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Month: August 2010

Beyond Cyber Hysteria – Part 2: Cyber bully busting

Did we buy our children a bike and drop them off in the highway? Did we ever not say, “Drive safely” when our children drove off for their first time after they got their license? Did we not tell our children, “Don’t talk to strangers” when they go somewhere on their own?
Mary Kay Hoal, cyber-bullying expert.

Whilst bullying is by no means a new phenomenon, the relative anonymity the online world allows, and the fact that nasty words and images posted online cannot easily be erased, has seen increased alarm over cyber-bullying. The Australian television show 4 Corners produced a harrowing and informative episode on this, which may be viewed here: The Bullies Playground.

How common is cyber-bullying?

Although only around 10% of teens say they have been bullied online, research shows that teens don’t tend to use the term “cyber-bullying” as they find it amusing. If young people are asked whether or not they have ever received abusive text messages, for example, more tend to respond in the affirmative. The real statistics for cyber-bullying may therefore be much higher. We also know bullying tends to peak both online or offline for children around Year 5, and again around Year 7 or 8: it is assumed this is because these periods of transition often increase anxiety.

Janice Turner wrote a perceptive piece on the impact even less directly hostile exchanges can have on vulnerable young people in the UK Times recently: When hatred comes to your home page. In it, she writes:

(my friend, a psychotherapist) says it is the ordinary stuff which devastates her patients, the photos of a sleepover to which you weren’t invited, your best friend ignoring you and chatting on someone else’s “wall”. And everyone will know, by how many friends you have, whether you’re a big, fat loser. It’s not even proper bullying, just crude kidult passive-aggression. But, boy, does it hurt.

Even so, her patients cannot stop themselves logging in. They have to look. And so the mean-girl snubs, the whispering behind hands, follow them home and upstairs into lonely bedrooms.

We think as adults we are tougher, that something as remote and notional as a chat room cannot hurt us. Indeed, it is a blast, a liberation, when talking online to say what you really mean for once, to make mischief, to dispense with uptight British niceness, or even assume the guise of an avatar, a pumped-up, better-hung version of our own weedy workaday self.

In the glow of our screens, safely at home, we think our egos are armour-plated. But there is no protection as we step on to the ten-lane superhighway of a billion heartless strangers. It can smart like hell, that withering rebuke from someone you’ll never meet…

Whilst certainly even being snubbed socially can smart, social commentator, author and academic Dr Karen Brooks cautions that we should not overreact to some of the exchanges that happen online in her piece on bullying published in The Courier-Mail:

A prominent television campaign to discourage cyber-bullying even describes “using harsh words” as bullying.

While it is important that we educate young people about this – the implications, effects and consequences, on perpetrator and victim – it is also important that we do not conflate normal child and adolescent behaviour with the type of bullying that can have devastating consequences.

Frankly, if a child cannot handle being teased (distinguishing intention is paramount) or the occasional “harsh” word delivered in an emotive moment, then we have another problem we need to be discussing.

Building resilience in our children is essential. We hear a great deal about “cotton wool kids” – those who fall over psychologically and emotionally as soon as they discover they are not as perfect, wonderful, clever or talented as they have been led to believe.

I agree that both building resilience, and setting sensible guidelines, is critical.

What can be done?

Rule number 1: Don’t punish the victim by denying them access to technology. Although it is tempting to simply switch everything off, research shows that sometimes girls hold back from telling adults about cyber-bullying because they fear they will be banned from using the internet. Rather than making threats, keep the lines of communication open and establish trust.

When I work with young women, I keep it simple. My advice to them is: ask yourself, Would you do this in the real world? Would you go to your local shops and hand out pictures of yourself in your bikini? Would you agree to become friends with some random who marched up to you at the cinema and wanted to start hanging out ? Would you stand up at assembly and yell out, “I hate Samantha, she is a fat cow!” This last example is used in the excellent clip “Talent Show”:

It is also important to get to know your child’s preferred cyber world;  you cannot offer advice and guidance if you are not familiar with the cyber-environment they are part of. I also like the idea of encouraging your child to connect  to a cyber-mentor, a trusted older person who can “Friend” them on Facebook, for example, and keep an eye on what is happening and step in and offer advice if needed. Most young people can identify at least one older person who they think is cool enough to want to allow “in”. I also like the idea of developing scripts with your child that they can use when things do go wrong. I have done this with a 15-year-old friend. When her Facebook “Friends” spoke to her in a disrespectful way on her wall, we worked through suitable responses she could use and settled on the following: “Hey guys, I get that you’re joking but I still find it hurtful when people use that kind of language about me so let’s keep it sweet – coolies? :)” It is amazing how an assertive statement, followed by an emoticon, can diffuse a potentially hostile situation!

If the bullying is full-blown, teen Tom Wood, a cyber-bullying survivor who now blogs on how to resolve cyber conflict offers the following 5 Steps:

1. Don’t respond to the bully AT ALL (It will make it worse, trust me;)

2. Save the evidence, whether it is text, images or websites (He provides instructions on how to do this at his site)

3. Block and Delete the bully from the service (Again, instructions are provided)

4. Report Abuse to the Admins of the service

5. Tell trusted people, which may be friends, adults, teachers, parents and police if necessary – as it is a criminal offence.

