What is Cyberbullying and What are its Effects?
Bullying is a form of aggressive harassment that is unprovoked and repeatedly directed toward another individual or group of individuals. There is always a power differential. Additionally, bullying may inflict harm on the targeted youth—including physical, psychological, social, or educational harm.
These are several characteristics of bullying:
The behavior is intentional.
It can be written, electronic, verbal, physical, or visual communication with the malicious and willful intent to coerce, abuse, torment, or intimidate.
The maliciousness is some form of violence.
Overt aggression includes name-calling, pushing, or hitting.
Relational aggression includes gossip, rumor spreading, social sabotage, exclusion, and any other behaviors harmful to interpersonal relationships.
By definition, a bullying behavior is repetitive, creating a dynamic where the victim worries about what the bully will do next.
The bully has perceived or actual power over a victim, which can include technological proficiency
It is attractive because of its ease of use, potential anonymity and potential viral capacity.
What is The Parental Intelligence Way and How Can it Be Effective in a
The five steps to Parental Intelligence elaborated in my book Unlocking Parental Intelligence: Finding Meaning in Your Child’s Behavior (2015) provide a road map to help you get to your destination: the place where you understand the meaning behind your child’s behavior. What was once obscure will become clear. When the meaning or meanings behind a behavior are understood, it is much easier to decide the best ways to handle a situation especially for a busy parent who needs a clearly structured parenting approach they always know they can go to.
Illustration of the Use of The Parental Intelligence Way with Cyberbullying
Here is an example of two seventh grade girls faced with a cyberbullying incident that involved two sets of parents and the school. If not for the Parental Intelligence Way, this incident could have escalated into a uniquely hostile environment for all involved.
Lidia Reacts to Cyberbullying
Lidia is a thirteen-year-old eighth grader who loves going online. But when her friends set up an online profile on Instagram where people were asked to comment or vote for the prettiest girl among the four shown, she was worried to see her picture there. The ostensible idea of the kids who set this up was to show their friends pretty girls. However, one of the profile creators stuffed the virtual ballot box so that Lidia did not emerge victorious. The kids who set this up didn’t realize that by creating the poll, the three remaining girls involved in the vote, including Lidia, would have their feelings hurt.
One of the kids who set up the profile, Evie, had a secret vengeance toward Lidia, whom she envied because Lidia was the class president. Evie deliberately wanted to distress Lidia, knowing her sensitivities to her body image. Evie had lost to Lidia in the recent election, and her intention was to set up Lidia as a loser by rigging the vote to show that Lidia was the least pretty. This ballot stuffing was done to cause harm to Lidia, making this intentional act one we could call cyberbullying. The voting was repeated for several days, making it a repetitive act.
Unfortunately, the post went viral around the school grade, though stayed in this one school and community, but Lidia was embarrassed and ashamed. She didn’t want to return to school. She started having panic attacks, which had never happened before, and knew her anxiety was out of control.
She didn’t want to tell her parents at first, fearing they would take away her computer and phone access in order to protect her; when in actuality, taking her devices would make Lidia an even greater outlier from the other girls.
Lidia’s busy parents, however, had used the Parental Intelligence Way with Lidia since she was a young child, so she trusted them more than she feared their reactions and decided to confide in them.
Lidia had found out that it was Evie who had initiated the incident and wanted her parents to know this truth—but she was worried because Lidia and Evie’s parents were friendly, both having high-achieving daughters in the same grade and school. Both Lidia and Evie had a 99 percent average and excelled in many school leadership positions. Lidia had just beaten Evie in the class president election by a mere twenty votes, and they had vied in another club election, with Lidia winning there as well.
Evie was both frightened and excited when the site went viral, realizing she was harming Lidia more significantly than she had envisioned. She acted on impulse and anger; she was intentionally trying to get back at her competitor, wanting her to feel like a loser for once. Evie hadn’t counted on the site going viral in their grade and feared the consequences when it got out that she was the cyberbully.
She, too, wanted to let her parents know, so they could help her, but feared being punished severely for her unkind actions. She secretly didn’t feel too guilty because she so hated Lidia’s successes, but she knew instinctively to not reveal her lack of remorse; it would make her look really malicious, which in fact she was.
Two girls; two sets of very busy, professional parents who knew each other; a cyberbullying incident that swept the seventh grade in an upper-class neighborhood. This had escalated to quite a problem.
