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If we don’t want our children to be cyberbullied… Don’t be a cyberbully!

BY: Jill Strilbing

My gift is building communities around children and getting people excited about education and preparing resilient children for an uncertain future. So I give basic tips and tools to people to help our children thrive. I also do a lot of silly things as an expat and self-proclaimed “mistake maker” so it happens to entertain people in the process. I miss the daily connection with everyone now that I am divided between two schools, new projects, mentors and friends and my home country is so far away. But I refuse to let that stop us from building stronger and more connected relationship with each other because it is for the good of our children. For 2019, I have decided not to let distance stop us from having FUN and learning as a community! So let’s become more connected in a 21st century sort of way!

In Daring to Lead and Eating Last kind of way (thanks Brené Brown, Simon Sinek and Sunshine Parenting and all of my other influencers), I have decided to put my thoughts out there after 23 years of working in education and another 20 years of growing and developing and studying and challenging myself (the athlete inside of me will never die). This will hopefully be helpful for some, entertainment for others and even criticized by those filled with opinions (probably from the cheap seats). But I read the other day, “You will never be criticized by someone who is doing more than you” so I will try to continue to work on self-love and improve as a human based on your suggestions.

Raising kids is mind boggling. It is scary and it is so hard because we won’t even know if we have done a good job for like 30 years! Even then, our children will get to a point in life where they decide that all of their flaws came from home and from school (until that self-awareness and accountability piece kicks in)!

Today, at our children’s amazing school, at a middle school community coffee meeting (yes, our son is a middle schooler now-yikes) I read the title of the handout, “Social Media and Teen Anxiety”, by Leah Shafer. I laughed because of my pending blog post and I automatically started to get uneasy. My trigger emotion is FEAR and it can turn me into an aggressive and shame displaying mess! All of a sudden, talking about the executive function things that are worked out in middle school, I started to tear up out of my worry for paving the way in parenting with our son. So I decided to put this down in hopes that it is useful for all of you who are trying to juggle parenting in the 21st century.

SAME PARENTING FUNDAMENTALS, DIFFERENT SCALE:

Know that even with new technology, the basics of parenting and raising children are still the same:

  • Model proper behavior
  • Teach values to live as an active member in a community
  • Be consistent and set limits
  • Make real connections with your child

CYBERBULLYING

Inspired by motherly fear, hurt feelings over criticism in the virtual world and self-forgiveness for all those I have wronged with poor digital etiquette, I decided to start our blog in 2019 with an online subject that is worrisome to parents and educators, Cyberbullying.

For those of you that know me well, you know that I am anti-device for children unless it is absolutely necessary to become a world-changer. I have seen the effects of technology on my own child as he was born in 2007 and I made him a product of the ipad because honestly, it made my life so much easier (although I will justify trying to raise a genius and be the next Steve Jobs as my excuse in mixed crowds)! I justified his addictive behaviors until I realized that I had screwed up his executive function skills during the time to develop them (0-6 years old). Something he can blame me for later, right?!?  Well we made a 180 turn and he has been device free for 3 years and it changed our family completely for the better. It is a tough balancing act but I have a happier, more confident, funnier kid who is active and who plays to his hearts content. He is 11 years old and thriving without an Instagram account or Whatsapps and I think it actually makes him a bit of a mystery middle schooler! Uncool, so what!!? We all know that the peaking later is better! At least he can talk about real things that are not photoshopped, he doesn’t have a malicious bone in his body and he reads a book nearly every night. BTW…removing the devices was as easy as taking away a pacifier/diaper and I realized later that the attachment to that device was more about me and my comfort than it was about his! I can give you tips or tell you the hilarious story of how we did it in our family if you send me an email.

Our daughter, luckily, gets a better version of us as parents because we already corrected some of the mistakes we made with Nico. She, unfortunately, has the lived through the growing pains of stressed out working parents in an uncertain economy, who are trying to pay for giving them both what we did not have growing up.  So worry-not, she can throw other things in our faces later but the technology piece is not as much as a problem for her. We do not play favorites so she will be a lead in to other posts as not to leave our 9 year old Olivia out!

Back to devices and cyberbullying…

Regardless of our family situation and my take on everything, I think we need to be mindful about the reality of cyberbullying and how the 2D life is creating more bullies from all over the globe. The anonymous aspect of this type of bullying makes it tough to predict and tough to combat. The lack of constant parental supervision makes it harder to control than other forms of bullying. So we have to develop a plan in the “old school” way…

BACKGROUND – BULLIES

Let’s remember that the basics of bullies are always the same. Bullies are people who are lacking something in their own lives, the internal frustration causes bullies to act out. This can be a prolonged behavior (based on nature vs. nurture) or a momentary lapse in judgement because kids are testing out the waters of the social norms (i.e. there is an illness in the family, something is happening so this is a “cry for help”, or a spontaneous decision to try something out as many kids do when learning how to socialize). In general, Bullying shows a lack of Emotional Intelligence and that is not going to improve as we increase the time we spend online. The more time we spend online and away from face-to-face interactions, the easier it is to be cruel and callus to others…

SOFT SKILLS ARE KEY AND BEST DEVELOPED FROM 0-6 YEARS OLD

Executive Function is the buzz word of the moment in brain research and especially in research of children from 0-6 years old because it encompasses what is developing in that frontal lobe of the brain during that time of our lives. EF has 3 parts to predicting a lot of things later in life.

