Home » empathy » Empathy versus bullying: Part 2: Online bullying and what to do about it

Empathy versus bullying: Part 2: Online bullying and what to do about it

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Listen as a podcast on Spotify (via Anchor): https://anchor.fm/lou-agosta-phd/episodes/Empathy-versus-bullying-Part-2-Online-bullying-and-what-to-do-about-it-e17hj9j

The cyber bully: The rule of thumb is that whatever a person does in life offline, the person does online, too. Whatever the person does in the non-electronic world of personal encounters, the person also does online in social networking. Therefore, people who are mean in person, will be mean online. People who are cruel in person will be cruel online. However, the impersonality of the online milieu can amplify the tendency. The lack of context of the online environment can intensify the upset and impact all around. 

Prior to social media such as Facebook, bullied kids could find a haven from a heartless world at home. Now the kid who is the target of the bullying, having survived the day at school, survived the ride home on the bus, gets home, naively turns on the computer and (wham!) experiences additional, hurtful boundary violations. The unsophisticated kid, who does not know when to “power down” and hit the off button for her or his own mental health, can become quasi-hypnotically obsessed with checking and rechecking for devaluing comments. 

No, the mere passage of time does not cause insulting online comments to go away. Social media make it possible for people to “pile on” and accumulate more “likes” for a hurtful remark. Furthermore, cyber-bullying can be perpetrated relatively anonymously with pseudonyms. 

Fake accounts on Google or Facebook eventually get unmasked and deleted; but it takes time; and new fakes seem to spring up just as fast as the old ones get identified and deleted. If giant corporations, supposedly sophisticated politicians and business persons, major law enforcement organizations, the US government, and the US population at large, can be “faked out” by faked identities and misleading “news,” pity the middle school kid in the face of anonymous, hurtful language directed at her or him.

As the latest debunking of the pretensions of Facebook unfolds on the front page of the Wall Street Journal [no progressive rag, that publication!], the susceptibility of online platforms to fake everything is taking its place among the unintended (and deeply disturbing) consequences of technology that will live on.[i]

Figuring out who is doing what to whom online and when they are doing it requires a forensic inquiry of significant subtlety, time, and effort. School administrators are flummoxed, because the bullying is initiated off-campus. 

How is it then that the school resources, already stretched thin, now must be marshaled to establish responsibility for policing such misbehavior? The target of the bullying may be asked to demonstrate that the abuse is affecting her or his school work. More blaming the victim? 

Of course bullying is not a logical process. An ultimatum from a bully to her or his minion is itself a form of bullying: Call some prepubertal girl a “slut” or we won’t be friends anymore. Hello? If this were a logical process, then the would-be minion would already know that the friendship ended with the very request, since friendship is not conditional on hurtful (and unethical) words or behavior. 

To many kids “friendship” means something quite different than “share wholesome experiences.” It means laugh at my jokes even if they are not funny, say my hair looks great even if it doesn’t, sit with me in the cafeteria at lunch, and do not flirt with the boy in whom I am interested this week. These young people do not know that book Nine of Aristotle’s Ethics is on friendship. The expectation that such an explanation would elicit any response from the young person other than eye rolling is doubtful. Still, it may be worth a try. 

Given that cyber bullying has exploded as a form of online pathology, let us take a look at proper online conduct even in the absence of bullying. 

The genie is out of the bottle—the genie is social networking

Social networking is not going away. Humans invented computers and smart interfaces. Let’s be smart is using them. When the child is interacting through Internet video with a family member living on another continent, then such an interaction is a boundary expanding and richly rewarding experience. When a parent and child are playing a game together using a computer screen, the benefit is in the parent-child interaction as such. The rich computer graphics are a bonus. 

