NORMAL — Gone are the days when bullying was confined to school hallways and playgrounds. Today, children are constantly connected through a web of social media that follows them home, making bullies inescapable.

Several Twin City junior high students and school officials spoke with The Pantagraph last week about online bullying, known as cyber bullying.

Kids who are bullies are really good at it. They bully in all the places where adults aren’t watching — on the bus, in the locker room and on social media,” said LeAnn Fujimoto, an eighth-grade teacher at Chiddix Junior High School in Normal.

Students said cyber bullying is more common than face-to-face bullying and that it is difficult to report issues to an adult. School officials said there are numerous ways for a child to speak up — they just need an extra push of confidence to do the right thing.

Kids and social media

According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, more than 60 percent of teens have at least one social media profile, with the most popular being Snapchat and Instagram.

“The more dangerous of the two is Snapchat,” said Jackie Speirer, an eighth-grader at Evans Junior High School in Bloomington. “If someone says something mean and you don’t screenshot it right away, it disappears.”

Several Twin City students said they first created a social media account at age 10, which is too young, according to Chiddix school counselor Nicole Wiedman.

“We suggest parents fully understand what social media content looks like before they let kids create an account,” said Wiedman.

Chiddix counselor Carlie Newton compared internet use to learning how to drive a car.

“You don’t hand over car keys to someone unless they’ve learned how to drive,” said Newton. “If you’re giving your kids permission to get on social media, their education about online etiquette should have already happened." 

Chris Bohne, library media specialist at Oakland Elementary School in Bloomington, said parents shouldn’t give in to children’s requests for smartphones and online accounts. 

“Some kids in elementary school have a Facebook account, even when Facebook's rules say you can’t create an account until age 13. There’s also a popular movement called ‘Wait Until 8th’ that encourages parents to hold off on giving their child a smartphone until eighth grade,” said Bohne.

Bullying methods

Bullying, especially online, peaks in fourth- or fifth-grade and into junior high, said Wiedman.

“It seems to start more with female students. It’s not uncommon to see kids start excluding each other at that age,” she said.

“If a guy posts something after sports practice, other guys will comment and say rude things like, ‘Why are you lifting? You aren’t even strong,’” said Stephanie Hebel, an Evans eighth-grader.

Students said the most rude comments and photos are shared through Snapchat, but the brevity of messages makes bullying hard to track.

Student struggles

Chiddix eighth-grader Brian Reyes said standing up to bullies, especially if the bully is a friend, is challenging.

“Sometimes you’d rather be friends with the person than stop them from bullying and lose a friend, but it’s important to not be afraid of that,” he said.

Even tougher, said the students, is finding a way to speak to adults about the issue. 

"A lot of kids don’t know how to bring it up to an adult, but they shouldn't deal with it all by themselves. They should go to an adult they trust," said Sharanya Rotte, a Chiddix eighth-grader.  

Schools are working to make the sharing process easier.

School support

“No kid wants to be a snitch,” said Evans Principal Chris McGraw. “So we offer different ways for kids to report bullying, through incident forms or online submissions."

Most school districts provide a bullying report hotline for students to send anonymous voice calls or text messages. 

Several students reported confiding in a favorite teacher or visiting their school counselor to talk about bullying.

"It really does help a lot. Not only do they give good advice, but they can keep it all confidential,” said Emilee Nebgen, an Evans eighth-grader.

While schools do their best to combat bullying in the building, officials said the heart of the issue needs to be addressed at home.

Parent prevention

“When you have face-to-face bullying in the building, it’s easier to intervene. The 24/7 aspect of the internet makes it harder,” said McGraw.

He added that combating bullying is more challenging for the school when parents share screenshots of an issue on their own social media accounts that “add fuel to the fire.”

“That only continues the bullying cycle and doesn’t set a good example for kids,” said McGraw.

Oakland Principal David LaFrance said the best way to cope with negative activity online is to encourage children to form deeper relationships.

“Kids are starting to lose those basic skills of how to have a genuine relationship and talk to other kids,” said LaFrance. “Teachers are doing everything they can for children, but parents need to work alongside schools."

Block a bully

Students and school officials agreed on several simple steps to turn down bullies and boost kindness. 

The easiest is to electronically block the user to stop the tormenting. 

“A good response to a bully is to not respond. They'll realize it's not getting to you so they'll stop.” said Hebel. “You could also respond to them with some positive feedback. Once they receive some kindness, they might want be nicer."

Follow Julia Evelsizer on Twitter: @pg_evelsizer

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