  1. Cognitive Flexibility-perspective taking, problem solving, applying rules, understanding context
  2. Working Memory-holding a memory and working with it, keeping info in mind
  3. Inhibitory Control-judgement and decision making, emotional control, choose a response and resist the automatic response

These make up “soft skills” and we need them to be successful later in life! Emotional Intelligence is important and it cannot be developed online. It is done early (0-6 years old) and it done face-to-face.

Life online is a killer for Executive Function and it leads to a more impersonal form of communication, making it easier to “dump” on others. Then we feel lonely because we just acted like a jerk and we know it and so now we are even lonelier (and we have a stomach ache because we were mean). It is I vicious cycle because that loneliness of the digital world makes cyberbullies want to “dump” more. And since we have no human interaction, everyone feels unfulfilled! YUCK!

For more info on EF.

WE CANNOT SHIELD OUR CHILDREN FROM THE PAINS OF REAL LIFE

Bullies are sneaky so we have to take the time and teach our children well to prepare them for difficult people in person, online and who knows where else bullies will come from in the future. We need to teach our kids “bully coping skills” and it starts at home (sorry guys, not at school, they are an ally but not the main source of proper modeling). We model how to deal with these people, we don’t run to the rescue because bullies are always going to be there and they are WAY worse when they are adults in the REAL world (especially with all of those repressed childhood memories and executive function deficiencies). If we parents/teachers are not around in the real world to save the day, the bully defender has to be our FUTURE ADULT!

WHO GETS TARGETED? WHY?

A bully’s prey can be someone they are envious or resentful of  or an “easy target” (someone who lacks certain social skills and has difficulty solving social problems or someone with special rights). The goal can be to demean or shame another person. But the aim is really to conceal the bully’s own shame and the behavior falsely-empowers the bully to protect their own fragile ego. Bullying can also mask depression, insecure attachments, ineffective discipline or environmental stress.

 

WHAT CAN WE DO AS PARENTS

The four biggest things we can do (in my opinion):

  1. We have to help our kids develop self-efficacy (the belief in yourself and that you are capable of accomplishing a goal)
  2. We have to model how to treat others online (treat others how we want our child to be treated-emails, whatsapps, Instagram)
  3. We have to put down our own devices and really connect with our kids (because making them #2 to our device will turn them into bullies themselves)
  4. We have to keep device use to a minimum and force real world interactions with other kids (playdates, the stuff we all loved to do as kids, get back to time outdoors to improve mental health in general)

 

MODELING IS KEY: GET HELP FROM THE PROS

We have all done things we are not proud of as parents and I am no exception. I caught myself on more than one occasion taking out my difficult day on an email that rubbed me the wrong way…FROM MY CHILD’S TEACHER. Here is where I apologize in advance for my rant about my professional development trip, and my husband dropping the ball while I was out of town…to the poor Middle School Humanities teacher who asked me when we could meet about my son’s lack of taking ownership for his forgotten homework. I realized later that my inner guilt (shame) about leaving my kids in Spain for a week while I went to the U.S. to learn more, lead me to accuse another woman of wanting me to stay in the kitchen while she goes off to work!!! #workinprogress

As parents and community members, we have to model the social skills we want used to relate to our own children. We especially have to model problem solving skills as both the victim and as the observer of injustices. And we have to teach emotional control and empathy so that children can become adults who can handle and deal with their own emotions. It is much easier to lay down the foundation for life (EF) when a child starts with professionally trained stimulation in the beginning of life (0-6 years old), before the true demands of the educational system require their Executive Function skills to be perfectly operating. The beginning of life is our lovely window of opportunity to shape our children into happy and healthy adults! Social-emotional growth and development is necessary for life skills and it is the most important gift you can give to your child. And the coolest thing is that the Social-Emotional is developed through play and having FUN (at least with English for Fun it is)!!!

Social-emotional development IS also taught in books…through literature because books help us with EF and especially perspective taking and empathy training.