The paradox is the anti-social nature of social networking. The computer screen isolates the person even as the person is trying to connect. The contrary is also the case. The screen connects the person when the person wants to be alone, rudely announcing an incoming message by beeping, demanding one’s attention. Sometimes the screen brings out the anti-social tendencies instead of the pro-social ones, enabling one to be inauthentic, hiding behind a false self. [ii]

It is perhaps a symptom of the broader issue that the online world even calls forth innovations in punishment. Taken to its logical conclusion, the savvy, harried parent steals a march on the technology. The ultimate method of grounding? Take away the child’s electricity, thereby having a “time out” on the use of electronic devices. However, during the time out do something positive. Read a book! Play a board game with your sister. If the latter seems too much like a punishment, paint a picture or go for a bike ride.

The challenge is to find a balance that allows our humanity its due. 

The rule of thumb is easy to say but hard to do: Seek balance in time and emotional equilibrium between online and offline engagement. Trial and error is a part of the process. By the time you get it just right, the kids will be going off to college, and they will have the skills they need to manage the online jungle on their own.

As the New Yorker cartoon famously observed about a dog sitting at a computer, “on the Internet no one knows you are a dog.” People who have issues with their self-esteem are both attracted and entrapped by the lure of being whatever they want to be online. Nothing wrong with fantasy as such. Many of us build castles in the sky. But only a few of us try to move into them; and those that do so are headed for trouble for so many reasons.

Children have to be 13 years or older to sign up for Facebook, and it is on that platform that we will concentrate here. The risks to children of all ages are real: online “cyber bulling,” vulnerability to predatory adults, sharing too much information, identity theft, and exposure to age-inappropriate content from advertisers, news, or stranger danger. The possibilities of getting paranoid about stranger danger are very real, but, as has been noted repeatedly, just because you are paranoid does not mean that they are not out to get ya. 

As regards the age limit, I am grateful for it, and I see it as a useful reason to deny access to children of tender age, who lack readiness for the risks of the online world: “I did not make the rule, and it seems sensible to me.” Unless the child is actually working on a project with NASA, I see no reason to make an exception for children under 13. “But Susie’s mom lied to help her get an account!” As my mother used to say when I wanted to play in traffic like the other kids: “Yes, everybody is doing it; but you shall not!” The challenge is to figure out where is the boundary and how to navigate it. 

A word of caution to policy makers: Do not make a rule prohibiting that which you cannot enforce. A heavy hand is counter-productive. 

For example, thousands of adults did not even know they were interested in drinking alcohol until the 18th Amendment to the US Constitution prohibited it in 1919. Then drinking alcohol suddenly became strangely attractive. Likewise, Susie did not even want to get online until someone told her that she could not do so. The prohibition creates the desire. 

To make matters even more challenging, the boundary lines keep changing. Such is the case with social networking. Computers, tablets, and smart phones are widely available, and unless you are planning on moving the family “off the grid,” youngsters need to be taught how to use social networking sensibly, safely, to have fun, and be productive with it. 

To err is human, really to mess up requires an Internet connection. 

Imperfect but empathic human beings try to navigate unempathic, imperfect social networks. This in itself is the business case for empathy-centered design of human and system relatedness. This is sometimes called “usability” testing. The computer system must be useable by error prone human beings. This points to another parental rule of thumb: if one’s experience of the computer is not useful or productive or if it is not fun, then a “time out” is in order. Say three words. Not “I love you,” but “Pull the plug.” Same idea.

Empathy lessons for parents of kids going online

What are the empathy lessons for parents around screen time, devices, and the relationships of kids with personal technology? Closely related to this question about how much time online is too much, is the issue of how best to manage the time children do in fact spend engaging with computer devices. 

Children are great imitators. They want to be just like the adults, who seem constantly to have their noses buried in their electronic devices or a phone glued to their ear. Even when parents are at home, they are not fully present. Think about it. Grown up behavior speaks volumes to the children. 

The good example parents set in laying aside electronic devices and relating in person to other persons speaks volume to the children. So does any behavior that demonstrates a parent’s commitment to drama or using social media to drive personal conflicts.

The authority with which a phone call, text, or email arrives from work, and the parent drops what she or he is doing to attend to it, says everything to the child. The rest is just a lecture that lands like “blah, blah, blah.” 

