November 13, 2013 Edition

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Bullying evolves,
effects amplified

Sam Smith, MD
Ark. Children's Hospital

As a kid, I was smaller than most of my classmates and was definitely considered bookish. I had a late August birthday, which meant I was also a good bit younger than some of the other kids. Not only did these traits set me apart, but they also made me a target for bullying.

I can still remember the heat in my face when other kids would pick on me and try to start a physical fight. I was angry and hurt. I fought back a couple of times, but that was never helpful. So I became skilled at running by necessity.

The core of bullying hasn't changed - there will always be bigger, tougher kids with huge egos looking for a fight. However the manner in which kids bully each other has evolved. It's difficult for me to imagine how much harder it is for kids to endure today in a world where others' jokes and threats are broadcast for a tremendous audience through the Internet and social media.

While bullying has clearly always existed, it's amplified by the megaphone of social media. When your perception of reality is formed mostly by the images and feedback in your smart phone, what others say about you in those forums seems particularly damaging.

Maybe a half-dozen kids witnessed an older classmate try to fight with me in junior high. But how would it have felt if nearly an entire class of 150 seventh graders had seen it transpire and continued to gossip about it and shun me? This is what kids are dealing with today.

We know from research that bullying no longer occurs in the school environment alone. Kids bully each other several miles away while sitting on the sofa at home - sometimes while right next to Mom or Dad watching TV. This is one reason it is essential that families know what their kids are doing online.

So what can parents do to protect their kids?

First, parents should monitor their child's Internet activity by checking in on their Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and any other social media accounts. They should set or obtain passwords to their children's accounts and be honest with them that they'll be watching their activity - both to protect them from bullying and to ensure they're not hurting others.

As each child is different, it will be important for parents to reach a decision together with the child about the age at which that monitoring will cease. This can be a difficult conversation, but it's important for parents to show older teens they can trust them as they become more independent and ready for the real world.

Parents will also want to be aware of children's actions and look for an increase in missed school days, illnesses, anxiety, appearance or even revenge-seeking behavior. If your child is being bullied, he may be embarrassed to discuss it with you.

Remind him that no one deserves to be treated this way, and it's not in the least bit his fault.

If you feel that your child has been cyberbullied, it's a good idea to take screen shots of the messages and save texts with threatening languages or images. Document all of these communications and then block the bully from your child's online profile.

The Injury Prevention Center at Arkansas Children's Hospital recommends that families report incidents of cyberbullying to a child's school administration. In some scenarios and depending on severity, parents can also take the documented evidence to local law enforcement for prosecution.

I can't help but think that more togetherness and family time will help parents have a better idea of whether their child is becoming the victim of this kind of behavior. It can also provide a great opportunity for opening a conversation about how we deal with troubles in a healthy way.

Sam Smith, MD, is chief of Pediatric Surgery at Arkansas Children's Hospital and a professor of Surgery at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences.

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