Both girls wondered if the school would get involved, as the cyberbullying had evolved in the school arena. However, luckily for Evie, it at first appeared that she hadn’t violated any civil rights that would require the school to legally intervene. The incident didn’t quite qualify as sexual harassment, but it did border on student-on-student harassment, where the US Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights deemed that
Once a school knows or reasonably should know of possible student-on-student harassment, it must take immediate and appropriate action to investigate or otherwise determine what occurred. If harassment has occurred, a school must take prompt and effective steps reasonably calculated to end the harassment, eliminate any hostile environment, and prevent its recurrence. These duties are a school’s responsibility even if the misconduct also is covered by an anti-bullying policy and regardless of whether the student makes a complaint, asks the school to take action, or identifies the harassment as a form of discrimination (US Department of Education, 2010).
Both girls independently decided to tell their parents, and the viral nature of the incident was brought to the school principal’s attention quickly by several unnamed students.
First, I will describe how the Parental Intelligence approach helped each family, and then I will explain how the parents and each girl spoke to the school principal to resolve the matter.
Lidia and Her Parents: The Parental Intelligence Way
One early evening when she came home from work, Lidia’s mother found her daughter hysterical in her room. She immediately called her husband and asked him to come home from work early, as she had never seen her daughter so distraught. He made it home in half an hour, and together they told Lidia that whatever was wrong, they would help her out. They knew instinctively that their knowledge of Parental Intelligence was going to help them sort this out—whatever it was—and that despite their busy schedules, Lidia’s emotional well-being was going to take priority. The five steps of Parental Intelligence took place as follows:
Lidia’s parents knew to step back and not take any immediate actions as they contemplated their daughter’s distraught condition. They knew to pause and stay calm, so Lidia could calm down. There was no precedent for this reaction of their daughter. They could see she was crying, breathing heavily, disoriented, and panicked.
Both parents were very worried, not having seen their child have a panic attack before. Lidia’s mother, however, had experienced anxiety attacks herself and knew that whatever the reason, it could be contained. She was calmer than her husband, who felt irate that his daughter should be so distressed but followed his wife’s lead in showing a calm front.
Understanding Your Child’s Mind
Mother: (Hugging Lidia, she spoke first.) “Lidia, sweetheart, what is the matter? You seem so distressed and even frightened. Do you want to share with us what’s on your mind?”
Lidia: “I am scared and can’t seem to control my breathing. Is this an anxiety attack? Oh, Mommy, I can’t calm myself. I feel dizzy.”
Mother: “Yes, dear. The way to help yourself first is to breathe slowly. Here, take your hands and cup them over your nose and mouth; breathe evenly and the feeling of dizziness will slowly subside. Don’t worry about talking, just let yourself relax. We are here with you now. You aren’t alone.”
Lidia: “Gosh, that helps. I don’t feel dizzy anymore, but I am really upset. Sorry, Daddy you came home from work so early. I know how busy you both are. (Crying) Can I tell you something very private and awful that happened at school without you getting mad at anyone?”
Father: “Of course, we won’t get mad at you or anyone for anything. Whatever it is we will work it out like we always do. Don’t think for a second that we will blame or judge anyone—especially you. Do you feel up to telling us what happened?”
Lidia: “Yes. I want to. But it’s hard to explain, since you don’t know too much about Instagram. Remember Evie, your friend’s daughter? She and some of our friends thought they’d play a kind of game on Instagram; they showed my picture with three other girls and had an online vote on who is prettiest. (Crying harder) I came in last. I was the loser! I’m so ugly. I hate myself.”
Lidia’s mother: “Angel, they were way out of line. First of all, you are pretty and shouldn’t have to worry about your appearance, but I know you are sensitive to it. But who were the other girls, because this isn’t making any sense to me.”
Lidia told her mother the names of the other girls in the photo.
Lidia’s mother: “All of those girls are pretty and nice friends of yours. Somebody did something to make you the loser. Can you think of any explanation?”
Lidia: “Well, it came out that Evie stuffed the virtual ballot box to make me the loser. You know how I beat her in the class president election and in the position for editor of the class yearbook? She didn’t win either position and I think she’s been angry at me for a long time. She never speaks to me and is silent at all our meetings. But I wouldn’t have thought she’d do such a mean thing to me. (Crying again) How could she?”