On the spectrum of guidance extending from empathy all the way to tough love, here is the tough love for parents regarding the amount of time spent online, on screens: Look at your own example. 

If you interrupt your conversation with your child to attend to a call, email, or text, you are an enabler. You were perhaps expecting the child to behave otherwise? You have demonstrated, clearly nothing is more important than attending to beeping, barking electronic appliances. The text or call is more important than your child. Your empathy is in break down. Ouch! Clean up your act. 

A recurring theme of these lessons is that authenticity is the foundation of the work we are doing on empathy, and so before talking to the children about their use of electronics, come clean about your own electronic inauthenticities. 

The empathy lesson? Set boundaries. Look for balance. Be responsible. Own it. Manage the amount of time children and young people spend on their screen by empathic parenting. Children of all ages are sensitive to any discrepancies between what grown ups say and what they do. Empathic parenting is about boundary setting. With older children, “first you do your homework, then you go to the mall (or play a computer game).” Children of all ages will inevitably test the boundaries, so have an explanation that privileges what you value about community, healthy personal relations, and friendship.

With electronic devices, rather than set an arbitrary number of hours that probably cannot be enforced, begin by creating an electronic device free zone. Start with dinner if your family is able to eat together or perhaps designate a time on the clock such as 8 to 9 pm to quiesce the electronics. This is good sleep hygiene too. 

Rather than be negative, think positively. It is not just turn off the computers; but, especially for children of tender age, turn off the computer and let’s read a story book together. Turn off the computer and let’s play blocks. Turn off the computer and let’s play catch (weather permitting). Visit with friends in person. For older kids, dance lessons, gymnastics, science club, chess club (where you sit across from a real person), organized sports, hobbies, or arts and crafts. This will surface the parent’s ultimate inauthenticity. Just as in the days of old, when the parent used to sit the kid in front of the TV as a form of baby sitting, likewise with computer games. 

Nothing is wrong as such with harried parents pushed down into survival occasionally using screens as baby sitters. Just be aware that something is missing from the virtual reality milieu—the first person relatedness of a human being with another human being. Within limits, nothing is wrong, but something is missing—empathy. I doubt that virtual reality is like the “good enough” parent. When virtual reality crowds out real reality—authentic human presence, then the time has come to call a “time out” on the use of devices. 

For young people who are teenagers, the idea is similar. Don’t be negative; rather substitute something positive—and then turn off the device. Sports? Dance lessons? Cooking lessons? Tai Chi? Jogging? Volunteering at the Jaycees? An ice cream social? Window shopping in person? The opportunity is to teach social skills that require relating to another human being who is present at hand in person. 

The mirage of popularity migrates online, too, especially as children enter middle and high school. The details differ, but the psychology of puberty does not. The influence of peer groups, which are emotionally (though not financially) more important to the teenager than family, is a standard part of the developmental process of separating from parents and leaving home to contribute to the community at large. The volatility of emotions due to hormones combines with experimentation, resulting in a high level of stress (for all): “I hate you! Drop me off at the mall?” This too shall pass. 

Teenagers are experimenting with identity, emerging sexuality, and boundaries of all kinds. Why should they not experiment with online boundaries, too? The guidance is the same: “Check in! Don’t hurt yourself.” 

At least prior to going away to college, the 13–17 year old group continues to require guidance and limit setting. If the teenager is involved in after school activities, is attentive in doing her or his homework, and has some friends who periodically show up in person, then the teenager is developing in a wholesome way. There is limited time for online networking and online misadventures. 

The isolated individual, the socially awkward teen, for whom being online is a substitute for getting out of her or his comfort zone, is the concern. Perhaps the individual has experienced shaming or bullying. Or the individual is so sensitive that thoughtless statements that bounce off of most kids are experienced as hurtful. Here the amount of time spent online is the symptom of a problem, not the cause. I repeat: the symptom, not the cause.

