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Action and dialogue critical in combatting cyberbullying, experts say

04/11/2013 04:28 EDT | Updated 06/11/2013 05:12 EDT
TORONTO - With digital technology and social media increasingly used by bullies to taunt their targets, it's never been easier for harmful messages and images aimed at tormenting victims to be spread to the masses.

The recent suicide of 17-year-old Nova Scotia student Rehtaeh Parsons came following months of bullying after a photo of her alleged sexual assault was circulated within her school community.

In the U.S., the tragic case has been dubbed "Canada's Steubenville" for its similarities to a high-profile sexual assault south of the border. Two members of the Steubenville, Ohio, high school football team were recently convicted in the rape of a drunken 16-year-old girl, an incident recorded on cellphones by students and gossiped about online.

While some youth may be unsure of how to stop the chain of cyberbullying, experts say that simply remaining idle is not the answer.

"If a child receives a photo circulated through social media there are many things that he or she can do. Perhaps the most important thing is to let someone know and not be part of the problem, but part of the solution," said Debra Pepler, scientific co-director of PREVNet, a national authority on research and resources for bullying prevention.

"Being part of the problem is sending that on to other people, writing derisive comments about it; in some way joining the bullying rather than indicating dissatisfaction and displeasure with it."

PREVNet (Promoting Relationships and Eliminating Violence Network) has several tips on its website geared towards teens on how to deal with cyberbullying.

Among them: talk to a trusted adult; "pause and think" before sending messages; don't ignore instincts if seeing or receiving messages which seem aggressive or over the line; and let the sender of an offending message know you're not OK with cyberbullying.

Teens are also advised to make a copy of the message before deleting it.

On some social media outlets like Facebook, there are ways for individuals to report on posts they find offensive, Pepler added.

Faye Mishna, dean and professor at the Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work at the University of Toronto, said if youngsters are to be encouraged to come forward, there also needs to be an atmosphere that's conducive to having kids speak out.

"It can't be a one-off. It has to be an ongoing education and climate where the message is: 'We don't accept this. And if this happens and we see this, we're going to report it, because we want to protect others,'" said Mishna.

"If that's the climate, it's going to be easier for that child to do it. If that's not the climate...it's going to be much harder and it's going to take a very special kid to be able to do that and that's the problem.

"We need to set up an environment at home and in school where you don't have to be a very special, one-in-a-million kid that can do it; you want to make it so that it's easier for all of them to do that."

Pepler said discussions that parents have with kids about bullying should be a conversation, not an interrogation, adding that it's important to listen to kids and aid them in making wise decisions to help them "find and maintain a moral compass."

She suggested drawing on cases of bullying in the headlines as an opening for discussion on how kids would cope under similar circumstances.

"You can ask those kind of questions and not questions that make the youth feel defensive....(such as): 'Has this happened to you? Have you done it?' But more curiosity questions about: 'How does this happen? Why would young people do that? Why do they feel they need to pass it on? What don't they understand about how hurtful this is?'"

Mishna said parents can take preventative measures in engaging their children in wider discussions surrounding technology. Having kids demonstrate a new app or another aspect of their gadget can be a jumping-off point for talking about the benefits and risks of digital tools, she noted.

"I think it's good to start (the dialogue) in a non-threatening way — not just about the fears and the dangers, but just about the reality of it," said Mishna.

"At the same time, there has to be open communication, so that the child knows that it's important that they tell their parents something really difficult, like they just saw something on a cellphone. That they can trust that their parent won't just get mad or react, but they'll actually help them sort it out."

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