One of the biggest challenges schools I work with are facing is knowing how to respond to concerns over cyber-bullying, particularly as the inappropriate online behaviour is rarely happening during school hours as most schools use filters to block social networking sites. The New York Times ran an outstanding feature on this: Online Bullies Pull Schools Into The Fray. I would strongly recommend schools circulate this and formulate some discussion questions to share at a staff meting. Questions that I think worthy of consideration include:

  • Professor James, an education law scholar, is quoted in the article as saying: “Educators are empowered to maintain safe schools…the timidity of educators in this context of emerging technology is working to the advantage of bullies.”  Do you agree? What steps should schools be taking to ensure all students feel secure?
  • Should schools have the right to search mobile phones? What is your school’s policy on this?
  • The NY Times explains that Principal Tony Orsini caused a controversy when he sent a letter home to parents stating that “There is absolutely NO reason for any middle school student to be part of a social networking site.” Do you agree? Has your school offered parents guidelines on how to manage their child’s cyber usage?

Next week I will look at some of  the ugly elements of cyber world – including the proliferation of P*rn. The reality?  We need to deal with the fact that it is not a matter of if our child will see it online, but rather when.

To make a booking for me to present my new parent workshop on managing cyber world, please email me:

Beyond Cyber Hysteria — Part 1: What is working?

I have recently begun presenting seminars for parents on how they can best support their children — girls and boys — to manage cyber world. This new seminar is called “The good, the bad and the ugly of cyber world”. (To make a booking for me to present this at your school, please email me:

When we hear disturbing news reports about children who have been tormented to the point of desperation by cyber-bullies, or groomed and exploited by online predators, it is tempting to want to simply shut the technology off! Yet whilst it is important to be alert and aware of the dangers, it is also important to take a balanced approach and recognise the huge opportunities that technology has opened up for us all. Over the next few weeks I want to share some of the insights I present in my new seminar and offer parents and schools some ways forward.

1197866_open_door_classics_3Firstly, what is the state of play?

Make no mistake, we are all wired up. Some fascinating cyber facts can help put the scale of change into perspective.

— It has been estimated that there are:

  • 1.73 billion internet users worldwide, with 20,970,490 in Oceania and Australia
  • 234 million websites
  • 126 million blogs
  • 27.3 million tweets posted on Twitter every day
  • 260 billion page views on Facebook per month
  • 1 billion videos viewed on YouTube every day.
  • 90 trillion emails were sent in 2009 (81% were spam).

— What are teens doing online?

  • 14% blog
  • 8% use Twitter
  • 8% visit virtual worlds
  • 38% share content
  • 62% get news
  • 48% buy things
  • 31% get health, dieting and fitness information
  • 17% get information about sensitive topics.
  • 41% of the Australian population has a social network profile, and 70% of them have 2 or more.
  • And about a third of high school students interviewed said they learned about sex predominantly through viewing pornography on the internet. (More on the implications of this for the development of healthy sexuality and positive relationships in another post!)

As I’ve argued in a previous post and in my book The Butterfly Effect, in our rapidly changing world, connection is vital. All young people need to not only be able to read and write in print media, but to be multi-literate — that is, to be competent in the manipulation of a range of media. There is considerable evidence that whilst girls are more successful at reading and writing than boys, more girls than boys are in trouble in relation to ICT literacy. NSW Department of Education and Training research tells us that:

girls (in Australia) were more inclined than boys to see IT as boring (36% compared to 16%) or difficult (23% to 11%). These factors result in more boys than girls studying technology related subjects. Analysis of NSW High School Certificate (HSC) 2002 computer programming student population revealed that only 17% of the total entrants were female. The trend is also demonstrated in the TAFE sector with women comprising approximately 40% of all Information Technology enrolments for 2001. This indicates a decrease in enrolment share from 1996 when women accounted for 50% of IT enrolments.

This trend is evident right across Australia and in New Zealand. If it continues, young women are at risk of becoming part of the information-poor and of being excluded from the new and emerging jobs of the future. Let’s not allow fear to drive us to further isolate and limit our girls. Rather, let’s inspire girls to get savvy and to use ICT as a tool to meet their own needs.

On the positive side, technology has the capacity to allow for:

Connecting. Whilst we often hear negative reports about teen girls behaving badly on Facebook, Enlighten Education’s Facebook page has become a testimony to the capacity young women have to be thankful and engage in meaningful dialogue about issues that matter to them. We have had almost 3,000 teen girls join since we launched it earlier this year and we have had only one negative comment posted on the wall to date. Girls post images that inspire them, point out ads they find sexist or limiting and offer their thoughtful opinions on topics we pose for discussion.