Father: “This rings of cyberbullying, sweetheart. Please don’t think for a minute you are to blame, because you won fair and square in these elections. Evie is a very jealous little girl. Her parents, especially her mother, is very competitive and kind of a helicopter mother; she probably got her daughter really incensed about these elections. That’s my immediate take on it. Don’t worry about us being friends with Evie’s parents. That’s the least of this. It also has nothing to do with being pretty. Evie just came up with that because she knows you very well and that you’ve been worried about being attractive. As your dad, I know you shouldn’t worry about that, but I do understand how hard it is to not worry about looks at your age.”
Lidia: “Daddy, how do you know about cyberbullying? Why do you call it that?”
Father: “When someone intentionally uses the internet to hurt someone’s feelings and cause them harm repeatedly, it is cyberbullying. She kept stuffing the ballot box, I believe, making it a repeated event and clearly was out to make you a loser. Sweetheart, people aren’t as nice as you think sometimes. I hope she feels really guilty, or there’s a real mental illness that we’re dealing with here.”
Mother: “Why do you say mental illness?”
Father: “Because it has a malicious intention to me. Evie wanted Lidia to be really upset. She’s been harboring these angry feelings for a long time. The yearbook situation was three months ago and the election was last week. Apparently, she—and I bet her mother—have been really up in arms over this. Lidia, I only explain this because I’ve seen cyberbullying before, and Evie probably had no idea it might get so big. Did it go viral in your grade?”
Lidia: “YES! To my amazement everyone started voting. I don’t want to go back to school even online during the Pandemic. I’m so humiliated and embarrassed to be the ugliest of all. Look at this picture. Don’t I look awful?”
Father: “No. You don’t look awful. You look like your pretty, wonderful self. There’s no way you should feel like a loser. That’s what Evie wanted. She finally wanted you to feel like a loser, because that’s how she’s feeling, I bet. She wanted to turn the tables on you. It was mean, sweetheart. It’s hard for you to imagine meanness when you’re so kind. That’s one of the reasons you always win these elections, because you are smart, organized, efficient, and kind. People know you make a great leader.”
Lidia: “Holy moly. This is overwhelming. I wonder if Evie told her parents. Oh, my gosh, I wonder if the school will get involved. Everybody knows about it. You should see all the text messages I have. I can’t even read them all. Though it’s nice that a lot of people are trying to make me feel better, and people are really talking against Evie.”
Understanding Your Child’s Development
Lidia’s mother was quiet for a while, contemplating that Lidia was going through puberty and that her body was changing rapidly. Lidia’s period had come late, and she had developed her new svelte body shape just this year. Lidia’s mother knew her daughter was uncomfortable with her body, though she was quite beautiful. They had just been bra shopping on AMAZON because the stores were closed due to the Pandemic and Lidia had been embarrassed to see how much she had developed when the package came and she tried them on. The timing of all this couldn’t have been worse, but maybe Evie intuited that. She was a troubled child with a troubled mother. They had to find a way to calm all this down.
Mother: “Lidia, what do you want us all to do to help you? There are many options. You had an anxiety attack because you felt alone and so unprepared for this incident and don’t want it to persist any longer. What’s on your mind about what we should all do? We’re in this together.”
Lidia: “Well, I don’t actually feel as ugly now that we’ve talked about this. It was a crazy thing for Evie to do. I almost feel sorry for her. I wonder if she feels bad or is glad I suffered. I know we’ll never be friends again and that it will mar your relationship with her parents. Sorry for that, but I know you don’t blame me. And I really don’t blame myself. You’re right, Daddy. I won the elections fairly and never thought they were really that big a deal. It’s because everyone worries so much about getting into colleges, even in eighth grade, that these things get blown out of whack. I do want to go back to school whenever it reopens and I’m sure the principal knows about it because everyone online is talking about it. I kind of think we should be proactive and one of you should call him. We should have a meeting, the three of us with him, maybe with ZOOM to decide if we should do anything. I don’t think I want to file a formal complaint about cyberbullying, Daddy—even though I know it’s kind of a crime. I think the school should do whatever they do with things like this and that Evie should have to deal with what she did.”
Father: “You are a very mature young lady, sweetheart. You really seem to be feeling a bit better. I’m so glad. Let’s follow your plan and see what the principal says, and we’ll consider his options. No formal complaint if you don’t want it. I think that’s smart. It would only make things get bigger, not smaller. We want it to really go away so that you can go back to school and lead your normal life.”
Mother: “I agree to whatever you want Lidia. You’re a brave girl to face the music by going back to school online. People will see what a leader you really are and how self-confident you can be. If you get teased, can you brush it off?”
