My daughter showed me some photos she posted on Instagram that she meant to be cute and funny. But there are a couple of comments that aren’t. In fact they’re really offensive. One comment is obviously racist, but it’s nothing we haven’t heard before (unfortunately). And one said that no one would miss her if she disappeared.
I’ve heard a lot about cyberbullying, and I don’t think this is it. My daughter isn’t frightened, just upset—which is why she showed me the comments in the first place. But it’s only two comments. No one’s threatening her, or telling her to do awful things to herself. They’re just mean.
The kids who left the comments go to school with my daughter. They’re not friends, so I don’t know the parents well at all. But I feel like I should say something. Should I talk to the kids myself? To the school? Or to the parents? What’s the best way to say something without embarrassing my daughter or making things worse?
What a conundrum you’re in. How do you protect your daughter without embarrassing her? How do you fix one social problem without creating another one? When she says she’s upset, is she hiding a deeper, stronger feeling? Who are these kids anyway and why are they targeting your daughter? How much should you trust her school and the other parents to fix the problem? So many questions, and so few easy answers.
I have asked these questions myself. In fact, my biggest, hugest regret as a mother is how I answered them, and how I responded to a bully who targeted my child. I was the proverbial frog in boiling water: The small day-to-day complaints about name-calling gradually led to stronger problems like spreading rumors. The rumors led to throwing things, which led to shoving, then punching and . . . you get the idea. By the time I realized we were in hot water, the damage had been done. And now I can’t undo it. Three years later, my son is still in counseling and I am tearing up just writing this.
So please don’t repeat my mistakes. When it comes to your beloved child, it’s way better to overreact than underreact. So I’m hanging up a giant flashing sign: THIS IS CYBERBULLYING. Saying things like “just upset” and “only two comments” and “just mean” downplay what’s really going on. You may also be underestimating the effect it’s having on your daughter, and increasing the likelihood that these kids will strike again, in a worse way.
The dictionary says “cyberbullying” is “the electronic posting of mean-spirited messages about a person (as a student) often done anonymously” (Merriam-Webster). So it’s not your daughter’s perception that counts. It’s the intention. Are the comments mean-spirited? Definitely. Are they electronic? Duh. Are they anonymous? Nope, but they don’t have to be.
First things first: Reassure your daughter that she did the right thing in telling you. Don’t take away her cell phone or computer privileges, or she may be less forthcoming if this happens again.
Then, take screenshots. If these kids get in trouble, they may delete their comments, and you may need proof of what happened. If you don’t know how to take screenshots, see the super simple instructions at http://www.take-a-screenshot.org/.
Who to talk to? Start with the police. Many people think it’s overreacting, but cyberbullying is against the law in 41 states. Plus, if necessary, law enforcement can deliver a strong message that the kids (and their parents) are more likely to listen to. Then go to the school. Many schools have bullying codes with clear consequences. Even if they don’t, talk to the principal or head of school in person, and bring the screenshots with you. This will give you a chance to relay the facts and ask them not to single out your daughter or embarrass her socially. After your meeting, follow up with an email relaying the same facts, and attach the same screenshots.
Finally, talk with your daughter. Ask her about all of her social media accounts. The obvious ones are Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. But trust me when I say there are many, many others that many parents have never heard of, like SnapChat, Pheed, and Vine. (I’m sure I’m leaving a few out because I’m a desperately uncool mom, but your daughter could certainly tell you about others.) Although you can’t force her, strongly encourage her to make her account private. Make it a house rule that you know her passwords. And ask her to go over her address book and buddy list with you, and tell how she knows each person.
So Mama Grizzly, be true to your name. You will never regret protecting your child. Sometimes “protection” is just another word for “love,” and, embarrassed or not, your daughter will someday understand that.