road. You need to go through driver’s education and then take tests proving that you are competent to drive. And then your parents have to pay a small fortune in insurance because there is still a chance that you will get into accidents despite all your driving education. Yet your parents give you cell phones and computers and let you use them without teaching you how to avoid the dangers that await you and what to do once something bad happens. So I am giving you here rules to help you use cyberspace safely and deal with dangers competently.

There is a good chance that if you are being bullied over cyberspace, it is also happening to you in school. If so, it is a good idea to read the free online manual, How to Stop Being Teased and Bullied Without Really Trying or the book we sell, Bullies to Buddies: How to turn your enemies into friends.

It is really not hard to handle cyberbullying by yourself if you wish. All you need is to change your attitude. Use the following instructions, and it shouldn’t be a problem.

1. There is an old saying, “If you play with fire, you can get burned.”

Most things in life have both good sides and bad sides. It is fun to play with fire, but it stops being fun if you get burned. So, if you are not willing to risk getting burned, you shouldn’t play with fire. Basketball is fun, but you can fall, scrape your knees, and even break your bones. The great thing about the Internet is that it has made communication possible like never before in the history of the world. The bad side is that it is easier to spread nasty things about people than ever before. If you are not willing to face the possibility that kids will use the Internet against you, you shouldn’t get on it. Of course kids can spread nasty things about you even if you never get on the Internet, but it is much more likely to happen if you do use it. So remember – if you insist on using the Internet, be prepared that kids will use it against you, and don’t get upset when it happens.

2. The real fun of spreading nasty things about you is to see you getting upset. If you respond by writing angry emails, the kids who wrote them will have a great time and want to do it even more. However, if it doesn’t bother you, then the kids will not have as much fun and are more likely to leave you alone.

3. Dealing with cyberbullying is similar to dealing with rumors. The “Magic Response” to rumors is, “Do you believe it?” (See the chapter on rumors in How to Stop Being Teased and Bullied Without Really Trying.)

You can’t stop people from believing what they want to believe. People know that not everything that is written in emails and IMs are true. Don’t you recognize nonsense when you read it? Well, so do other kids. So you don’t have to worry that they will believe the nasty things written about you. However, if you try to convince them not to believe the stuff that’s going around about you, you look foolish and automatically lose. And you can be sure the nastiness will continue.

The solution is to give people Freedom of Speech. Take the attitude: “Kids can say or write whatever they want about me and it’s perfectly okay.” If kids tell you about the mean things they read about you, ask them, “Do you believe it?” If they say, “No,” you can answer, “Good,” and you win. If they say, “Yes,” answer, “You can believe it if you want,” and you also win. The kids will admire you for not letting anything bother you. It will be no fun to pick on you so they will eventually leave you alone. [Note for adults: If you object that Freedom of Speech does not cover slander and libel, read #10 below.]

4. Sometimes the humiliating thing that kids are posting about you is true and everyone knows it, or it’s easy for them to check it out and find out that it’s true. What should you do then?

Your natural reaction is to get angry and defensive, trying to deny it and prove that it’s not true. You may even want to stop going to school altogether to avoid the humiliation. However, no one is going to respect you more for reacting this way, nor will they stop believing the posting. Other kids will respect you much more if you acknowledge the truth of the posting maturely, saying things like, “Yes, what I did/what happened to me was terrible,” or “I can’t believe I was so stupid. What was I thinking?” They will admire you for being brave enough to admit the humiliating matter is true. Eventually, kids will stop talking about it because they will be looking for new exciting stories to gossip about.

5. Don’t try to get kids in trouble for cyberbullying. If you tell the school or the police on them, they will hate you and want to get revenge against you. So they will probably become even meaner. Furthermore, getting them in trouble would be a violation of the Golden Rule, “Treat others the way you want to be treated.” What would you rather have someone do to you: 1) Write something mean about you to other kids, or 2) Get you in trouble with the school or the police? Of course you’d prefer the first. One of the meanest things you can do to people is to get them in trouble with the authorities. Therefore, if you get kids in trouble for cyberbullying, what you are doing to them is much worse than what they did to you. Just because they did something mean to you, it doesn’t make it right to be even meaner to them. When people are mean to you, talk to them directly, without anger. They will like and respect you much more than if you go to the authorities.

6. If people are making serious threats against you, and you think they are actually planning to harm you, that is a different matter. Then you should tell your parents or the school, or go to the police if necessary. But if you are reasonably sure they don’t intend to carry out their threats, it’s best not to pay attention to them.

