A version of this article was published in Hood Magazine in 2019.
The rise of social media has allowed teenagers to keep in touch with friends and family more easily than in previous generations. In addition, youth can engage with communities that they did not have access to before, helping them feel less alone. However, this access has also given rise to cyber bullying.
The old adage, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me,” is unfortunately not true. In fact, verbal abuse is more harmful in the long term than physical assault. Social media messages are particularly harmful because the recipient can re-read hateful words several time, which prevents them from trying to move forward.
Not only can cyber bullying be more harmful to the recipient than in-person teasing, but the act of perpetrating cyber-bullying can be harmful to teenagers’ development. Adolescents are impulsive and say things they might not mean out of anger. When this happens in person, they see the emotional pain inflicted on the other person. Since most people experience some amount of empathy, they experience feelings of sadness or guilt, which helps them learn not to make this choice in the future. The mask of a computer screen can inhibit this empathy response.
If your teenager is the victim of cyber bullying, encourage them to delete hateful messages and block the sender. They might benefit from a social media vacation. Reach out to other parents so that they are aware and can monitor their teenager’s online activities. Since cyber bullying has led to low self-esteem, depression, self-harm, and even suicide behaviors, consider taking your adolescent to a therapist so that they have a space to process and cope with their emotions.
If your teenager perpetuates cyber bullying, talk to them about the effect of their behavior on their peers. Remember that social media use is a privilege, not a right, and it can be taken away. If their victim is receptive, have your teenager make amends for their behavior in person to build their empathy response. Since many adolescents act out from a place of their own pain, your teenager might benefit from counseling. Remember that internet posts can never truly be deleted, and a future college or employer could potentially find posts or messages that bully.
Although there are many benefits to social media, this access has given rise to cyber bullying among teenagers. Whether your teen is a victim or perpetrator of cyber bullying, this is an opportunity to teach boundaries, consequences, and empathy.