Between Tweens: Casual Comments, or Cyberbullying?

Billy Unger, a teen actor on Disney Channel’s show Leo’s Jam, speaks from personal experience on the When I Was Bullied video. “I feel like cyberbullying is almost a more cowardly way of bullying a person. Bullying is bullying,” he said.

Cyberbullying can start with a passing comment, not thoughtfully shared. Helping tweens understand the difference between cheerful chatter and hurtful online behavior can be an ongoing challenge for teachers and parents.

Last year my friend Dawn moved her family to Virginia. Her 11-year-old daughter, Lea, worried about making new friends. Her new classmates talked about Facebook a lot, and she wanted to be part of the conversation. She thought it would be a good way to stay in touch with her old friends, too. After talking it through with her parents, they agreed to a trial period.

Middle School Confidential Real Friends book © by Free Spirit PublishingSo Lea and Dawn sat down and planned her page. They had agreed to only use her first name, last initial, and hometown. Her parents had to have her password. She could say that she had a cat and a brother, but she couldn’t share their names. She would keep her school information out, hide her birthday, and use the privacy settings that would allow only approved friends to see her posts. Instead of a photograph as her profile picture, she used a drawing of herself.

They were ready to sign up, and Lea was excited. She popped her name, email, password, and birthday in the required boxes and hit the sign-up button. When the sign-up failed because she was under 13, they were puzzled, because so many of Lea’s friends had pages. Lea called a girlfriend, who told her that her mom let her say she was 13 to get her page. “Go ahead,” her friend said. “Everyone does it!” Dawn talked to a few other parents about their kids’ use of Facebook and other sites. She came back to Lea and said, “As long as you let us read everything, and stick to our rules, you can set up a page.”

According to Dawn, Lea acquired a dozen friends among her new classmates within a week. Her folks asked her to post no more than once a day, which was hard because she had lots she wanted to share. And posting was fun! “Went to see Hugo with my brother, awesome movie.” “The math test today wasn’t so bad after all.” “Bean burgers for dinner here, anyone got mac and cheese to share?”

Getting people’s comments back on her posts was even more fun. One friend thought the same math test was dreadful. Two friends invited her to dinner. Lea asked her mom if it would be okay to leave quick answers to those comments, thinking that should not count against the “one-a-day” rule. Her mom agreed.

One friend commented, “Did you see that purple sweater Amy was wearing today? Looks like a hand-me-down from her grandmother!” Quick replies popped up from friends sharing their opinions on the sweater. It was almost like a game, with everyone trying to say something wittier than the last comment. Lea tossed off a quick quip before heading to bed.

A few days later, the classroom whiteboard had a question written on it. “Has anyone in our classroom cyberbullied?” First the teacher had them start a list of online behaviors that might be hurtful to others. Some things were obvious, like telling lies about someone. But the students did not agree on every suggestion. One kid said that he didn’t think anyone in the room had said anything that was hurtful, as half the kids didn’t have texting on their phones, and lots were not allowed to use Facebook. Another said that she knew none of her friends had, because they just talked about clothes and music and stuff. “Whose clothes? Yours, or other people’s?” asked the teacher.

The teacher’s question jolted Lea. She thought of the comments that had been posted about Amy’s sweater, including her own. Suddenly, she felt really bad about tossing back a quick comment, imagining how Amy would feel if she read it.

After the students finished writing a long list of examples, they worked together to create their own cyber-etiquette rules. Lea’s contribution was easy: Think before you write, so you don’t hurt someone’s feelings. The class went to the library and looked at books about cyberbullying and online teasing.

When Lea went home, she told her mom all about it, concluding, “I would never have said that comment to her face.” Dawn asked her to post a new comment, apologizing. Lea called Amy and told her she was sorry about it. During the week, she didn’t post, but she and her mom watched the comments from the other girls. Some also felt bad, others thought that was silly. After a few days, Dawn had Lea remove her Facebook page. They decided to wait until she met the requirement of being 13 before starting again, and revisit the family rules then.

Schools are working hard to stem bullying. Kids, like Lea, may not even realize that their comments could be perceived as bullying. Cyberbullying can be particularly challenging—online statements are spread quickly and often snowball as others add their own thoughts. Continuing these discussions is valuable in helping tweens see the importance of being careful about what they say online.

What conversation openers have worked in your classroom or with your own children? How can parents and teachers work together to keep each other involved and aware? How do you feel about social media use in class?

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Suggested Resources
“Are you a cyberbully?” from
Facebook: Legal Terms of Use

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About Mary Stennes Wilbourn

Blogger for Free Spirit Publishing.
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