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'You can't stop the waves, but you can learn to surf.'

Why cyberbullying is so hard on teenagers, and what Hong Kong parents can do


According to EU Kids Online, a poll conducted in February 2013 in the UK, 5.43 million teenagers have experienced cyberbullying in social networks such as Facebook, and Twitter.  What can we learn from the stories of cyberbullying at that led to seven suicides since the website launched in 2010?  How can we protect our teenagers  from falling victim or becoming the bully, as we know males and females are equally likely to be attacked online by close friends as well as strangers?


Research in the UK has shown that seven out of 10 young people reported cyberbullying and 20 percent of them are experiencing it in extreme form daily.   

The latest research tells us that bullies choose to bully not necessarily out of insecurity or self-loathing as previously believed but because they think they can get away with it and to elevate their social status.  Research also has shown that most teenage bullies are mirroring what they observe in their immediate environments or they might have learned to intimidate in order to get what they want.


If mirroring and the thirst for power are the main causes of cyberbullying, could it be intensified by the media?  As Dr. Cheryl Dellasega and Dr. Charisse Nixon suggest in their book Girl Wars: 12 Strategies That Will End Female Bullying, “Role models for today’s teens are not powerful women who have succeeded because of their persistence and kindness to others, but rather superstar singers acting like sexy schoolgirls and movie stars firing machine guns or using martial arts on opponents while wearing skintight jumpsuits.”


From my clinical experience working with teenagers going through divorce or bereavement, it might appear that they are angry and passing the buck to a targeted victim, but when I dig deeper, often the bullying behaviour is to cover up hurt and fear.  In order to keep vulnerable feelings at bay, they usually pick on those they are jealous of, targeting teenagers who apparently have what is now missing in their life.


It is known that females are more likely engage in emotional bullying, and the instantaneous and spontaneous nature of social media provides the best platform for spreading hurtful comments, exclusion, terrorizing, forming cliques,  name calling and ridiculing. Upon confrontation, bullies often discredit the emotions of the victims, labeling them as weak or oversensitive.  


Recently, I am getting more distress calls related to Facebook bullying.  As parents, educators and mental health professionals, we should be aware of the emotional trauma our teenagers could be in, even when they are sitting comfortably in our living room. Researcher Nick Crick coined the term “relational aggression” (RA) to describe the dynamic of how a bully uses relationships to harm a targeted victim systematically and subtly over a period of time.


What make cyber bullying harder on teenager is that they  can no longer find solace at home.  Their sense of self can be obliterated by the vicious rumors, cruel words and social exclusion blinking on their device- without the parents realizing it.


There is no ONE magic way to deal with cyberbullying, but prevention and education are always best.  Parents can build a child’s social and emotional resilience at home, explain what constitutes cyberbullying and recognize the difference between bullying and tattling on someone from a young age.  If you suspect that your child/teen might be the bully, seek professional or school to help your child.  From my experience many bullies have an underdeveloped sense of empathy and use bullying as a way of vying for attention.

When it comes to coping with bullying, a prescriptive approach is best, as different situations will call for a different course of action. Since we cannot be with our teenagers 24/7, it is best to equip them with a tool kit of options so that they can handle not only bullying but life’s challenges and hardships. 


'You can't stop the waves, but you can learn to surf.'


It is important to remind our children and teenagers that if they became victims, they are not alone.  Help them evaluate the situation and identify how subtle bullying can be.  As Rachel Simmons points out in Odd Girl Out: The Hidden Culture of Aggression in Girls (2011), “The damage is neat and quiet, the aggressor and target invisible”.  Systematic bullying can strip away your child's or anyone's sense of self and make the victim feel inferior and ashamed to ask for help. Our job as parents and responsible adults is to watch for signs of emotional bullying.


I often ask my teenage clients to look at the situation from a distance, as if they were to advise their best friend how to deal with the situation.


We also need to let our teenagers know when to get help from trusted adults or turn to authorities when cyberbullying becomes serious and progresses to harassment or suggestions of physical aggression.  Children need to feel safe to report the bullying and believe that something can be done to stop it instead of getting stuck in the victimization mindset.


One of the most effective ways to stop bullying is promoting awareness and letting your teenagers know that instead of being a bystander, they can help stop bullying, especially if their friends are the bully. Educate your children and teenagers on how to report bullying to the website where it took place and school administrators. 



Editor article published: 22 April, 2015

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