Adults are becoming more and more savvy about protecting kids from cyber bullying—harassment using technology, such as email, instant messaging, or social networking sites like MySpace, Facebook, and Twitter. But during the upcoming spring break, when kids have more unstructured time than usual, they are also at risk of exposure to bullying through text messaging (“text bullying”), or even being “sexted,” using the text-messaging feature on cell phones, which a reported 87 percent of teens own (National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, 2008).
“Sexting” is sending nude or sexually suggestive pictures and accompanying text via cell phone. Although the original “sexter” may only send the suggestive message to one person—a girlfriend or boyfriend, for example—that message can be forwarded to anyone in the recipient’s address book, and from there, all across a school or community. Once it’s out there, there’s no way to take back the message or the accompanying embarrassment or humiliation.
There are possible long-term consequences, too. Since school admissions officers and potential employers often look at online profiles, the repercussions of sending an inappropriate message could be endless. And one newspaper reports that sexters can “face felony charges for child pornography” (Borgman, 2009), landing them on the registry for sexual predators, a label they’ll bear for the rest of their lives.
What Kids Can Do About It
According to the Anti-Defamation League, critical thinking is “the best tool against hate” (Tiven, 2003). You can coach kids to use the same problem-solving skills for text bullying that they would use in any other situation. The more they think before pressing the “send” key, the less likely they will be to disseminate a photo or message that will get them in trouble and ruin their reputation.
When kids receive harassing or inappropriate text messages, there are several things they can do:
- Never, ever respond to the message sender.
- Report it as soon as possible to a trusted adult (and if that person doesn’t help, tell others until someone does).
- Save or print the message to keep a record, then delete it from the phone.
- Only keep contact information of close friends and family in their address book.
- Talk to their wireless provider about how they can help (such as blocking the messages or changing their number).
What Parents Can Do About It
If critical thinking is a kid’s best defense against text bullying, communication is yours. Just as you talk to your kids about sex, relationships, and drugs, it’s also important to talk to them about how they use their phones, and with whom. “Supervising and monitoring your kids’ whereabouts in real life and in cyberspace doesn’t make you a nag; it’s just part of your job as a parent” (NCPTUP, 2008).
It’s best not to take away kids’ phone privileges when they come to you with a text bullying problem. That might make them feel as if they’re being punished for someone else’s transgression. Here are some things you can do instead:
- Talk to your kids about text bullying and sexting, especially the short- and long-term consequences.
- Monitor their cell phone use: Who are they texting? Who is texting them?
- Suggest that everyone’s cell phone stay on the kitchen counter or another centralized place while they’re home.
- Set rules about the kind of behavior that is and is not acceptable—on a cell phone, or anywhere else. Remind kids of the rules periodically.
- Many cell phone provider’s website allow for varying degrees of parental control available from their website. This allows for parents to control the hours of which a child may receive or send text/pix messages, block callers/numbers from any activity on that specific phone line, and keep record of your child’s mobile activities.
Borgman, L. (2009, February 24). Safe sexting? There’s no such thing. Lexington Herald-Leader.
Brock, K. (2008, May 6). Text bullying. WLS-TV Chicago, IL. Retrieved February 24, 2009 from http://abclocal.go.com/wls/story?section=news/national_world&id=6124134.
National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy. (2008). Sex and tech: Results from a survey of teens and young adults. Washington, DC: Author.
NCH: The Children’s Charity. (2005). Stoptextbully top 10 tips. Retrieved February 24, 2009 from http://www.pkc.gov.uk/NR/rdonlyres/F1ABA3FA-C050-4913-BD29-0AC7A531F110/0/StoptextBullyingTop10Tips.pdf.
Tiven, L. (2003). Hate on the Internet: A response guide for educators and families. Albany, NY: Anti-Defamation League.
The following is a list of warning signs that a student may be getting bullied. Please make a copy, edit it, be creative, add artwork or whatever, but place it publicly where your students can see it. Consider making a copy and editing it for your parent’s newsletter/email.
