Staff column - October 31, 2023
Brenda Allgood, Lindsay Pino
Adults from different eras and generations may recall a childhood bullying incident in the form of a schoolyard confrontation or some other unpleasant face-to-face encounter.
Adolescents today may experience the same. But, bullying has taken a decidedly digital turn. In fact, cyberbullying is now the most common type of bullying in this country. Nearly half of teenagers in the United States reported some form of cyberbullying behavior in a 2022 Pew Research Center study. That harassment includes name calling, being the target of false rumors, receiving unsolicited, explicit images and physical threats – all delivered to phones and tablets right in the palms of children’s hands.
Just like those in-person encounters, cyberbullying may be motivated by any number of factors, including a victim’s appearance, race, religion, sexuality, disability or academic achievements –all perceived opportunities for bullies.
Each advance in technology represents an opportunity for bullies to expand their reach, leveraging apps and social media, often anonymously, to target their victims with electronic assaults. The harm can be traumatic to young, still-developing minds already coping with the complexities of adolescence. For the victims, the abuse is stressful, difficult to process and seemingly inescapable.
12-year-old Mallory Grossman of North Jersey – the victim of bullying and cyberbullying – died by suicide in 2017. The Rockaway Township girl’s grieving parents call cellphones a lethal weapon, stating we, as a society, have an unhealthy relationship with technology, and characterize cyberbullying as an epidemic. Under Mallory’s law, New Jersey legislation implemented in 2022 and named after the late Morris County girl, school districts in the state must include specific consequences for harassing, intimidating or bullying in their anti-bullying policies. The law also requires superintendents to report bullying incidents to school boards.
Despite laws, policies and protocols, even lawsuits against social media companies, cyberbullying isn’t easy to contain. So, where does that leave our young people? According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suicide is the second leading cause of death for young people ages 10-24. Cyberbullying may be a growing part of that equation.
While some children are certainly creative, even clever at pretending nothing is wrong, we know most children simply aren’t mature enough to be masters of disguising their feelings. For parents, guardians, teachers, clergy members… any adult in a position to notice – do you recognize a child in crisis? Have you asked if there’s a problem? Have you noticed a change in behavior? Have you considered if your child is being bullied? Is your child a bully?
Our children need to know that cyberbullying is not acceptable and that there is help in safe, loving and supportive environments. They need to know there are trustworthy individuals and resources available.
Adolescent psychology experts stress the creation of strong bonds with young people, open lines of effective communication and offering a shared sense of community that reinforces positive morals and values about how others should be treated with respect and dignity, and constructive models in society that showcase strategies we can emulate to turn negative viral instances into teachable moments for children.
While a serious examination of the human behavior behind the technology is certainly a necessity, adult and peer intervention are critical and should be instinctive. While we can’t shield our children all the time, we must also acknowledge our children can’t deflect every attack or insult, especially in a complex digital landscape.
This crisis warrants everyone’s involvement and accountability to help end bullying in all forms. It’s up to all of us to read the cues and act, steering children to the necessary resources. Many young people are depending on us.
October is National Bullying Awareness Month. Visit www.stopbullying.gov for resources.
Brenda Allgood of West Deptford Township is a certified pediatric nurse practitioner and is coordinator of the Southern New Jersey Perinatal Cooperative’s Non-Public School Nurse Program, which services 19 non-public schools in Camden County. Lindsay Pino of Gloucester City is a registered nurse with the Cooperative’s Non-Public School Nurse Program.