Q-and-A with cyberbullying expert who is slated to speak in Omaha Nov. 17

Free event is part of Florence Kiwanis ‘Stop Cyberbullying’ campaign

By: - November 8, 2022 5:45 am

Free event about cyberbullying (Courtesy of Florence Kiwanis)

OMAHA — For Richard and Pat Bennett, bringing a renowned cyberbullying expert to the metro area was personal, having seen a family member and other young people devastated by technology-enabled harassment.

Richard Bennett said his niece, while living in Utah, died from suicide, and he believed that cyber cruelty was a contributing factor. 

“The confrontation with this kind of reality can be so staggering, disappointing and hurtful,” he said.

Sameer Hinduja, cyberbullying expert, to speak in Omaha Nov. 17. (Courtesy of Sameer Hinduja)

Campaign to stop cyber abuse

Active in the Florence Kiwanis Club, which has launched a “Stop Cyberbullying” campaign, the Bennetts helped gain momentum to host a visit Nov. 17 by Sameer Hinduja, co-director of the Cyberbullying Research Center at Berkman Klein Center at Harvard University.

Hinduja, author and trainer, is recognized for his work on sexting and other social media and gaming abuse. He is a professor in the School of Criminology at Florida Atlantic University.

The Bennetts and others active in the Florence Kiwanis said they planned Hinduja’s visit even before having all the funding in place, as they felt so strongly in the anti-cyberbullying message.

The Bennetts, who are in Omaha on a two-year mission at the Mormon Trail Center at Winter Quarters, said they have 28 grandchildren, and through their mission work they interact often with young people.

They said responsible use of social media is a current issue and said it is important for older generations to understand the phenomenon so they can offer support and guidance.

Ubiquitous

Hinduja said he started studying cyberbullying while in graduate school at Michigan State University, “to better understand the problem, given that communications technology was becoming increasingly ubiquitous.”

From then on, he said, he focused on identifying best practices in prevention and response to help those who work with kids and teenagers in that area. 

“I’m happy to reach a number of audiences and will hope to continue to make a difference,” he said.

Town hall on cyberbullying

Nov. 17, 7 p.m.

McMillan Magnet Center, 3802 Redick Ave.

Hinduja’s Omaha visit is highlighted by a free-to-the-public evening town hall meeting for parents, teachers, clergy and other interested people.

Earlier that day, he is scheduled to speak to students at Florence Elementary School and McMillan Magnet Center.

The Nebraska Examiner posed questions to Hinduja about cyberbullying and the message he’ll bring to Omaha.

Q-and-A

Q: Would you start off by defining cyberbullying – why it is a concern, and who it most impacts or hurts today?

Hinduja: Well, the truth is that adolescents have been bullying each other for generations. The latest generation, however, has been able to utilize technology to expand their reach and the extent of their harm. This phenomenon, of course, is termed cyberbullying, which we define as: “willful and repeated harm inflicted through the use of computers, cell phones, and other electronic devices.” Recent research has found that cyberbullying leads to negative emotions such as sadness, anger, frustration, embarrassment, or fear, which have been linked to delinquency and interpersonal violence among youth. It has also been tied to low self-esteem and suicidal ideation, school difficulties, assaultive conduct, substance use, carrying a weapon to school, and traditional bullying offending and victimization.

Q: How prevalent is cyberbullying?

Hinduja: Approximately 46% of the students in our 2021 sample report experiencing cyberbullying in their lifetimes. When asked about specific types of cyberbullying experienced in the previous 30 days, rumors spread online (33.2%) and mean or hurtful comments (28.7%) continue to be among the most commonly reported. Forty-two percent of the sample reported being cyberbullied in one or more of the 12 specific types reported, two or more times over the course of the previous 30 days.

Q: Why do people bully online – what do you find as common reasons?

Hinduja: Top reasons include insecurity, jealousy/envy, and personal struggles (e.g., they are having problems at home, they are struggling with life circumstances, etc.)

Q: Is the target of cyberbullying shifting in any way? Have certain phobias, cultural or societal influences pushed harassment in a certain direction? 

Hinduja: Absolutely. Very glad you brought this up. We are definitely seeing an increase in identity-based harassment — where those who are in the minority group when it comes to gender, race, religion, sexual orientation/expression are not only targeted disproportionately, but also experience a disproportionate amount of harm.

Q: Would you share something about the main points you will be touching upon during your talk in Omaha?

Hinduja: I seek to share evolving best practices that can be proactively implemented in homes and families to curb technology misuse. Foundational information related to how kids use the Internet and their devices is first provided before I discuss cyberbullying, sexting and unwise social media use in detail. Practical strategies for identification, prevention and response are then discussed extensively in a conversational format to allow for input and Q&A from the audience. My expectation is that attendees will leave equipped with an increased ability to promote safe and responsible participation in cyberspace among the youth they care for, and with numerous resources to assist them towards those ends.