- Shows an abrupt lack of interest in school or a refusal to go to school. (According to a National Association of School Psychologists report, 160,000 children in the United States miss school every day for fear of being bullied.)
- Takes an unusual route to school. (Going north and three blocks east to get to a school that is south of your home makes a lot of sense if going directly south will put you in the path of bullies.)
- Suffer a drop in grades. (It’s hard to concentrate on school work when you are trying to figure out how to avoid the bullies.)
- Withdraws from family and school activities, wanting to be left alone. (When you feel isolated, shamed, scared, and humiliated, you just want to curl up in a ball and not talk to anyone – or lock yourself in your room and cry.)
- Is hungry after school, saying he lost his lunch money or wasn’t hungry at school. (The bully takes great pleasure in extorting lunch money. The lunchroom ranks third behind the playground and hallways in the order of places where bullies attack their targets, so it’s a good place to avoid, even if you do have lunch money.)
- Is taking parents’ money and making lame excuses for where it went. (Once again the bully separates you from your money. The threat of retaliation can convince you that stealing from your mom’s purse or your dad’s wallet poses a lesser risk to body and mind than not showing up with the money for the bully.)
- Makes a beeline to the bathroom when she gets home. (Since bathrooms are number four on the list of places bullies like to attack, you figure it’s best to “hold it,” even at the risk of a bladder infection. A bladder infection can’t possibly hurt as much as having your head dunked in a swirling toilet or seeing your reputation attacked via insulting graffiti on the mirrors over the sinks.)
- Is sad, sullen, angry, or scared after receiving a phone call, text, email, or IM, etc. (You don’t know how to tell your parents that the girls on the other end of the line called you ugly names and then all laughed at you before hanging up. You are ashamed to talk about the obscene lies the boy in your English class write about you and sent to all 500 friends on MySpace or Facebook. Even your cell phone isn’t safe anymore. If they can reach you in your own home then how can anyone help you?)
- Does something out of character. (You would rather get caught skipping school than caught in the school yard or on the wrong block by a bunch of bullies who circle around you every day and “pretend” to be playing. You would be willing to pull your pants down at recess if it meant those girls would promise to quit taunting you and let you into their social cluster.)
- Uses derogatory or demeaning language when talking about peers. (If you’re being called ugly names, poked, shoved, shunned, and laughed at, you won’t have any terms of endearment for the kids who started the bullying or for those who joined or looked the other way.)
- Stops talking about and everyday activities. (If you’re being bullied, you have no everyday activities that are not colored in pain, frustration, fear, and terror.)
- Has disheveled, torn, or missing clothing. (You don’t like to resolve conflict by duking it out, and it wasn’t a one-on-one fight by equals. But saying you got into a fight sounds better than saying you got beaten up. Besides, last time you told your dad about the bullying, he told you to fight back. Or you surrender your favorite jacket rather than risk an attack, but saying that you “accidentally” left it in the locker room will go over better at home than admitting how you really lost it.)
- Has physical injuries not consistent with explanation. (Saying that you walked into a locker sure sounds better than admitting you were shoved into one. Saying you sprained your ankle running to class beats revealing that those girls tripped you in the middle of the bus aisle, then laughed at you as you limped back to your seat. “I don’t know how I got that back eye; I must have fallen out of bed,” rings less painfully that recalling how you were held down and kicked in the face on the way to school.)
- Has stomachaches, headaches, panic attacks, is unable to sleep, sleeps too much, is exhausted. (Bullies can be real pains in the brain and in the body. The body responds to the stress of being targeted by turning on its chemical defense system so you can fight or flee. But with daily attacks, this system can never shut down. Adrenaline keeps getting released. The body stays on hyper-alert, churning up the stomach, twitching the limbs, and numbing the brain. Constantly resisting and fearing the bully taxes the mental and physical defenses. Eventually the system breaks down and the mind and body collapse into a state of exhaustion.)