Lidia: “I know I will feel hurt, but I don’t want to panic over it again. For some reason I feel kind of settled. It’s in Evie’s court now, not mine.
Actually, I feel like doing my homework and having dinner later. Does that sound okay?”
Mother and Father: (In unison) “Sounds good to me! You are amazing!”
So, at least in this family, the Parental Intelligence Way worked beautifully; it calmed everyone down quickly and helped them come to a reasonable resolution for the time being.
Let’s take a look at Evie’s family.
Evie Reacts to Cyberbullying
Evie took some counsel with herself and decided to act remorseful with her parents and tell them the whole story. She thought she could fake her feelings so that she didn’t get in too much trouble. She didn’t know what the principal would do, but he had already called her house and told her parents that they all had to meet with him the next morning on ZOOM. Due to that phone call, Evie didn’t have to start the conversation; her parents confronted her openly. They were worried about what the principal had said, which was just that Evie did something to hurt another child’s feelings, and had to come to terms with it. Evie’s parents were also believers in Parental Intelligence, so they had a clear head about how to approach whatever was going on.
Evie’s parents thought they should wait a bit before asking Evie why the principal had called, hoping she would initiate a conversation. They paused and waited.
Evie’s mother was feeling kind of agitated, not used to having her daughter be in trouble. Her father was nervous, feeling that Evie had a mean streak in her and that maybe it came out some way. He was anxious and not willing to wait for Evie to come to them. So, her parents decided to tell her about the principal’s online call and see what she had to say.
Understanding Your Child’s Mind
Father: “Evie, the principal called and wants us to have a meeting—the three of us—with him tomorrow morning on ZOOM. What’s this about? Do you know? He sounded upset, but he said it was better to explain in person in a video chat than on the phone. He sounded cautious. What’s up?”
Mother: “Before you start, remember we are with you in this, whatever it is, and will try to help you. But it’s important to be honest about the trouble, which it sounds like it is.”
Evie: “Well, it started out pretty innocently. I think Lidia’s oversensitive. A few of us decided to do an Instagram thing where we took four pretty girls and made a contest about who was the prettiest. We had a virtual ballot, and everyone voted. To my surprise it went viral in the grade, and there were hundreds of votes, and Lidia came in last. That’s about it.”
Mother: “Why would Lidia come in last? She’s very pretty. I know you don’t like her, and she’s beat you out in the recent elections, but she is pretty. What could have happened to make her last? She must have been really embarrassed. Personally, I don’t like her too much myself. I think she’s kind of full of herself, but that doesn’t mean she isn’t pretty. And she did win the elections fairly. I feel like there’s more to all this, especially if the principal is involved.”
Evie: “Well, I’ll tell the truth because it really doesn’t matter. I kind of stuffed the ballot box so she’d come in last. She’s been getting on my nerves with all these elections, and I don’t think she cares about my feelings with losing the elections. So, I wanted her to know what it feels like to be a loser. That’s exactly how I feel—that I’m a loser. That’s all.”
Father: “That’s all? Evie you did something mean. She won those elections fairly. I know you feel badly, but it wasn’t her fault. You must have really felt terrible about losing. Sweetie, you feel like a loser? You are such an achiever, not a loser. These feelings seem to lie behind your actions—that weren’t reasonable, to my way of thinking. I don’t want to blame you for your feelings, and I won’t, but why did you stuff the ballot box? What was that about making her a loser?”
Evie: “She’s always number one. I work very hard and have really good grades, and when we apply to Ivy League schools, she’s going to put me in a tough position. I won’t get in because we’ll be chief competitors. That’s not fair, after all my hard work. I feel bad, I really do, that I hurt her, but she had it coming. I’m a loser and now she’s one. She should know how it feels.”
Mother: “I know how hard you try in school and that you’re very successful. But ‘she had it coming’? What do you really mean to say? We aren’t judging you, but we do want to help you. You sound really hostile, and that must feel pretty awful.”
Evie: “I don’t like her. She always wins everything. Kids like her better than me. She thinks she’s so cool. She should know what it feels like to be humiliated once in a while.”
Understanding Your Child’s Development
Evie’s parents decided to step out of Evie’ room for a few minutes and discuss what they were hearing. They liked Lidia’s parents and knew she was a good honest kid who never got in trouble. They were astounded by their daughter’s coldness as she spoke of Lidia. Even though Evie’s mother had been chagrined when Lidia won the elections, she hadn’t thought of her daughter as being mean-spirited.