Q: Has cyberbullying changed in any way since the COVID-19 pandemic hit (and up until today)?

Hinduja: More students reported that they had experienced recent cyberbullying in 2021 (23.2%) compared to previous years (17.2% in 2019 and 16.7% in 2016), but fewer students reported that they had cyberbullied others (4.9% in 2021 compared to 6.6% and 5.7% respectively in 2019 and 2016).

 Q: What should a parent look for —what are the signs that a youth is being bullied and in a danger zone because of it? And what steps should a parent take if they believe this is happening to their child?

 Hinduja: A child or teenager may be a victim if he or she: unexpectedly stops using their devices; appears nervous or jumpy when a notification appears on their phone; appears uneasy about going to school or outside in general; appears to be angry, depressed or frustrated after using their devices; avoids discussions about what they are doing on their devices; or becomes abnormally withdrawn from usual friends and family members. In general, if a youth acts in ways that are inconsistent with their usual behavior when using the computer, it’s time to find out why.

(Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

In terms of what a parent should do: First and foremost, make sure your child feels safe. Your child’s well-being should always be the foremost priority, even though you may be inclined to blame their constant usage or convey that they are indirectly responsible in some way. It is very important to demonstrate unconditional support, otherwise they may never open up to you again in the future. In this tense moment, talk with and listen to your child. Take the time to learn exactly what happened, and the nuanced context in which it occurred. Don’t panic, but also don’t minimize the situation or make excuses for the aggressor. Also, it is vital to collect as much evidence as possible. Print out or make/ create screenshots and screen recordings of conversations, messages, pictures, videos and any other items that can serve as clear proof that your child is being cyberbullied. Keep a record of any and all incidents to assist in the investigative process. Also, keep notes on relevant details like location, frequency, severity of harm, third-party involvement or witnesses, and the back story. This will help you then work with the school. All schools in the U.S. have a bullying policy, and most cover cyberbullying. Seek the help of administrators if the target and aggressor go to the same school. Your child has the right to feel safe and supported in their learning environment, and schools are responsible to ensure this through their investigation and response.

Q: What about the youth/student…? What advice would you share or pass to them if confronted with online bullying?

Hinduja: We need to remind children that they can control their online experience by blocking and reporting other users who have harassed or annoyed them.  Every major social media app and online multiplayer game has that functionality built in, and youth don’t need to subject themselves to interactions with people who are mean. Also, they should not hesitate to unfollow or unfriend anyone who compromises the quality of their online experience. It’s difficult sometimes — even for adults — but it’s necessary.  

Q: What should educators/schools do to reduce or eliminate cyberbullying?

 Educators must teach students that all forms of bullying are unacceptable and that cyberbullying behaviors are potentially subject to discipline. Have a conversation with students about what “substantial disruption” means. They need to know that even a behavior that occurs miles away from the school could be subject to school sanction if it substantially disrupts the school environment.

Schools also need to educate their community. Utilize specially created cyberbullying curricula or general information sessions such as assemblies and in-class discussions to raise awareness among youth. Invite specialists to come talk to staff and students. Send information out to parents. Sponsor a community education event. Invite parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and any other relevant adult. Incentivize it if necessary!

Finally, they must cultivate a positive school climate, as research has shown a link between a perceived “negative” environment on campus and an increased prevalence of bullying and cyberbullying among students. In general, it is crucial to establish and maintain a school climate of respect and integrity where violations result in informal or formal sanction.

Q: What trends do you see in this field? And is there any new research you can touch upon that offers more insight?

 Hinduja: We are seeing a number of other forms of online harm affecting youth — these include sexting, digital dating abuse, sextortion, and digital self-harm. I am concerned about what issues metaverse environments may bring upon us given that these immersive spaces make interactions extremely visceral — which means that any harassment or attacks may cause deep fear and harm.

 Q: Would you share scenarios or stories about how cyberbullying has played out, to help build better understanding of how this form of bullying can impact people, families, communities?

Hinduja: I wrote about a “story of victory” here — perhaps it can help. https://cyberbullying.org/stoptheb-a-new-anti-bullying-movement

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Cindy Gonzalez
Cindy Gonzalez

Senior Reporter Cindy Gonzalez, an Omaha native, has more than 35 years of experience, largely at the Omaha World-Herald. Her coverage areas have included business and real estate development; regional reporting; immigration, demographics and diverse communities; and City Hall and local politics. She has won awards from organizations including Great Plains Journalism, the Society for Advancing Business Editing and Writing (SABEW) and the Associated Press. Cindy has been recognized by various nonprofits for community contributions and diversity efforts. She chairs the board that oversees the local university’s student newspaper.

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