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  • Writer's pictureLisa Dixon-Wells

Cyberbullying is 24/7 bullying, but we CAN do something about it

Updated: Feb 1



Cyberbullying Cloudy with a risk of children


The following is an excerpt from the Cloudy with a Risk of Children podcast hosted by J. Edward Les, MD. It has been lightly edited for flow and clarity.



Introduction by Dr. Ed Les:  Like many of you, I am a huge fan of Ed Sheeran. He has so many great songs, like Photograph, Perfect, Shape of You. My personal favourite is Supermarket Flowers, it’s so powerful.


It’s hard to imagine now, but when Ed Sheeran was in primary school his life was difficult. He had corrective glasses for a lazy eye, and he had a stutter – the kind of kid that bullies are attracted to like magnets. It was brutal for him, as he tells it. He cried almost every day. But he found refuge in music and, needless to say, everything has changed.


I invited Ed Sheeran to come on the show to talk about bullying. Total long shot, but as one Ed to another I thought it wouldn’t hurt to ask. No response, unsurprisingly. Ed


Ed Sheeran Bullied when younger

Sheeran, as I said, survived his bullies and thrived thanks to his resilience and rare musical talent. Now his distinctive looks are really just part of his brand. But it could just as easily have gone the other way. For many kids tormented at school and elsewhere it does go the other way, and often horrifically so. For lots of kids, bullying is the start of a downward spiral from which they never recover.


Consider the brutal case of Amanda Todd, a 15-year-old from Maple Ridge, British Columbia, who committed suicide in her family home. This occurred about a month after she posted a video to YouTube where she described how she had sunk into a deep depression after enduring years of online bullying and blackmail.


For every Amanda, there are hundreds who don’t kill themselves but who live lives of despair, brokenness and self-loathing triggered by incessant bullying. None of which is new. Bullying is as old as the human race itself and it really cuts across all walks of life and across all social classes and demographics. Victims often begin to believe the negative comments about them or that they deserve the abuse. They can end up in a deep pit of depression, hopelessness and anxiety, with school and relationship problems that can be difficult to solve. These days, the explosion of social media in all its forms – SnapChat, Instagram, Discord, TikTok, etc. – has made the problem go nuclear, so to speak. While they are trying to do homework quietly in their room, a child or teenager can be viciously assaulted over and over again by online attackers and no one else knows about it.


When I was growing up, young people who were bullied in school could at least go home to a safe place, where they had some hours free from torment. Today, however, constant connection via social media leaves those who are bullied no respite at all from the bullying. It’s nightmarish stuff.


The good news is that there are strategies we can use and defences we can build to push back against the poison of bullying. That is the focus of today’s podcast. I couldn’t persuade Ed Sheeran to come on the show, but I convinced Lisa Dixon-Wells to join us. Lisa is a star in her own right, and she’s a hero for her anti-bullying advocacy work. Lisa is the founder of the anti-bullying organization Dare to Care. She shares insights about why social media is such a catalyst for bullying, plus strategies to reduce cyberbullying, like Dare to Care’s three-door challenge.


 

Ed: I’m honoured to be sitting here today opposite Lisa Dixon-Wells. In 1999 Lisa founded Dare to Care, a nonprofit organization that addresses the pervasive issue of bullying in youth. It was the first program in Canada to tackle this important issue. Since its inception, Dare to Care has delivered its program at over 2,000 schools across Canada. In 2016, the government of Alberta recognized Dare to Care with their Inspiration Award for leadership in bullying prevention. Welcome to the podcast, Lisa. Can you give us a bit of background about Dare to Care and how and why it came in to being?


Lisa:  I started out my adult career as a School Counselor in a very high needs school in Portage la Prairie, Manitoba. It seemed the kids being referred to me were on one end of the spectrum or the other. On one end, were very aggressive, assertive children who weren’t following the rules and were being very mean spirited. On the other end were kids with very low self-esteem. As a new counselor, I think I attended more professional development days in that first year than I did over the rest of my adult career, but there was nothing around bullying prevention. Nobody was even talking about it. I decided to go back to university for a master’s degree in educational psychology. My whole focus was on developing Canada’s first-ever comprehensive bullying prevention program, which later became known as Dare to Care.


Ed: Bullying is as old as the earth itself, but it also seems to be something of a moving definition. What is bullying actually? And how is it different from the rough and tumble lives of young people that are perfectly normal.


Lisa: It’s impossible to be effective and shift a school’s culture away from bullying if everybody has a different definition. The standard, globalized definition is that:


Bullying is repetitive. We are not talking about a one-time thing. There’s a pattern of negative behaviour there.