Informing. There are some fabulous sites out there for young people. Some of my personal favourites include: (career information), (youth-friendly information on topics such as depression and eating disorders), (aimed at curbing teen binge drinking), (a creative play experience that builds media literacy skills), (a safe online community especially designed for young girls), (a free online program to assist girls with body image dissatisfaction), (a grassroots movement aimed at ending negative self talk).

Creating. Many girls are creating their own blogs and websites to promote causes that matter to them. I love teen girl Parrys Raines’ site,, where she discusses all things planet-loving. My own teen, Jazmine, posts her amazing photography on Tumblr so she can share and get feedback from other budding photographers.

Educating. Many schools are doing incredibly innovative things with technology and have moved way beyond encouraging students to make their own PowerPoint presentations. Greg Whitby, Executive Director of Schools, Diocese of Parramatta, is widely considered to be at the forefront in encouraging teachers to use ICTs (information communication technologies) as enablers to facilitate deep learning. He shares some of his favourite sites that promote true collaborative learning at his very good blog:

So, Step 1: Join in! Get to know the online world your daughter or students inhabit.

Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.

—Mark Twain.

Familiarity with the online world will become increasingly important as you learn some of the strategies that will help you protect children and ensure they are safe online — more on that next week.

Material Girls

Lourdes' new fashion label "Material Girl" which is aimed at teens.
Lourdes' new fashion label "Material Girl" which is aimed at teens.

The current generation of children has been found to be the most brand-aware in history. Why should we be concerned about this? Because along with heightened consumerism, adolescents are taking on some very adult-size burdens. Australian teens are working and earning more than ever before and a significant number are suffering stress from owing money to credit card companies, mobile phone carriers, and friends and family. They are even beginning to show signs of something you may be familiar with as an adult: ‘choice fatigue’. That’s when you become overwhelmed by the vast array of consumer products you seemingly must make a selection from. More and more kids wish that the whole consumer merry-go-round would just slow down for a second. Researchers have even found that when a child is more materialistic, she tends to be more depressed and anxious and have lower self-esteem.

We should be concerned, too, because teenagers now account for such a big chunk of the consumer market that they are ferociously targeted by marketing and advertising campaigns. While our daughters are still learning, growing into adults and forming their own identity, they are especially vulnerable and impressionable consumers, and marketers know that. You can’t help but feel a chill when you read the words of one marketing professional who said at a big marketing-and-advertising shindig in New York: ‘Kids are the most powerful sector of the market, and we should take advantage of them.’ Can you think of any circumstance where it’s okay for the words ‘kids’ and ‘take advantage of’ to be linked? Me neither.

Often teen girls are told both by the marketers and her peers that if they wear a particular label, they will be noticed and accepted. Teens feel a strong need to carve out their own identity. They want to be and look like individuals, with their own style and image. Yet at the same time, no teenage girl wants to be on the outer or to be perceived as uncool or clueless about what’s in. They want to be part of a group; they have a genuine and valid need to fit in with friends and peers. You may remember treading a fine line yourself in your high school years. If you were too slavish a follower of the latest fashions you looked like a try-hard; on the other hand, if you were wearing the wrong shoes you risked being relegated to the outer reaches of the girl-world galaxy.

The people who sell products to our kids are only too aware of this eternal teenage paradox. Owning the right brands and products – and putting them together in her own style – is one way that a teen girl can walk that razor’s edge between being in and being out. Brand ownership enables girls to associate with a group: the other kids who gravitate towards those brands. The labels and products a girl displays can be like a social code, offering up signs of what kind of girl she is and who her tribe is. For instance, a Ralph Lauren top, Tiffany charm bracelet and Burberry bag sends out one signal. Vans sneakers, Roxy cargo pants and a Billabong T-shirt – a whole other signal. The importance of the social aspect of clothing can be seen when girls go shopping: they like to shop in packs. When a girl holds an item up to her friends and asks ‘What do you think?’ she’s second-guessing her own taste and testing whether it fits in with her tribe’s.

In our marketing-saturated culture, product ownership has joined the list of factors girls use to rank each other socially: to a girl’s beauty and popularity we can now add the rating of how fashionable and prestigious the stuff she owns is. American author Alissa Quart investigated the world of teen marketing for her eye-opening book Branded: The Buying and Selling of Teenagers. What she noticed during her research was that the girls who owned the most name- brand products tended to be those who struggled to fit in according to the standard criteria girls judge one another by: they had an awkwardness about them or weren’t conventionally attractive.

‘While many teenagers are branded,’ she writes, ‘the ones most obsessed with brand names feel they have a lack that only superbranding will cover over and insure against social ruin.’

Kerri-Anne has recently asked me to help parents deconstruct the fashionista hype and to discuss a new label that has been launched by Madonna’s daughter Lourdes – aptly named Material Girl. I thought both interviews worth including here as they do offer practical advice on how you can support your daughter to look beyond the brand; particularly if it is a brand that wants to encourage her to look too sexy, too soon!

This post is partly based on “Shopping for Labels…or Love?”, in my book The Butterfly Effect (Random House Australia). My book may be purchased by clicking on the Paypal link on the right hand side of this web page.

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