7. Sometimes adults disguise who they are over the Internet. They make believe they are kids in order to trick you into meeting with them. They may be looking to take advantage of you sexually or do some other bad thing to you. These people are very dangerous! Do not go to meet people who contacted you over the Internet! And if you suspect that an adult is trying to trick you, tell your parents right away. These people are criminals and the police should be involved in tracking them down.

8. There’s an old saying, “Bad publicity is better than no publicity.” Have you ever stood in line in a supermarket? Have you noticed the magazines at the checkout counter? They are full of nasty stuff about famous people, also called celebrities. And these things are often true! How can celebrities stand it when their pictures, along with nasty stories about them and their families, are in every supermarket in the country? And do you know who gets made fun of the most? The President! Newspapers, magazines and TV shows are always criticizing him. How does the President handle it?

The simple truth is that the more famous and powerful you are the more people are going to want to make fun of you. So if other kids are spreading mean things about you, tell yourself they are giving you free publicity and helping to make you famous. Remember, when kids read mean things about you on the Internet, it’s not like they’re reading it in a newspaper. They know that a lot of the nasty stuff is nonsense. So don’t worry that they’ll all believe it.

9. It could be that kids are bullying you over the Internet because they are mad at you. If so, it’s because they feel like they are your victims! It’s a good idea to ask the kids writing the nasty stuff, “Are you mad at me?” If they answer, “Yes,” ask them why. If they tell you, discuss the matter with them – without anger – and apologize if it turns out you did something wrong to them. If they are not mad at you, they may realize they have no good reason to be so mean and will stop. If they continue to do it, you might then ask them why they are doing it if they are not mad at you. If they still don’t stop, let them do it all they want and show them it is perfectly okay with you.

10. You may be really upset because they are “destroying your reputation.” Destroying the reputation of adults can cause serious, real-life harm to them. For instance, it can hurt their ability to get a job or a marriage partner.

Saying or writing things that can destroy reputations are true crimes called slander and libel, and are not protected by Freedom of Speech. Adults can take people to court for doing these things to them. You may feel like doing so, too. However, if you’re a kid, it’s usually not the same as with adults. You don’t have much of a “reputation” to be destroyed and the cyberbullying isn’t going to affect your life in a real way, other than hurting your feelings and getting kids to laugh about you. If you take the opportunity to show that it doesn’t bother you because you know it’s nonsense, people will respect you and you will even come out a winner in the situation. It’s different, though, if, for instance, your school principal wants to expel you because s/he believes the mean things that are being written about you. Then you do have a good reason to fight the cyberbullying.

11. Respond with humor. This is possibly the best way to win and to get people to like you and respect you.

Most people, including adults, aren’t aware of what humor is about. They think humor is nice. But it’s not. Humor involves making people look bad. If you are not sure about this, pay attention to the comedy shows you like. You will discover that it’s only funny when people look stupid, clumsy or miserable.

Do other kids laugh about the nasty things written about you over the Internet? It’s because they are making you look bad. You can choose to get upset about it. This will make you look like an even bigger fool and they will laugh even more at you. Or you can take it as a joke and add your own jokes about it. Then people will see that they can’t upset you, and that you don’t take yourself so seriously that you can’t laugh about yourself. For instance, if kids write that you wet your bed at night, you can say, “No I don’t. I sleep in the bathtub so that I won’t have to change any sheets!” If they say that you slept with the football team, you can say that your dog did, too. If they pass around a PhotoShopped picture of you, you can respond, “I just got plastic surgery. Isn’t it great!”

12. There is no law that says you have to have your cellphone on all the time or that you have to answer every message that people send you. If someone writes you a nasty message, you are allowed to completely ignore it. If they get no response from you, they will feel frustrated, not you. If you are having dinner in a restaurant with your family, shut off your cellphone. It is rude to talk to friends when your family is trying to have a good time together. If your friends have something truly important to tell you, you can be sure they will tell you later.

13. The last instruction is to be nice to others over the Internet. Can you expect others to write only nice things about you if you write nasty things about others? Even if they are nasty first, it doesn’t make it right to be nasty back. Being nice to others is the best guarantee that people will be nice to you.

Final Note: Another good resource on cyberbullying is The Center for Safe and Responsible Internet Use created by Nancy Willard. Their website has a lot of good and detailed information for schools, parents and kids. The articles for kids contain excellent advice to help you decide what to do when you believe the cyberbullying is truly serious and can’t be handled by yourself.

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