I got bullied at school.
Every school has its mean girls, and I knew every name of ours.
They were cool. Inscrutable. Utterly without regard for anyone shy or nerdy or weird.
I learned to be ashamed of what made me different. I learned to keep a low profile and avoid places they congregated. And when I made it out of high school, I never looked back.
That was the end of the mean girls….
It’s not like that anymore.
For today’s teens, the mean girls follow them out of the school doors and straight into their own homes.
They hide in their bedrooms, surprising them when they least expect it with a caustic comment or put-down.
Mean girls can gang up on an unsuspecting victim in seconds, their ranks swelling exponentially as onlookers join the fun.
They can destroy a person’s life and dine out on the story for months.
That’s because today’s mean girls live online…
In the brutal, dog-eat-dog world of social media.
It sounds so melodramatic.
Kids have always been bullied. It’s just part of growing up.
But what’s different today—and what many parents don’t understand—is that cyberbullying is an entirely different beast.
“Hey, at least they’re not giving each other swirlies or beating the crap out of each other!” the average parent thinks.
As long as your kid isn’t coming home black-and-blue, then everything’s okay … isn’t it?
That’s what I thought until I picked up a copy of iGen by Jean Twenge.
Twenge is a generational scholar and author of the bestselling Generation Me, about the Millennials.
Her latest book focuses on the generation born after 1995, a generation who’s never known a world without the internet.
She calls this generation iGen. It’s a generation defined by its all-consuming relationship to the internet, in particular in the form of smartphones.
Today, 2 out of 3 teens has an iPhone.
In fact, not having a smartphone is the fast road to exile. High school life happens as much online as offline—maybe even more, if Twenge is to be believed.
These teens are wedded to their phones. They check their phone more than 80 times a day. They even sleep with their phones. Their phones are part of them, just as much a marker of identity as their name and hair color.
Take her phone away from a teen, and you might as well be cutting off her arm.
I’ve written elsewhere about the impact of all this screentime on mental health. Teens are vulnerable in a way adults aren’t. Adults have the life experience and cognitive discipline to set the phone down and disengage. The internet is not real life. Most adults can see that.
For them, what happens online is just as real as what happens offline. Sometimes, even more real.
Because things happen in real life, then they’re over. There’s no record. No one stands by, filming the moment or taking dictation of what was said. All that remains is a memory.
Things that happen online don’t disappear.
Even if they’re deleted off the internet, ghostly traces remain. Someone might have taken a screenshot. Someone might have saved the pic to their phone. Whatever goes online may never come off.
British journalist Jon Ronson discovered just how badly this can ruin a life during research for his book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed.
He met charity worker Lindsey Stone, whose friend took an ill-advised picture of her making a rude gesture at Arlington Cemetery. The friend uploaded it to Facebook, not realizing her mobile uploads were set to public. The picture went viral. Hordes called for her blood. Lindsey lost her job.
Lindsey had made a fatal mistake:
She read everything that was being written about her online.
The result was a year-long depression, during which she barely left her house. She was terrified of applying for another job. What if her potential employer did a google search on her name?
Most of us don’t think anything like that could happen to us.
We’re careful. We don’t post stupid stuff. We check our privacy settings.
But does your child?
And what if the real danger to your child isn’t from anonymous haters…
But rather his or her own friends?
Just as we assume that most car accidents happen when we’re driving unfamiliar roads, or most sexual assaults are perpetrated by strangers, we assume that most trolls are people who don’t know us.
But are they?
Most car accidents happen within 15 miles from home.
Most sexual assaults are perpetrated by someone known to the victim.
And most cyberbullying—at least among young people—is done by kids who know the victim.
As teens have begun spending more time online, their mental health has taken a sharp dip. Even if they avoid public shaming, they know the risks. Social media is not a safe place for anyone. All it takes is one wrong comment, one unflattering pic, to get on the wrong side of the trolls.
And the cost could be deadly.
More teens are killing themselves now than they have for 20 years. The suicide rate has gone up 46% since 2006.
Lest you think that has nothing to do with what’s happening online, here’s another revealing trend:
The more time kids spend on electronic devices, the higher their suicide risk.
The more time they spend on sports and hanging out with friends, the lower their risk.
Research now shows that cyberbullying is more likely to lead to suicidal thoughts and suicide attempts than in-person bullying.
That’s because, no matter how cruel a bully is, his influence stops at the door to a child’s house. Internet bullies follow that child right inside.
This was all just research to me…
Until I was the target of cyberbullying myself.
I was checking social media one Sunday morning, hoping to catch up on what was happening with my friends. I noticed a comment had been left on my Facebook author page. So I clicked to check it out.
It was a troll. One “James Herandez” (sic) from North Hollywood, with only 4 friends.
I was shaking. This troll knew personal details about my life that only my parents and a few other people knew.
And that was the first clue.
The comment had been posted at midnight the night before. The troll used an unusual turn of phrase, one that I’d never heard anyone use but certain family members.
By that afternoon, the evidence was unmistakable. It was no anonymous hater.
It was someone close to my family.
You think you should be able to shake off something like that. But it’s a direct hit to your gut. This beautiful place you’ve created online, surrounded by friends and positive vibes, has been violated as surely as blood-red graffiti on a garden wall.
Some say that that’s the price of being online. You shouldn’t be on social media if you can’t deal with the occasional hater.
But do we really want to live in a world where more and more young people are killing themselves as a result of what’s happening to them online?
As an adult, my self-esteem isn’t based on how many likes my latest selfie gets. But what if my self-esteem was fragile? I remember what it was like to be a teen. Do you?
We must take cyberbullying seriously.
We cannot tell our children to “toughen up” or “just get over it” or “get offline if you don’t like what they’re saying.”
We’ve got to know what’s happening to our children online. We’ve got to pay attention to the warning signs. We’ve got to be at their side as they negotiate how they’re going to deal with online haters.
Your kid may not be coming home black-and-blue, but they may be coming home with wounds you don’t see. And the source may be right there in their pocket, in that little warm buzzing device they love so much.
It’s time to have a talk.