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What we can learn from Monroe-Woodbury suicide victims

A child being cyberbullied is a parent’s heartache; the suicide of a child is a parent’s worst nightmare

Cyberbullying became national news in 2010 after the suicides of 13-year-old Ryan Patrick Halligan, 15-year old Phoebe Prince and 13-year old Megan Meier. With the suicides of two students at Monroe-Woodbury High School in January this epidemic continues to grow.  Hudson Valley experts and those around the country who have researched this topic are hard at work dispensing information.  Denyse Variano, program director of Human Development and Family Studies at the Cornell Cooperative Extension of Orange County, says her department conducts workshops around the area to educate parents and teachers about cyberbullying.

What's to blame

In this technological age of cell phones, instant messaging and social networking, you don’t have to face your victim to insult, demean, or terrorize them. Just post an unflattering picture online and make vicious comments about their sexuality or their looks, repeat it over and over and in seconds you’ve become a cyber bully.

Most experts agree cyberbullying alone does not cause suicide, but the effects suffered by the victim can be painful and debilitating, often triggering mental health anxieties, withdrawal, isolation and depression.

Kids and conflict

All kids have conflict, says Dr. Claudia Lingertat-Putnam, associate professor of counseling at the College of St. Rose in Albany, and in a normal peer conflict, they fight and make up and then go on to other things. But how can you go on to other things when 93 percent of kids are on the internet? If they aren’t socially connected with their peers they feel left out.

“We need to teach them to disconnect, but it’s hard,” she explains. “Sometimes these are friends who turn on you when a month ago you were best friends. It’s called relationship aggression.” She also says research shows differences between the ways boys and girls bully. “Boys tend to engage in more physical bullying, but it’s undirected emotional stuff, while girls get into nasty stories and rumors, which are so pervasive it can damage self-esteem.”

The cyberbullied child

The first thing a parent should do if they find out their child has been bullied, according to Variano, is to listen to the child and take them seriously. “Don’t minimize it,” she says. “Assure them you will try to help keep them safe and protect them.” She also believes a parent must not blame the child for their victimization. Many times parents criticize their child for being ‘by themselves too much’ or ‘not social enough,’ as if it’s the child’s fault.

“Learn as much as you can about the bullying,” Variano says. “Children have secret lives and they may not want to share things with you. Sometimes adults make it worse. If you think you’ve witnessed cyber bullying go to the child but do it gently.”

Variano also explains that in many instances the child will respond to a bully by striking back. This is not the way to handle it because the victim can become the bully. “Don’t encourage bullying behavior in response,” she says. “We know that doesn’t work and sometimes the victim gets blamed. Bullies can be very smart and can often turn the tables on their victim. Parents need to check their emotions and not be reactive. They should not promote retaliation.”

Experts say adults need to intervene when a child is bullied

Bullying continues, Variano feels, because children or adults who know about it do not intervene. “We need to teach them to be helpful bystanders,” she says. “There’s the bully and the victim and between them are the harmful bystanders. If you find out the child is a bully you should confront them and not look the other way.” Variano says that if the bullying gets out of hand, parents should involve the school and sometimes even legal authorities.

The Child who Bullies

Director of the Massachusetts Aggression Reduction Center (MARC), in Bridgewater, Massachusetts, Dr. Elizabeth Englander Ph.D. is at the forefront of researching, writing and informing communities about cyber bullying. She explains that risk factors at every level can create a bullying child. “Any individual problem a kid can have as well as social factors can cause bullying behaviors.”

Some cyberbullying risk factors can include temperament and emotionally difficult times within the home. The social risk factors could be popularity problems at school, TV sitcoms and reality shows, and online communications. “Kids don’t really understand that when they use online communication it is not private, anyone can see what they post on Facebook.”

Variano agrees that much of this behavior is triggered by what kids see on television. “I feel kids get a lot of this behavior from reality shows on TV. We need to give them better models and we need to deal with anger management. Some people think it’s cool to make others feel bad.”

Englander suggests there are a couple of key things parents can do if they catch their child cyberbullying. One is to disable whatever that child uses to bully, the other is to attend to their child’s emotional needs and try and find out what they are struggling with.

“There’s a great deal of stigma attached to bullying,” Englander explains. “It’s very hard emotionally to accept it and parents are motivated to deny it's happening.” She also thinks parents should definitely keep their eye on what their children are doing online. “I don’t consider it spying, but if kids know you are watching what they do online they may be more careful. A kid can still have private communications with a friend, but just not online.”

Matt Heard, assistant head of the Tuxedo Park School says, “I think one of the greatest problems with cyber bullying is that there’s no rest from it. You can’t go home to get away from it. Now the same people are there in your room online. It makes cowards bold.”

Robert Lachman is an award-winning journalist who lives in Red Hook. He has worked for many local newspapers and is also a singer-songwriter, who performs in the area.