Editor’s Note: Every Tuesday, Abby Freireich and Brian Platzer take questions from readers about their kids’ education. Have one? Email them at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dear Abby and Brian,
Our daughter, whom I’ll call “Pam,” is 14 years old and going through a very rough time. I was horrified last week when I found her sobbing as she stared at a photo of herself covered with insults such as teacher’s pet and suck-up. It seems to have been screenshotted from an Instagram post. Pam told me the screenshot had been going around for weeks before she saw it a few days ago. She doesn’t know (or maybe just won’t tell me) who made it, and she won’t say anything else, other than “everyone else knew about it.”
I am furious and so sad for Pam. We’ve never let Pam use social media, so now I feel responsible, because maybe this wouldn’t have happened if she were on a platform that so many of her friends are part of. I’ve always seen her participation in class as a wonderful aspect of her academic life, but is there a chance that it turns off her classmates? Online bullying doesn’t really fit into what the school is responsible for, does it? My husband and I don’t want to make things worse, but we have no clue how to begin to help her.
Bullying is excruciating for kids and for the parents who are desperate to protect them, and cyberbullying can be especially pernicious because of its anonymity and scale. You and Pam are not alone: More than a third of teens report being bullied online. When a child is hurt, many parents blame themselves for dynamics that are beyond their control. But this is not your fault, and it certainly isn’t Pam’s. That said, you should do what you can to shield her from further abuse, as difficult as that may be. While exploring potential approaches, be sure to prioritize Pam’s agency rather than acting on your own.
Start by speaking with Pam. Avoid addressing what she may or may not be doing in class, as this will only cause her to feel that she is to blame. Then encourage Pam to reach out to her support network of family, friends, and teachers who care for her. Maybe she wants to vent to a friend she trusts or solicit advice from a family member. Urge Pam to share her perspective—both how she’s feeling and what she may know about who’s involved in the incident—with you. Knowing this context will help you two figure out what to do next. If you are concerned that Pam is anxious or depressed, seek immediate help from a counselor or therapist.
As you encourage Pam to reach out for emotional support, discuss with her potential ways to address the post. Be sure to follow Pam’s lead. One option is to report the incident to Instagram, which will assign a team to review and potentially remove inappropriate content without disclosing who filed the complaint. If Pam knows the post’s origin, another option is to tell the offender to take it down. She may be loath to have this conversation on her own; see whether she would be more comfortable if a friend helped her. If Pam tells you who created or shared the post, we advise that you don’t confront any of the involved students or their parents, as this is likely to make the situation worse for Pam. Instead, the school should be responsible for disciplinary action.
Even though the incident may not have happened on school grounds, it involves multiple members of the school community. Ask Pam how she’d like to inform the school about what happened, whether in a conversation she has with an adviser or a teacher, or in one that you have with an administrator. If it’s not already doing so, the school should be talking with students about the importance of making good decisions online. Students need to understand that even after bullying posts are taken down, they still cause distress for the children who were targeted. Moreover, schools should make it clear that cyberbullying will not be tolerated. You might also suggest that the school facilitate small-group discussions about how to be allies to those being cyberbullied. These conversations will empower kids to stand up for one another.
In a time when Pam feels despondent, she needs to know that she has both the agency and the support to navigate this painful incident. Let her know that you and others are always there to help her, and closely monitor how she is feeling so that you can step in if need be. Finding ways to cope with the agonizing repercussions of bullying can be painful and all-consuming. Try to keep in mind that these coping mechanisms will help her learn to become more resilient in the long run.
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