When the child clings to his device and cannot be separated from it as if it were the beloved teddy bear, then, speaking personally, I start associating to the disturbing experiments with severely deprived macaque monkeys of Harry Harlow.[iii] Separated from their biological birth mothers, these monkeys clung desperately to the piece of cloth on the wire surrogate mother, even though it did not have a nipple. They would rather go hungry than forego contact with the cloth, surrogate mother. Heart breaking. 

Restricting online access when that may be the main thing holding the teenager’s shaky sense of self together is likely to cause more conflicts, breakdowns in relatedness, withdrawal, and expanding isolation, not emotional equilibrium or empathy. Restricting online access does not provide the longed for balance. Further upsets and disagreements are predictable.

The challenge is that the teen is precisely at risk of re-enacting online an emotional upset similar to that with which he is struggling offline. What then provides the emotional equilibrium and deescalates the conflict? 

If the parent has a relationship with the teenager, it is time for a heart-to-heart conversation—actually a series of them. Something is troubling the teen, and a grown up needs to find out what it is and take corrective action. Trouble at school with academics? With peers? If it is trouble at home—serious illness in the family, pending divorce, or financial setbacks—then these have to be surfaced, called out, and acknowledged. If the teenager is still unresponsive to parental overtures, then professional intervention may be required.

So much for the tough love. Now for the empathy. For children, especially of tender age, play is serious business. Group activities—whether play dates for younger children or organized clubs for older ones—activate and develop social skills, including empathy, whereas screens tend to isolate. That is so even if the screen is networked to include other players, who, however, do not necessarily show up as anything other than a function of the computer system. 

The child’s job is to develop her emotional and cognitive abilities through the productive imagination activated in play. In so far as computer games and explorations can promote play and be integrated into play, all well and good. Yet the screen is intrinsically limiting, appealing to the reproductive, repetitive imagination. Still, many kinds of play do not require a screen. 

For example, the graphics and images of the Magic School Bus are engaging, especially for children of tender age. The school bus becomes a space ship (or submarine or time machine and so on) voyaging out to explore the planets in the solar system, undersea world, or the inside of the human body.

However, every kid knows how to play at being a rocket ship or air plane without electronics: you stick out your arms, make a rocket motor noise, and run around the dining room table—to a neighboring solar system. The child’s entire body is fully engaged in motion. The child’s mind is fully engaged in fantasy. The child’s full self is active. The child’s mind is expanded. My only concern is that the child does not think that one needs an electronic device to fly. Make believe does the job very nicely, thank you. The productive imagination knows no limits of screen size. 

Do not underestimate the power of a large cardboard box such as one might use to deliver a washing machine or refrigerator. Cut a couple of holes in it, and it becomes a space ship or the bridge of the RMS Titanic. Given some crayons or felt tip pens, it can be decorated with the markings of NASA or a personally invented team. Cut another hole in it, and it becomes the castle in which Sleeping Beauty is a prisoner or it becomes the Spirit of Saint Louis making the first solo transatlantic flight. If the computer game promotes imagination and innovation, then take the game and act it out by playing “make believe” with an actual cardboard box that Carmen the Explorer can use as a motor boat to sail up the River Nile. Bon voyage!

How to understand the child’s and the teen’s relationships with technology?

How should parents understand the relationship that children have with their devices in terms of empathy or lack thereof? Just as a teenager would not be allowed to drive a car without lessons and passing a test, access to the fun features of social networking comes with responsibilities. In both cases, one can hurt oneself and others. I am not advocating licensing online users—which would be an unconstitutional restriction of free speech (we can’t go there now!). However, new privileges imply new responsibilities. For teenagers and emerging adults, “Don’t hurt yourself (or others)!” remains essential guidance at all times. 

The teenager needs to understand that there are some people “out there” in cyberspace who are not only not nice but dangerous in rather unpleasant ways. Do not click on communications that seem to arrive with authority from an unknown source or supposedly from a friend, but something just doesn’t seem right. What to do? Ask a grown up? Find someone who is computer savvy. The Help Desk should tell you: “Don’t click. Delete. If it’s important, they will pick up the phone or send a letter.” 

