You need only glance at the headlines to see that bullying has become a sad fact of adolescence. Up to one in three kids report being victimized at school, while 49 percent of students between grades 4 and 12 say they've been targeted at least once in the past month. And the scars linger: A recent study found that kids who were regularly bullied can suffer emotional problems—including symptoms of anxiety and depression—that persist long after the harassment ends. Early intervention is crucial, and parents play as important a role as teachers, coaches and principals. Learn the facts and smart strategies to protect your kids at school and beyond.
Popularity Doesn't Equal Immunity
Your son may be a football star or your daughter the lead in the class play, but that doesn't mean he or she is safe from taunts and threats. In fact, middle- and high-school students climbing the social ladder are more likely to be singled out by rivals, according to research at the University of California, Davis. "Bullying is one of the ways kids compete for status," says Robert Faris, Ph.D., the lead author of the study. This kind of aggression often goes unrecognized because students don't see it as bullying but as "drama or tough talk," says Faris. That includes the victims. "A kid with lots of friends can be shocked by what's happening," says Healthclothing contributor Rosalind Wiseman, author of Masterminds & Wingmen. The more popular the target, the more serious the emotional effects, including anger, disengagement from school and depression. Unless your teen is perched on the highest rungs of the school hierarchy (the study found only kids in the top 5 percent are safely above the fray), don't assume he's untouchable.
Cyberbullying Is a 24/7 Threat
Technology is a bully's best friend. "The Internet and smartphones have enabled bullies to follow their targets all the time and also broadcast threats and cruelty to a large audience," says Rob Zidar, cofounder of ThirdParent, an Internet safety firm. A vicious email or humiliating video posted online can not only be passed around with lightning speed but also be endlessly revisited by victims, which is why digital harassment takes such a serious toll. According to new research, suicidal thoughts appear to be more strongly linked to cyberbullying than to the face-to-face kind. Among the most virulent tools are anonymous sharing apps like Yik Yak, which enables users to tap into their GPS to chat with people nearby; it's also a virtual bulletin board, since anyone within a 1.5-mile radius can log on, write whatever they want and read everyone else's posts.
"It looks harmless enough," says Toni Birdsong, an author who blogs about family safety for the security tech firm McAfee. "But many users hide behind anonymity and post sexual, racist and hateful comments." After news reports that teens have used Yik Yak for everything from cyberbullying to bomb threats, middle and high schools have started banning it on campus. Omegle is a website and mobile app that also allows videos, making it even easier to spread rumors, hurt and hate while staying hidden. Ask.fm is another potentially dangerous platform; several teens have reportedly committed suicide after receiving scores of hateful messages on the anonymous Q&A site.
Be More Than a Bystander
This is one of the most important lessons you can teach your teen. Aggressors love an audience; that's why they humiliate targets in front of peers. Even though most kids are empathetic, they rarely try to stop the harassment—not just out of fear, but because they're unsure what to do. Encourage your teen to take a stand, but don't push too hard. Spark a conversation by casually asking him what he would do if he noticed a student being bullied. Urge him to report incidents to an adult, pointing out that he doesn't have to name names. Instead, he could say something like "Please keep an eye out around the cafeteria after lunch, but don't tell anyone I told you about it." Creating a distraction is another effective way to intervene. "It can be as simple as telling the victim the principal needs to see him right away," says Deborah Temkin, Ph.D., director of RFK Project SEATBELT, a Washington, DC–based prevention initiative. "Your kid can then walk that person to class or show support by saying, 'I saw what happened and I'm sorry.' Small gestures can lessen the victim's feeling of isolation and make a huge impact."
Try Group Therapy
Sometimes it takes a village to raise awareness and put a stop to bullying. While comprehensive programs—as opposed to one-time assemblies or initiatives—are effective, schools often don't have the time or funds to implement them. But there's another resource available: visiting speakers and touring groups. "Teens can be open to outsiders," says Rachel Annunziato, Ph.D., a psychology professor at Fordham University in New York City. "They can seem engaging and less heavy-handed, so kids may pay greater attention to them than they would to teachers and administrators." Get together with parents and urge your school principal to book a visit, whether for an informal talk, a Q&A, a workshop or a film screening. Some programs to consider:
• The Bully Project (thebullyproject.com) Cynthia Lowen, coproducer and writer of the 2012 documentary Bully, cocreated this ongoing campaign, which has screened the award-winning film to over a million kids, teachers and parents. Now that Bully is available on DVD, the group has created an accompanying tool kit for educators. "A safe, healthy school culture is established by its leaders," says Lowen. "They have to be invested in developing an open dialogue among everyone—teachers, coaches, bus drivers, lunch aides—and understand that it's a day-to-day process."
• Kind Campaign (kindcampaign.com) Lauren Paul (wife of Breaking Bad's Aaron Paul) and Molly Thompson were college students when they made a documentary about the lasting effects of girl-against-girl crime and launched the nonprofit in 2009. They've since started national tours, showing their film and connecting with female students in hundreds of schools and communities.
• Rachel's Challenge (rachelschallenge.org) Named for Rachel Scott, the first student killed at Columbine High in 1999, the group aims to create a culture of compassion with moving presentations by family members that include video footage of the shooting and its aftermath, along with Rachel's drawings and writings.
You don't like the way your teen is treating her friends, or you get a call from school that no parent wants, saying she's taunted, intimidated or physically assaulted another student. Take a deep breath and have a calm, fact-finding conversation, no judgments allowed. "Start by acknowledging that it's hard to be honest with ourselves when we've done something wrong or hurt someone," advises Wiseman. Aggressors, she adds, typically can't recognize that their behavior is in fact bullying. Even if your daughter insists the other kid started it, ask for a full accounting and help her own up to how she contributed. Then find a strategy for going forward. Try to understand any underlying causes for her behavior—insecurity, anger, conflicts at home. Offer concrete ways to fend off provocations and keep things from escalating, like saying "I'm not even going there." And since teens are constantly taking social cues from their parents, make sure that you're a good role model. "Adults can very much be part of the problem," says Wiseman. "But they can also be part of the solution."
Parent To-Do List
Monitoring your kid's apps, chat rooms and networks is essential, says Toni Birdsong, who offers these easy-to-follow steps.
1. Get filtering software for all your home PCs and your kids' phones. Even so, check for suspicious apps and familiarize yourself with their icons.
2. If you find something, don't panic. Ask your child why she likes the app and whether she thinks it poses any risks. This is a great way to gauge her understanding of safety. Don't interrupt—the more you listen, the more you'll learn.
3. When she's finished sharing, explain your objections to the app. Then watch her delete it.
4. Stay vigilant. Set up a family account for app downloads and keep the password secret so your kids will have to tell you what they're downloading. Casually mention risky apps you've heard about (while in the car, during dinner, as you're watching TV), which lets them know you're aware of how teens are connecting with their peers.