 

WHERE “SOFT SKILLS” ARE NOT TAUGHT

Social-emotional development and wellness IS NOT taught on INSTAGRAM or in Whatsapp or in FORTNITE! Dopamine however is rampant in those forms of entertainment (you know, the same chemical we get from gambling, smoking, taking drugs-the big rush that is HIGHLY ADDICTIVE when not balanced with oxytocin that comes from human contact). The highly addictive behaviors that are interrelated with devices and how it connects to other negative-habit forming activities are very worrisome for educators and people “in the know” so it will be a running topic for this blog. I would not give my 5 year old a pack of cigarettes, yet I gave him an ipad so shame on the TECH world for “forgetting” the real research in this field on addiction and its long-term effects…until we are almost at a point of no return.  And shame on me because in my heart and my stomach I knew better!

 

WARNING SIGNS

Cyberbullying Warning signs are similar to those of traditional bullying:

  • Depression
  • Aggressive behavior from a typically non-aggressive child (especially toward “safe” people)
  • Headaches
  • Loss of appetite
  • Sadness
  • Lack of interest
  • Thinking negative thoughts (self-critical)

Careful because victims of cyberbullying tend to have a higher rate of depression. I am unsure if that is because of the cruelty factor, the lack of coping skills we are giving to our youth during the time when cyberbullying came about ,or because of the automatic tendency to have higher rates of depression equated with more time spent online. I have a suspicion that it is a combination of all three.

WHAT DO WE DO INSTEAD?

Ideas to teach our children:

GET OUTSIDE AND PLAY WITHOUT A SMART PHONE (eliminate the evil online world all together)

When things get cruel, drop the phone and walk away

Ask someone for help in dealing with the situation

Stay away from social media until the age of 15. There is nothing good to be accomplished for young kids there (except unrealistic expectations of life, filters on everything and time sucking instead of getting smarter with books)

Model how you put down your phone at night and then pick it up again after their bedtime (like me). And for everyone in the family, leave the smart phone or device in another room for sleep time-mine is downstairs so that I am not tempted to pick it up and check an email or a like. We can all dig up a vintage alarm clock or an iwatch on airplane mode so no excuses.

As a society, we have to build a foundation where it is known that bullying is morally wrong and that comes through modeling. Admiring political leaders who use intimidation and bullying is not the way to set the best example for our future generations. We also have to teach our kids how to cope with bullies because if a bully can easily become president, bullies are obviously not going away anytime soon! The reality is that bullies could be showing a trend of getting worse and becoming socially acceptable which is even scarier if you ask me. Have we not learned anything from history?!? Sheltering our kids from the harshness of the real world is no longer an option and one day we will be gone and they will have to defend themselves so let’s leave them prepared to deal with this challenge instead of running from it.

WHAT CAN WE DO TO TRAIN OUR CHILDREN?

Tips to practice:

  • Don’t react (emotional control)
  • Trust that the gossip/message is not true because I know myself (self-esteem)
  • Understand why it happens (empathy helps- especially when we know that the troubled bully is struggling internally with past or present issues and we understand that it is not personal)
  • As parents, stop running to the rescue and instead give them tools to fight the battle on their own (then set up a false Instagram account and go to town-just kidding)

*Read stories, One is a great book for small children and Wonder by R.J. Palacio is great for everyone

*Watch empowering films-Mean Girls is great for teens

*Visit exhibits that show what happens when bullies take over- The Auschwitz Exhibit in Madrid is tough but my 9 and 11 year old were scared straight and will not become bullies and they now know the warning signs to watch out for to stop history from repeating itself (I know it is an intense lesson so criticize away); Banksy was an interesting exhibit as well;

*Focus on the positives in your community and celebrate building something beautiful together for the good of your children (we are starting Friday community nature afternoons where our parents can leave work, change their clothes at English for Fun and help us work in our 1,500m outdoor classroom to relax and help keep it beautiful for our children inspiring them to do the same)-great for the mental health of all ages

*Stop school shaming (that is bullying in itself)-this is great for parents and teachers and children

*More tips are in Screenwise by Dr. Devorah Heitner

*If parenting is eating you alive and there is no time for books, my favorite podcast is Sunshine Parenting and she reviews all of my favorite parenting books plus she gives tips for raising mentally and physically healthy children   

 

I HAVE HOPE

It is an exciting time in the world because we are repaving the way for everything. This transition gives us the chance to develop new ideas that are helpful for our children and it also give us the opportunity to come back together a role models to raise strong and happy adults. Collectively, let’s decide and make a pact to do a better job raising our kids. Let’s do it as a community so that they will enjoy co-existing in the future. We are all going through “stuff” so let’s get human again. Let’s parent a little better. Let’s teach with more passion. Let’s be a little kinder. And let’s model caring about others around us so that our children learn to do the same thing!

Finally, let’s work together to give kids the life skills to THRIVE and that means teaching them how to deal with difficult people. It is the easiest way to tackle this cyberbullying issue and it will be one less thing they can throw in our faces when they are at an age where they realize how hard parenting really is (and how you ROCKED IT)!

Best,

Jill Stribling

P.S. Please limit the usage/access online since it is the key to keeping cyberbullying to a minimum in your family life.