Creating a Culture of Empathy to Combat Cyberbullying
By Drs. Susan Foster and Kimberlee Ratliff
Dr. Susan Foster is a Faculty Member from the School of Education at American Public University.
Dr. Kimberlee Ratliff is the Program Director for School Counseling at American Public University.
Cyberbullying is arguably one of the most dangerous, scary, and pervasive forms of bullying. With roughly 97% of all youth having access to the internet, the advent and advancement of technology has created an ideal platform for bullying to occur (Tokunaga, 2010). In today’s world, cyberbullies can have nearly unrestricted access to their targets via virtual interfaces and social media channels. There is a sense of disinhibition in which the person might feel more empowered to behave in any way he or she pleases and expecting little to no consequences associated with inappropriate online behaviors. As such, the prevalence and detriment of cyberbullying can result in physical, social, psychological, and academic harm.
For cyberbullying to occur, it must fall into the following criteria:
- Technology assisted – This can be in the form of computers, tablets, cell, smartphones, and other electronic devices. It can also occur through several applications, such as voice calls, video chats, instant messages, and social media platforms. This is what makes cyberbullying different from traditional bullying.
- Deliberate and willful action – Cyberbullying is not accidental, it’s intentional.
- A pattern of behavior – Cyberbullying is not an isolated incident. It is repeated over time.
- Harmful – Cyberbullying results in the target perceiving harm. Again, perceived harm can be emotional, physical, academic, and/or social in nature.
- Lacking in remorse – Little to no personal responsibility and accountability is demonstrated by the aggressor. This can often manifest in blaming the target.
Cyberbullying as a Skills Deficit
What motivates cyberbullying? Individuals who cyberbully can lack the social and emotional skills to peacefully resolve interpersonal conflict, and cannot demonstrate effective intrapersonal coping skills. Children and adolescents who have bullied in the past may struggle with several risk factors, including but not limited to moral and interpersonal disengagement, low empathy, and previous victimization. Those who have been targeted can struggle with prior victimization, a sense of loneliness, social anxiety, and depression. With cyberbullying, an overlap exists between children and adolescents who target and children and adolescents who bully (Tokunaga, 2010).
How Can Empathy Change the Culture of Cyberbullying?
To some extent, the nuances of the virtual world provide an invisible veil of anonymity and allow and excuse behaving in a pro-social manner. This perceived anonymity, coupled with blurred boundaries of being an aggressor at times and a target at other times, points to a possible lack of empathy. This means children and adolescents who have experienced the pain associated with being bullied still engage in the victimization of others. So how do we instill the necessary social and emotional skills to prevent this? This begins with how children and adolescents learn, notice, listen, and care by watching others. Here are some tips to help build empathy in children and adolescents.
Tips for Caregivers to Build Empathy
- Be a consistent model. Children and adolescents can emulate relationships based on the powerful examples provided online. When children and adolescents are exposed to positive role models on a regular basis, they may be more likely to emulate those behaviors. Modeling can include a caregiver’s own use of social media. What do all of those posts, share, and memes really represent? An equally powerful example is how adults treat people they do not have close relationships with. This might include servers, cashiers, teachers, and other parents. It is important to be aware of what you post and share online. If the comments and posts are not true, helpful, important, necessary, and kind, then reconsider whether you should share it.
- Openly communicate. Routinely talk about hard, ethical friendship choices with children and adolescents. Present diverse sides to the discussion. This might help them take perspectives that are not discussed in the peer group. Some guiding questions that might be beneficial are:
- If noticing, listening, caring, and learning about each other is the emotional currency of relationships, is your child or adolescent taking in as much about other people as they are putting out about them? Discuss the equity of their relationships.
- What does my child or adolescent’s online playground look like? Review their social media pages often, and talk candidly about their online behavior.
- Stories on perspective taking can be helpful. Take a fairytale and help your child see different points of view. For example, in Little Red Riding Hood, use the wolf and how it might feel to be made fun of…”what big ears you have”…helping them see different sides of the story can help them develop empathy for other characters by viewing the story from their perspective.
- Encourage exploring commonalities. When children can relate to others through common experiences or find something in common with another individual, then this increases their ability to show empathy. Encourage them to find things in common with others.
- Explore moral disengagement. Children may convince themselves that cyberbullying behavior is okay and come up with several reasons why it is acceptable. We have heard excuses related to bullying such as “It’s just a normal part of childhood” or “Kids will be kids”, which dismiss bullying as normal. Children and adolescents might give excuses that blame the victim, indicate that peer pressure led them to do it, and maybe even rationalize their behavior isn’t that bad because they have seen others do worse things online. Ask questions about online interactions to gain a sense of how your child views cyberbullying and determine if moral disengagement is observed.
- Involve your child in community service. Helping others can help children and adolescents gain a new perspective and understand situations from other points of view. Provide opportunities for children to volunteer and gain a sense of purpose by helping others.
Tips for Educators to Build Empathy
- Teach and use empathy based communication strategies. Some questions that might guide this approach are:
- What did you hear?
- What didn’t the person say?
- When might you have felt the same way?
- What are you feeling right now?
- Act congruently. Teach and use congruent verbal and nonverbal communications that demonstrate empathy.
- Exercise. Use multimedia examples, and have students practice reading people in videos and pictures, as well as text messages that demonstrate varying degrees of empathy. Some questions that might guide this are:
- Could you imagine saying/acting similarly?
- Would you feel heard by the person in the example?
- How would you feel if you were receiving this message?
- What would keep you from saying similar things or acting similarly?
- Would there ever be a time when you were justified in saying things or acting this way?
- Use teachable moments.
- Spend time helping students explore commonalities.
The Big Picture
Technology has revolutionized the world. Connection to information, people, and places happen with speed and ease. As a result, the landscape of relationships and communication have changed, making cyberbullying possible and plausible. Furthermore, online presence is available 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. It is not something you can escape from simply by avoiding face-to face interaction with a bully. Online presence creates access to engage or receive bullying behavior and the potential for it to circulate more widely than in a school building or on the playground. With sometimes under or unrestricted exposure online, children and adolescents learn how to get along in a world with blurred boundaries. A great starting place is building empathy in children and adolescents, which will transfer into online interactions as well.
Tokunaga, R. S. (2010). Following you home from school: A critical review and synthesis of research on cyberbullying victimization. Computers in Human Behavior, 26(3), 277-287. DOI: 10.1016/j.chb.2009.11.014.
Suler J (2004) The online disinhibition effect. Cyber Psychology and Behavior 7(3), 321-326.
About the Authors
Dr. Susan Foster Ebbs holds a Ph.D. in Counselor Education and Supervision, M.Ed. in Counseling with concentration in School Counseling, and B.A. in Psychology and Biology. She is a certified K-12 School counselor, National Board Certified Counselor, associate professor at American Public University, and licensed professional counselor in Louisiana. She specializes in counseling and therapy with children, adolescents, and families.
Dr. Kimberlee Ratliff holds an Ed.D. in Counseling Psychology, M.Ed. in School Counseling, and B.S. in Psychology. She has been with APUS since September 2010, and is an associate professor and program director of School Counseling. She is a National Certified Counselor (NCC), National Certified School Counselor (NCSC), K-12 Certified School Counselor (VA) and Trauma and Loss School Specialist with 12 years of experience as an elementary and middle school counselor.