When Mommy and Daddy are Mean Online
As parents hear more and more about the tragic consequences of cyberbullying, we wring our hands and wonder, how can we get the kids to stop beating each other up online?
Maybe we should first ask how we can get ourselves to stop attacking others online. Bullying is a learned behavior, and we are teaching it to our kids even when we don’t realize it.
How does this happen?
John, a devoted and loving father of two sons, spends a few minutes every morning scanning his favorite online sports blogs. After reading the posts, he likes to scroll down through the comments section, occasionally contributing his thoughts. The commenters can get pretty riled up and often start attacking each other over differing viewpoints. One morning, John glances at his watch, jumps up, and heads into the kitchen to grab some coffee before leaving for work.
John's 11-year-old son, David, wanders into the office to use the computer. The browser is still open on the sports site, and David starts reading the screen. He sees that his father has just written a comment, referring to a basketball player who missed an important shot as a “fucking faggot”. Two weeks later, David writes on a fellow middle schooler’s Facebook page that he is a “fucking faggot.”
Vicky is a full-time mom of a daughter and a son, and she spends hours taking her children to and from lessons and classes. While she waits for her daughter’s ballet class to end, she uses her iphone. Vicky and her best friend, Michele, have been texting back and forth about another mom at the elementary school who blew them off at a recent PTA function. The ballet class ends, and Vicky’s 10-year-old daughter, Amy comes bouncing out. Amy asks for the iPhone so she can play a game in the car.
While they are driving home, a text comes in from Michele. Amy clicks on it and sees the whole conversation, including the part where Vicky wrote that the bitchy mom is a “fat-assed whore.” The next day, Amy sends an email to her best friend and comments that a girl in their class was “has a fat ass and dresses like a whore.”
Voila. This is how it happens. People are less inhibited online, and they hide behind a cloak of anonymity as they launch words as weapons. Kids are always watching and always listening, and they are not fools. They see grown-ups being cruel, and they assume it is okay.
It is not okay.
Treating people with respect should be a basic tenet that we all live by. This doesn’t mean parents have to be goody-two-shoes. It doesn’t mean they can’t use swear words. Sometimes we all have really shitty days, where every fucking thing goes wrong. And only “colorful” words will capture how we feel. But there is a big difference between using a curse word and using a slur.
It won’t harm your kids to hear you yell, “Shit, that hurt” when you burn your hand taking the Shrinky Dinks out of the toaster oven. Sure, it is embarrassing when the kids mimic you, but the truth is that they aren’t injuring anyone by yelling “shit” or “fuck” when they are mad or hurt. (It might even make them feel better).
But it will harm your kids to hear you yell, “That fucking faggot” when you dislike a call that a ref made during a Bulls game. It will affect their views on social norms. It will desensitize them to the effects of using slurs. And they most definitely will be injuring someone if they mimic you.
This doesn’t mean parents can’t disagree in their online comments when they read, for example, blog posts or news articles or political columns. It would be terribly boring if we all always agreed. But there is a big difference between attacking someone’s argument and personally attacking the author of an argument.
Is it bullying when a parent writes an isolated mean comment or text?
No. It is not. Bullying by its nature consists of repeated unwanted attacks in the context of a power imbalance.
But even though a cruel comment here and there is not considered bullying, it does set up a pattern of behavior that can lead to bullying. Once you give yourself permission to use a slur online, you are likely to continue doing so, and the same goes for kids.
It's all about precedent. If parents set the precedent that it's okay to attack someone in cyberspace, kids will be sure to follow. One attack leads to another and another, and this is how people end up bullying each other. And who can blame kids for ignoring adults who tell them not to bully each other if they see grownups doing it?
Whether you are texting, emailing, commenting online or participating in a live chat, remember that the kids are always watching. If you don’t want to raise kids who think it is okay to cyberbully, then don’t model cruel online behavior.
Or, if you can’t stop being mean, at least try to close your browser and keep control over your cell phone.
This post is in honor of October being Bullying Prevention Month.