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College of Human Ecology

K-State youth expert says when helping young people deal with cyberbullying, adults should think of themselves as guests in the technological world

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

MANHATTAN -- Among children who grow up with gadgets, many of their parents are still trying to catch up.

That's why a Kansas State University youth expert says parents need to keep their status as technology immigrants in mind when helping their children -- the technology natives -- deal with issues like cyberbullying.

"I always encourage adults who know that their child is involved in questionable Internet communications to ask about it but don't intrude," said Elaine Johannes, K-State assistant professor of family studies and human service.

Johannes is working with Judy Lynch, director of K-State's academic assistance center, to survey K-State freshmen about their own experiences with bullying. Johannes said that parents should tread carefully when dealing with the relationships their children encounter through technology, whether that means text messaging or social networking sites.

"As an adult, I need to be a guest in their world so that I can help but not reach out and take that technology away," Johannes said. "As parents, we typically will say, 'Don't' use it,' but we've got to work within their electronic world."

Johannes said she made a point to learn how to use text messaging to better understand how young people communicate.

"If I'm going to live in this day and time, I've got to learn the technology," she said.

A commonly spouted online safety guideline is to keep the home computer in a public living space like the living room or family room. Johannes said that's good idea, but it won't solve everything. Especially when young people have laptops, cell phones and other portable devices. "It can't be just changing one thing; it's got to be everything," she said. "And, we've got to be supporting good behavior."

Technology does bring up new questions, Johannes said. Is posting an unflattering photo of someone on the Internet a bullying behavior, or is it free speech? Does typical teasing become bullying if it's sent as a text message? It's unclear to the people experiencing these behaviors, too. Whereas about one in three people reports being involved in bullying -- as a victim, bully or both -- Johannes said the statistics for cyberbullying range between 9 percent and 50 percent.

To meet the definition of bullying, actions have to be intended to cause harm -- physical, emotional or social -- and they have to be repetitive. There also has to be a power differential between the bully and the victim, whether it's physical size or something like social status. In the digital age, Johannes said the person with the fastest text messaging on their cell phone could hold the power.

As with more traditional forms of bullying, conflict doesn't always equal bullying.

"Not every kind of slam or negative text message or e-mail is bullying," Johannes said. "These are just the ways they communicate with one another."

Lynch said she sees the effects of bullying among college students, too. It can be used to get an unpopular girl to leave a sorority, for instance, or it can stem from relationships students bring from home, like social conflicts in their schools or neighborhoods.

When young people can have hundreds of "friends" on social networking sites, Lynch said it is important for them to really understand what it means to be a friend. Johannes said this lesson is particularly important for girls.

"To leave teenage girls to their own devices can be dangerous, especially with how reality television portrays teen friendships," Johannes said.

Both she and Lynch suggest that places like scouting clubs and church groups can be good places for young people to learn how to be a friend. For girls, Johannes said it might be helpful for them to see how their mothers and other adult women interact in healthy friendships.

Sports also can be a good outlet for girls to learn confidence-building skills that can keep them from being bullied or feeling the need to bully others, Lynch said.

Sources: Elaine Johannes, 785-532-7720, ejohanne@k-state.edu; and Judy Lynch, 785-532-6492, judylync@k-state.edu
News release prepared by: Erinn Barcomb-Peterson, 785-532-6415, ebarcomb@k-state.edu

This article was posted on Wednesday, June 4, 2008, and is filed under Family Studies & Human Services.