Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Tapu Misa: Busy parents as much to blame for bullying as technology

Not long ago, a friend found out her 9-year-old daughter was being bullied at school. The tormentors were girls in her daughter's class, some of whom had once been friendly enough to have played at her house. The bullying included nasty name-calling and the kind of social exclusion that girls are especially good at - birthday parties where the victimised girl was pointedly the only one in the class not invited.

The friend didn't wait for the school to take action. As soon as she found out, she got in her car and visited the girls' families, with whom she had a nodding acquaintance.

The reactions were mixed. One mother seemed to treat it as a joke, not quite managing to suppress a smile as she listened to what her girl had been up to. The next mum was more concerned but suggested that my friend do the telling off. Her daughter would take it more seriously, she said, if it came from someone other than her. I thought of that mother when I read about Alex Teka, the 12-year-old girl found dead the day before school started this year, apparently as a result of a concerted bullying campaign by girls at her Putaruru high school.

According to the Weekend Herald report, Alex's mother found out about the text and email bullying midway through last year. She complained to the school, which contacted the parents of those involved. Despite this, the bullying continued, even over the summer holidays, presumably by the same girls.

You have to wonder why, after being alerted of the bullying, the parents of those girls didn't immediately deprive their offspring of the means by which they were able to inflict harm on another child.

If their threatening texts contributed to Alex's death, who is more culpable - the children who sent the texts, or the parents who continued to pay for their phone use, knowing their children had already misused them?

Another city, and another friend with a 9-year-old girl. This friend discovers, months after the fact, that her daughter had been the instigator of a prank in which a male classmate had been sent a pizza that her daughter had ordered while staying with a friend.

My friend finds, to her dismay, that her daughter's friend's mother had kept quiet about the incident because she'd promised her own daughter that she wouldn't tell, thereby depriving my friend of the opportunity to discipline her child and make amends to the family of the male classmate, whom she knows.

She is still livid that the other mother was too consumed with being "a cool mum" to act like a responsible grown-up. So it's not only technology that conspires against our efforts to protect our children.

The rise in cyber bullying hasn't been helped by a rise in the number of parents who are too busy, too distracted or too spineless to keep a vigilant eye on their children's online activities.
How big a problem is cyber bullying? A British survey in 2002 found one in four youngsters, aged 11 to 19, had experienced some form of bullying through texts and email. The first known instance in this country to have tragic consequences was Oamaru student Daniel Gillies, who took his own life in 2003 after a barrage of text messages making fun of his physical disfigurement.

Many schools acknowledge cyber bullying as a problem but most are still trying to work out how to deal with it.

My sons' intermediate school allows cellphones only when accompanied by a written request from parents, but even then the phone must be handed in to the office in the morning, with a photo, and picked up again at 3pm.

I'd happily support a similar ban at my daughter's school if it saved even one child, but it isn't enough. I agree with the Secondary Principals' Association that this isn't just a problem for schools.

My 15-year-old is horrified at the suggestion that the school might ban what she considers a lifeline. She reckons cellphones are especially useful for kids who live a long way from school and need to connect with busy parents to organise a ride home after extra curricular activities. She can't conceive of a time when we managed all this without cellphones.

She argues, rightly, that school bans won't stop the after-school bullies, or websites like the one started by an old girl at her school. Though it began innocently enough, it has since morphed into a forum for bitchy gossip and abusive comments about named students.

Bullies and the disaffected have found texting and instant messaging to be a useful part of their arsenal.

But fighting back requires more than a ban. Children need to be armed with the knowledge of how to protect themselves in the online world, including the fact that Vodafone and Telecom already have the means to track and block malicious callers. Parents need to keep more than a cursory eye on their children's interactions, and exert parental muscle when necessary - just like the old days.

As the Canadian anti-bullying expert Bill Kelsey writes, this is the "Always On" generation, a generation for whom cellphones and instant messaging are a necessary "umbilical cord to their peer group".

Technology isn't an evil - and yes, I'm surprised to hear myself saying that too. I came to this realisation in the summer holidays, when my daughter was attending one school party after another, some with current classmates, and others with friends she'd kept in contact with since intermediate, despite not attending the same high school.

She took a girl called Lucy to one party. She hadn't seen her since primary school, four years before, but you'd never have known it.

Thanks to texting and instant messaging, they'd never lost contact.


Anonymous Rose said...

It's not just teens bullying online. It's adults too.

2:52 PM  

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