By Dr. J. Edward Les
“It isn’t big to make others feel small,” musician Ed Sheeran said to an audience in Australia a few years ago.
It’s hard to imagine now, but when Ed was in primary school, his life was hell. He was an easy target for classmates who made themselves feel bigger by belittling the odd-looking redhead with oversized glasses, a lazy eye and a debilitating stutter. He survived, obviously, and thrived. With his rare talent and distinctive looks, he became the epitome of cool as his fame grew. But it could just as easily have gone the other way.
For many kids tormented at school and in their social circles, it does go the other way, often horrifically so. For many kids, bullying is the start of a downward spiral from which they never recover.
Bullying cuts across all walks of life, social classes and demographics. Victims often begin to believe the negative comments, or think that they deserve the abuse. They can become mired in a deep pit of depression and hopelessness.
The explosion of social media has made this age-old scourge even more poisonous. Bullying delivered from behind a screen makes it exponentially worse. Hateful messages and pictures pitched via Instagram, Snapchat or TikTok find an enormous audience.
Cyberbullying is particularly venomous because it’s hidden. Unlike the bullying that occurs at school or on sports teams, which is often on public display, abuse delivered by social media is often invisible. A child or teenager can be assaulted again and again by online attackers, unbeknownst to anyone.
And it’s constant. It used to be that young people who were bullied in school could at least go home to a safe place. Today, never-ending connection via social media leaves no breaks for the bullied.
This is nightmarish stuff for families. But the good news is that there is much that can be done.
The first step is to educate yourselves, to be fully aware of the threat.
Second, arm yourselves and your children with the many tools that exist to fight back against cyberbullying. A key strategy is to document the abuse as it is a crime in many jurisdictions.
Third, teach your children to be aware of contributing to the problem. Teach them to be mindful, always, of what they post about others on social media.
Lisa Dixon-Wells, a former member of the Canadian National Swim Team and founder of Dare to Care, a bully prevention program, has developed an excellent approach she terms the Three Door Challenge:
- Could I say this to the person’s face?
- How would I feel if someone sent this to me?
- Could I stand up in front of everyone in this school, including all of my teachers, my peers, my parents and the police, and read this out loud to everyone? Or show this picture to everyone?
Teach your children to stand up for those who are being bullied. This involves far more than not joining in on the bullying; it means offering support and speaking up. When other children intervene, it can stop the abuse in its tracks. Silence, on the other hand, is enabling — and it can truly be deadly.
It’s critical that parents lead by example, by being inclusive, kind and empathetic. Help your children to understand that strong people stand up for themselves, but the strongest people stand up for others.
Finally, be aware that bullies need help. Their actions too often rise from a place of toxicity; they themselves may have been — or are being — abused.
We must hold young bullies accountable, of course. There must be consequences for their actions. But it’s important to know that with support, compassion and understanding, bullies can change; that they can learn to behave differently; that they can begin to have healthy relationships with other people.
As Dixon-Wells would put it, dare to care.
Dr. J. Edward Les is an emergency physician at Alberta Children’s Hospital.