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“People don’t wake up one day and say, ‘I’m going to be mean to someone on Facebook or Twitter,’’’ said James Geckler, assistant professor in RIC’s Counseling, Educational Leadership and School Psychology Department.

“Often, there are many layers surrounding why a person behaves in an offending way and becomes a cyberbully. As a society, we need to know this behavior is not an island unto itself; there are many things that feed and create it.”

At the core of bullying, for both the bully and the victim, are a myriad of issues – abuse, neglect, depression, anxiety, substance abuse and post-traumatic stress, among others. 

Nationally, cyberbullying is most prevalent among teens. According to a 2018 Pew Research Center survey, 59 percent of U.S. teens have been bullied or harassed online. Geckler, who researched bullying as part of his doctoral dissertation at Penn State University, said he fears that percentage could be even higher.

“The difficulty we find is how many people are not disclosing that they’re being bullied,” Geckler said. “That’s always a question, when it comes to these type of behaviors – how many are underreporting? There is this perceived belief that if a person comes forward and outs the person bullying them, it’s going to increase the bullying behavior from the perpetrator or they’ll become more at risk of being bullied by others.”

Geckler explained that cyberbullying is taking traditional bullying to a higher level.

“With face-to-face bullying, there is a perceived or real power differential between the perpetrator and target that’s repeated over time,” he said. “But cyberbullying is different because of the anonymity that electronic devices and communication provides. With cyberbullying, the perpetrator can bully someone as themselves or as multiple personalities. And because electronic communication is so vast, a bully experience can go viral.”

For the victim, the vast outreach of cyberspace creates a “lack of control that they can manage things because more people are aware of what’s going on. Being bullied in a hallway at school or in a classroom can be contained, but with electronic communications, everybody has access,” Geckler said.

Ultimately, the cyberbully is seeking validation, he said.

“He or she is responding out of this internal need for power and to be recognized,” Geckler said. “Hurt people hurt people.”

In Rhode Island, school principals and heads of schools are required to present a summary of bullying issues twice a year. Penalties for cyberbullying can range from parental contact to school suspension to police involvement. Alaska and Wyoming are the only states that haven’t criminalized cyberbullying.

Geckler, who prepares Rhode Island College students to become mental health counselors, applauded the creation of state cyberbullying laws and urged more schools to develop bullying prevention and intervention programs.

“What we’re seeing among students in middle and high schools is a lack of connection to the school between those who are bullies and those who are victims of bullies, as they both feel like outsiders at their schools,” he said. “Typically, bullies and victims of bullying tend to do poorly academically.”

Geckler recommended that schools take a “social problem-solving approach,” which involves an in-depth discussion with the individual doing the bullying. The approach helps to identify the mental, systemic, social and family issues that he or she may be experiencing. 

Geckler also advised parents to monitor their children’s social media. 

“In-person bullying in schools provides more potential for adult supervision and intervention, whereas in cyberspace, parents have far less opportunity to be aware,” he said.

So, what should parents do? 
  • Learn about various social networking apps and how they work
  • Build trust with your children and ask them to contribute to establishing social media rules for the entire family
  • Save, screenshot and print out all messages as proof of cyberbullying
  • Don’t threaten to take away your child’s phone or computer if they come to you with a problem; that could make  your child more secretive
  • Don’t underreact by telling your child to “shrug it off” if they’re being bullied on cyberspace
  • If threats or physical violence continues to escalate, get law enforcement involved.
  • Encourage your children to cut back on social media
“For cyberbullying victims who use social media too much, they’re receiving these negative messages about themselves or the world, which creates a mine field of low self-esteem, depression and anxiety,” Geckler said.