She said to her husband, “I think we have a bigger problem here. The school might call this cyberbullying, because Evie did intend to make Lidia feel badly and kept the election going, online, so it has a repeated feeling to it. Evie is trying to act like she’s sorry, but she doesn’t convince me at all. She can’t hold back her animosity.
Morally, she’s developmentally off-course here. We need to get her some help. Her self-esteem is really low, if she feels like a loser in general. I agree with you. These feelings were behind her behavior.
She’s been feeling humiliated for months and we didn’t know. I don’t know if she’s going to get suspended or what kind of punitive measure the principal will take. I hope Lidia’s parents didn’t issue a complaint. Somehow, I don’t think they would. They’re really nice people, though I think we just lost a friendship. What’s your take on all this?”
Father: “My understanding of cyberbullying is that it has to be intentional and malicious and repeated. I don’t know if this qualifies, but if the school is involved already, it probably means it is at least on the border of a bullying incident—and that our daughter was the chief of the pack.
I’m also worried about Evie’s moral responsibility; her anger is out of control. I don’t want to punish her, because she won’t feel understood, only resentful. I’d like to suggest some professional help from a psychotherapist to help her work out her anger and faulty morality. What do you think? I also think we need some guidance, because somehow we’ve failed her in knowing when to take responsibility for a mistake.”
Mother: “I like your way of thinking. Let’s tell her your idea and see what she says.”
Evie’s parents go back in her room, where Evie is on the computer. She is chatting with friends online as if nothing unusual was going on.
Mother: “Evie, we are worried about you. What you did to Lidia was mean-spirited. I think you are internalizing the feeling of losing and I’d like you to get some help in thinking this through with a psychotherapist. Daddy agrees. What do you think?”
Evie: “A therapist? It was just a foolish mistake. I didn’t know it would blow into something so big. I’m not an idiot or mental.”
Father: “We’re not calling you an idiot. We just feel you’re confused about right and wrong, because you’re feeling so angry at Lidia. I know you don’t see your anger as a problem, but it is. It’s hard to feel humiliated. I know what it’s like to feel angry and out of control. I don’t want you to suffer with that. Please consider a consultation with a therapist.”
Evie: “Okay. It will probably make the principal go easier on me if he knows I’m willing to do that. I think everyone is blowing this out of proportion, but I’m willing to go for a meeting with a therapist. Some of my friends see therapists, so it won’t be so embarrassing—or maybe they don’t have to know.”
Mother: “Therapy is a private matter. No one must know. So, you’ll be with us with the principal tomorrow and we’ll see what he has to say? Is that okay?”
Evie: “Sure. Are we done now? I have homework to do.”
Evie’s parents were worried about Evie’s response but felt they were headed in the right direction. The principal was pleased with the therapy plan and also told Evie that if she posted an online apology to Lidia for others to see then he would take no further action.
He did explain to Evie that her actions toward Lidia were harassing and cyberbullying, which he couldn’t ever countenance again. Evie cried in embarrassment, but she did what he said, and the incident blew over. Evie did begin therapy and began to learn about how the impact of her actions affected others.
The Parental Intelligence Way helped both families reach conclusions that were nonjudgmental, deeply empathic, and helpful to their daughters. Eventually, Evie’s father called Lidia’s father and apologized, admitting his daughter had a lot to learn. He was remorseful, even if his daughter hadn’t reached that developmental step yet. The mothers were cordial when they saw each other now and then, but their friendships were over.
This incident was resolved rather smoothly without further harm done. In fact, both girls learned from it and took developmental strides from their experiences, in the long run. For being such busy parents during the New Normal of the Pandemic the two families managed a tough situation quite gracefully—and in a relatively short time. The structure of Parental Intelligence gave them the emotional organization they needed to weather the storm. The meaning behind both girls’ feelings were understood with empathy and love
The Parental Intelligence Way was a sound approach to solving these problems that had to do with technology choices. In each case, the parents of the children and teens collaborated to understand the meaning behind the presenting problems and to understand and empathize with their child or teen’s wishes, intentions, and experiences.
The five steps of Parental Intelligence helped the busy parents find a structured method to approach the situations that their children encountered.
In a short amount of time, problems were resolved, and child-parent bonds were strengthened.
Busy parents need to know a child-rearing approach that they can always depend on to meet their own and their children’s needs in a short amount of time, reliably and empathically. Using Parental Intelligence is the way.