As with any privilege, teenagers test limits. Recommend the Golden Rule: Treat others as you yourself want to be treated online and off. If it seems mean, do not do it. That means no devaluing language, no being mean to those who may be struggling with family or school issues, and speaking with integrity. 

Kids immediately get it that “on the Internet no one knows if you are a dog.” Why is the creation of fantasy (i.e., fake) identities online any different from when kids used to brag, “I got more stuff from Santa Claus than you did!”? It is harder to get caught? Perhaps. Even if parents have their children’s passwords and access to their online resources, no one has time to monitor all the back-and-forth drama to which teenage life is prone. No one aspires to operate a mini-NSA (one of the spy agencies). Rather trust—but verify. Verify empathically. Spot check. Listen empathically for signs of upset or devaluing language. Watch for unexplained changes of mood and so on. 

I repeat: trust—but verify empathically. Manage by exception—and if an exception shows up, then express concern and ask for her or his side of the story. Give a warning that the unacceptable behavior must stop—if the child is the perpetrator—whether cyber bullying or cheating or spending hours gossiping. If the questionable behavior does not stop, then see above—pull the plug. Confiscate the electronic appliance for a specific time period and until a commitment is forthcoming to change the behavior. 

However, what if the electronic device is a smart phone and the child needs it to “check in” or coordinate pick up after school? If the family is affluent enough for the child to have a smart phone, then the family is affluent enough for the parent to swap out the smart phone for a flip phone or dumb device that enables a simple phone call. Take the SIM card out of the one and put it in the “dumb” phone. I wish there was an easier way, and, yes, it has come to that! Take away the teenager’s electricity, the ultimate form of “being grounded.” 

Now after this significant digression into cyberspace and its challenges, we take the conversation back up a level, returning to the work of expanding empathy in the world of authentic human interactions, of which none are more important than those with our children. Many adults and teenagers will benefit from these recommendations, but they are initially for children of tender age. 

Empathy lessons with children

(1) Lead by example: When parents demonstrate the ability to take the point of view of other people in solving problems, children learn by example. When parents demonstrate emotional drama and complaining, children learn by example. Be the role model that you want to see your children imitate. Be an example of the change you want to see.[iv]

(2) Speak in the first person: Use “I” as a way of establishing a firm boundary between self and other. “I don’t like it when you that word ‘x’. It hurts my feelings. Please stop it.” 

(3) Validate the feelings of other people: “Sally is feeling angry because you took her ball. Please give Sally her ball back and then pick another one to play with.” In other cases, validation does not necessarily mean agreement; but it means recognizing that the other person does indeed feel the way she feels. Validate by finding the grain of truth in the other person’s perception.

(4) Use play to get access to how other’s feel: Talk with children of tender age about feelings and empathy as you play. For example, you might have your child’s stuffed dog say that he does not want to take turns with his friend, the stuffed tiger. Then ask your child: “How do you think tiger feels? What should we tell this silly dog?” 

(5) Empathize with your child: As a parent you are a significant source of insight into what your child is experiencing. “Are you feeling sad that Sally cannot come over and play? That is a disappointment. She wanted to come; but she got sick and has to stay home. She can come next Friday. In the meantime, we can call your friend Jane and see what she is up to.” 

(6) Suggest how children can be empathic: “Let’s make Sally a ‘Get well soon card’ and send it to her in the mail.” 

(7) Validate your child’s upsetting emotions: Help the child understand what he or she is experiencing. Instead of immediately trying to substitute a positive emotion for anger, sadness, or fear, acknowledge that feelings can be upsetting. Identifying and validating upsetting feelings helps children to manage them: “You are really angry that I turned off the computer. I understand. You were playing your race car game. It’s okay to feel angry. When you are done being angry, you can join me fixing a sandwich for lunch.” Thus, children learn that feelings are important, but feelings do not have to run our lives. Feelings make us human and show us interesting things too. 