Bullying is intentional. If I was a bully at my swim club in Red Deer and I moved to Calgary and joined a swim club in Calgary, I am going to try to have that power in my new swim club. It might take me a couple of weeks because I’ve got to figure out who I can pick on and who I had best leave alone, but it’s premeditated.


There is an imbalance of power between the bully and their target. It’s very one-sided and the person on the receiving end feels helpless to do anything about it.


Ed: How common is it as a phenomenon? According to your website, every day 175,000 students across North America miss school because of bullying. Fifteen percent of students are bullied, and research shows that bullies make up 2% of the student population and another 4% are their friends and supporters. The remainder are bystanders, kids who remain silent for fear of becoming the next target.


Lisa: Yes, that’s accurate. Those bystanders, the 79% who witness bullying but don’t know what to do, actually include not only the kids but parents, teachers and coaches. At Dare to Care, our goal is to mobilize that entire group, the silent majority, into the caring majority.


I’d like to return for a moment to the definition of bullying, to further clarify the differences between normal conflict and bullying.


What we call “mean moments” are a normal part of life and are not bullying. You’re angry, you’re frustrated, you’re hungry, or you haven’t had enough sleep. You verbally lash out at someone one time, but you feel remorseful and later you go back and apologize.


Conflict is also a normal part of life. Conflict is two parties who are going at it. There is no imbalance of power. It’s a back and forth of words and actions. It can be loud, ugly and very mean spirited, but it’s equal power. Bullying is an imbalance of power and should never, ever be considered a normal part of life.


Ed:  One of the ways in which bullying is different now, I think, is the explosion of social media. Can you speak to that?


Lisa: We talk about “old school bullying,” which is the name calling, the physical pushing and shoving. Cyberbullying has taken it to a whole different realm. I’ve heard it said that: “Kids are growing up on a digital playground, but nobody is on recess duty.” I think that encapsulates the whole issue. We have kids who don’t understand the consequences of their words online. It’s easy to spew hatred and ugly things and share inappropriate pictures because they don’t see the person on the receiving end. They don’t get that immediate reaction.


Parents are the #1 line of defence here. It’s easy to purchase devices for our children, but it comes with great responsibility for the parents and for the kids, and I recommend establishing some sort of contract. I know that sounds big brother-ish, but parents really need to step in, set boundaries, and know all the places their child frequents online.


Ed: The problem is that there’s never any down time. Kids have never been more connected; in a way they are never alone. When I was growing up, children would go home at the end of the day, and they wouldn’t see their tormenter until the next day. Now the tormenters go home with the kids.


Lisa:  And it’s involving kids who wouldn’t normally take part in that kind of behaviour, because it’s just so easy to be part of a group spewing awful things when you’re not seeing the direct impact.


Ed:  Online, the filters are gone. This is a real-time world our kids live in. They will post stuff online that they can’t take back and it’s often inaccurate information and very, very hurtful. You’ve developed a concept that actually addresses this, one that tries to get kids to stop, think and self-monitor before they post. Can you describe it for us?


Lisa:  Our three-door challenge is a visual presentation we give the kids. Each door has a question on it. Before they post, like, share, or comment on anything, they need to answer the question on each of those doors.


Door number one reads: Could I say/show this to the person’s face? Or, if it’s a photo, could I show this to the person? If the answer is yes, they can proceed to door number two. If the answer is no, that’s your conscience saying, “Don’t do it, don’t post it, don’t say it.”


Door number two is the empathy piece: How would I feel if someone said those things about me online? If you would feel fine, you wouldn’t be embarrassed or humiliated, then go through door #2 If part of you thinks “if someone said those things about me, I’d be horrified and upset,” then walk away and don’t post.


Door number three is the big one. Could you stand up in front of everyone you care about (classmates, teammates, parents, grandparents - and let’s throw in the police), show them what you are about to share online (a photo, a meme, a joke or whatever) and be okay with it?


If the answer is yes, go through door number three and post, share or like. You’re good. If there’s a little voice in your head that says, “I sure hope my mom isn’t going to see this” or “I sure hope my coach isn’t going to see this,” chances are high they will see it at some point, so just walk away.


This is designed for the kids, but it’s good advice for all of us adults to pause and think before posting too. As parents, setting the example of always being kind and thoughtful about what we post online is very powerful. Our children are always watching us.


Ed: Does the three-door challenge resonate with teenagers? Will kids actually use it?


Lisa: I’ve had a lot of instances where a parent will tell me that when their child came home from school, they talked about the three-door challenge and they remembered every step. It’s not a substitute for parents being aware, but I think the three-door challenge is worth sharing with kids, a seed to plant in their minds.



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