Generations of former students are familiar with the school bully, that intimidating kid who used verbal and physical assault to extort your lunch money. Sadly, bullies are still around — but it isn’t just a playground problem anymore.
“Bullying has always been an issue, but after the shootings at Columbine, everything changed. Now we look at all types of bullying, from the teasing to hurtful gossiping, to the mean-girl thing,” says Westchester-based psychologist Joel Haber, Ph.D. “And cyber-bullying has become very rampant.”
What’s cyber-bullying? Simply put, it’s when new technology is used to harass. Kids today are threatened in anonymous e-mails and instant messages; Web sites are used to spread rumors. Photos and diary excerpts show up on message boards and blogs, which are then forwarded among students. Slightly more prevalent among girls, cyber-bullying is difficult to control. Often anonymous and indirect, it enables large groups of kids to attack without coming face-to-face with their target. (That’s because kids will type things on the computer they never could say in person.)
What’s a parent to do? In his new book Bullyproof Your Child For Life (Perigee Trade, $14.95), Dr. Haber — a nationally recognized expert on bullying who’s been dubbed the bully coach — tells how to recognize a problem and cope with the new breed of 21st-century bullies.
Once just a school issue, bullying is growing in many arenas. It now occurs regularly at summer camp, and younger kids are getting involved. “Middle school is probably the worst group. But it’s moving back,” says Haber. “Now, third- and fourth-graders are really into these behaviors. A study came out about three-year-old girls getting into it. If there are three girls, one girl will get excluded. It’s pretty amazing to watch. But parents have a role in this. They need to step in and let kids know when they are doing bad stuff.”
What’s the solution? “When a kid is being bullied, you want to tell them that, over time, you’ll work your way out of this. Then I give them strategies to make them feel more powerful, so they can find a way not to feel like a target,” says Haber. “If a kid can learn not to get too emotional, the bullies find it boring. They do it because they find it fun and it is easy to do. It’s a game.”
It may be a game, but Haber is working on changing the rules. Not only does he counsel kids one-on-one, but he takes his anti-bullying prescription on the road to teach educators (and summer camp staff) how to establish programs that discourage bullying. Several local elementary schools, including ones in Armonk and Croton-on-Hudson, have already implemented his programs, which feature such clique-busting activities as “mix-it-up at lunch” day (during which students sit with different groups while eating lunch). “It’s normal for kids to want to be with their own group. The problem is, we need to let kids see that we have to build tolerance, accept differences and get along with everyone.”
Haber underlines the importance of conquering this behavior by telling the story of Ryan Halligan, a 13-year-old Poughkeepsie boy who ultimately committed suicide after years of being bullied — both in person and in cyberspace. Starting in fifth grade, Ryan — a special ed student — was harassed because of his academic weakness and poor physical coordination. But the problem worsened in seventh grade, and Ryan begged his parents to move so he could go to a new school. He eventually hung himself.
In his book, Haber describes how Ryan’s father reacted to this tragedy:
John Halligan was able to open his son’s account and read all the instant messages he had written and received for the past three months. What he found there was shocking. A popular girl pretended to be attracted to him, then humiliated him by showing his messages to other girls and telling him she’d never go out with such a loser. The original bully had floated an unrelenting rumor that Ryan was gay, and a pseudonymous student would send him sexual come-ons to perpetuate the harassment. A boy Ryan’s parents had never met chatted with Ryan on-line and encouraged him to kill himself. And Ryan visited Web sites about suicide… Although his parents did realize that Ryan was depressed and knew of his troubles, they believed it was “teen angst” and that he’d get past it. John now spends a great deal of time campaigning for anti-bullying legislation and speaking to student and parent groups. He urges parents to closely monitor their children’s on-line activities, and is an advocate of computer-monitoring software.