(8) Be responsible for one’s actions and the consequences: Instead of rushing to have the child of tender age say “I’m sorry” when he has hurt another child, hit the pause button. Many children do not even know the meaning of the words “I’m sorry.” Rather invite the child to look at the consequences for the other child’s feelings and well-being. “Jane, why do you think Sally is crying? What happened? She skinned her knee when you pushed her. Let’s see if she is okay. Let’s get her some first aid. Here is some petroleum jelly and a bandage.” Sometimes the consequences of our actions escape from us. Help the child make the connection between the action (pushing) and the consequences (a skinned knee and crying). 

(9) Be patient: Practice patience if a toddler or a child of tender age does not get it right the first time out. The parent may not even know whether or not the child of tender age literally understands what is being said. Be prepared to wait before judging and assessing based on ongoing, future behavior. Indeed throughout many of these examples, the cynical take away may be: “Hey, these parents seem to have time to relate to their children. Wouldn’t it be nice?” Empathy is never needed more than when it seems there is no time for it. 

(10) Teach the child to identify feelings and emotions: Provide guidance in how to recognize emotions in others. We try to teach a child, who fusses and bangs on his high chair because he wants more milk, to say the words: “More milk, please!” The words are not a description of his feeling of hunger or impatience; rather the words substitute for the expression of hunger or impatience. Likewise, the word “pain” is not a description of the sensation of throbbing when the child has jammed his toe, it is an articulation in human speech that expresses upset and provides an alternative to screaming.

We teach our child well to use sentences like “I hurt my toe!” as a substitute for crying in pain. Shouts of distress are the natural expression of pain, but are notoriously unhelpful in determining the particulars. We substitute expressions such as “my toe hurts” for natural expressions as tears or cries of pain. 

Given the nuances of human experiences and emotions, and the relative lack of explicit training in expressing them, it is not surprising that many people lack skill in identifying and communicating feelings and emotions.

Simultaneously, we work with children on recognizing such experiences in others. It is often easier to see that Sally is in distress, crying due to a scraped knee, than when that happens to the child himself (who is then preoccupied with his own “owie”). We work from both the outside in and from the inside out, and eventually meet in the middle, being able to communicate our experiences and emotions to others and ourselves. Meanwhile, when relationships have become weaponized, as in bullying then the issue has to be how to implement a disarmament plan. The issue is how to de-weaponize relationships. In the following and third post in this series, I directly address students, parents, and teachers/administrators with recommendations.

[i] September 18, 2021: “The Facebook Files: A Wall Street Journal Investigation,” Jeff Horwitz, Keach Hagey, Newley Purnell, Sam Schechner, Emily Glazer: https://www.wsj.com/articles/the-facebook-files-11631713039?mod=hp_lead_pos7 See also: Mike Isaac and Scott Shane. (2017). Facebook’s Russia-linked ads came in many disguises, The New York Times, Oct 2, 2017: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/02/technology/facebook-russia-ads-.html [checked on Oct 15, 2017].

[ii] I express my thanks to Firas Nakshabandi, MD, for conversations, ideas, and input on social networking and raising children. Very thoughtful; very empathic. 

[iii] Harry F. Harlow. (1958). The nature of love, American Psychologist, 13, 673– 685.

[iv] These recommendations, liberally adapted with acknowledgement and thanks to Claire Lerner and Rebecca Parlakian. (2016). How to help your child develop empathy, Zero to Three: Early Connections Last a Lifetime: https://www.zerotothree.org/resources/5-how-to-help-your-child-develop-empathy [checked on June 26, 2017].

(c) Lou Agosta, PhD and the Chicago Empathy Project


1 Comment

  1. dolphinwrite says:

    I’ve never been into social media. Well, I was on facebook for a year, but I found the whole thing humorous. I simply told my friends, if they wanted to talk, come by or call on the phone. Normal and personal that way. Yes, I blog, but that’s mostly in one direction. But I would say this for people who do or need to find their social life through electronic media: 1) You don’t need social media. Put the smart phone away and enjoy friends and family in person. 2) If someone trolls you, decide what to say, say it, then never say anything to that person again. 3) Do more things away from technology so you’re developing you and your personality apart from electronics, where real life is.

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