Cyberbullying: Don’t feed the trolls!  


A recent story on National Public Radio cited an academic study that suggested many teenage girls in the U.S. may be experiencing more serious depression than boys. And while the usual stressors for teens no doubt still apply—academics, hormones, parents—another increasing reason may be their obsession with social media.  And social media sites such as Facebook, Instagram or Snapchat are often the places where teens are confronted with the issue of bullying.

According to another study, cyberbullying may have increased more among girls than boys, simply because adolescent girls use social media more frequently and intensively. And problems with mobile phone use has been linked to depression. Further, recent data on trends in suicide in the United States show a greater increase among adolescent girls and young women,

Elizabeth Laugeson, a UCLA assistant clinical professor of psychiatry, has developed strategies to blunt cyberbullying. She is the founder and co-developer of the UCLA PEERS Clinic, or Program for the Education and Enrichment of Relational Skills, the only research-supported treatment programs for improving social skills for preschoolers, adolescents and young adults with autism spectrum disorder. Her recently published book, “PEERS for Young Adults,” is based on the success of that program.

The cyberbullying strategies she’s devised for adolescents with autism work just as well for people who are not autistic, she says. “Our research has looked at what teens have used that work to offset bullying. We’ve found that responding is simply not effective because none of the emotional impact of a verbal comeback comes across online.”

And while nobody knows for sure the intent of cyberbullies, she says, it’s probably related to negative attention seeking, kids who are hoping to get a reaction from their victims. So the first defense, Laugeson suggests, is simple—“don’t feed the trolls.”

Internet trolls is the common phrase used for people who post insulting and mean comments online. “If you debate them, or defend yourself, you’re doing exactly what they want,” Laugeson says. “You’re feeding them, and making it more likely you’ll be cyberbullied further. Hard as it may be, if you ignore them and don’t respond, they’ll probably get bored, and move on to someone else.”

So while it won’t work if you try to defend yourself, another effective strategy is to have a friend or friends stick up for you.  “Physical bullies like to target kids who are isolated because it’s easier. If you’re in a group, even a cyber group, others around you may come to your defense,” says Laugeson. “Bullies are cowards; they don’t want to attack someone who comes equipped with a strong defensive line.”

Two other defenses—block the bully from whatever social media you are using, and lay low for a while; stay offline. “Both of these strategies create distance between you and the bully. If he or she can’t find you in cyberspace, chances are good they’ll move on to someone else,” says Laugeson.

Finally, she says, save the evidence, and keep screenshots of all forms of messages. “If it escalates to an online barrage of bullying,” she says, “it may be necessary to report it to your school, to your online service provider, or even to law enforcement. And proof helps.”

But caution is called for here, she says, and should be a strategy of last resort. If the bullying is not severe and just annoying, reporting could result in the person being bullied getting a bad reputation as a snitch. “So this is the point where a teen needs to discuss with a parent or adult to judge the necessity of this,” suggests Laugeson.

Laugeson offers additional tips to deflect bullies in her earlier book, The Science of Making Friends. A video can be seen here:

And who can forget the “Mean Girls” movie starring Lindsay Lohan about cliques, put-downs, and outcasts? Laugeson discusses strategies against that type of bullying in a video here:

Finally, more on the UCLA PEERS program can be found here.

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