Local experts detail the problem and how schools, parents and students can work together
A high school hallway, middle school math class or the school bus ride home.
An obvious social media snub in a group photo or even a hard-to-imagine brutal attack via a text message.
Bullying can happen anywhere. And with smartphones and social media, cyberbullying can also take place at any time.
It’s a fast-growing problem nationwide and in Nevada County, affecting at least one of every five – and likely more – teens, according to multiple reports.
It can be a hard push in the hall – or a hurtful post on Facebook or TikTok.
“Sometimes it’s hard to identify the difference between teasing and bullying,” says Sharyn Turner, a Registered Nurse and Coordinator of School Health for Nevada County Superintendent of Schools. “But bullying is about an imbalance of power and occurs repeatedly. The bully is purposeful and hurtful to the individual being bullied. “
Bullying can cause a child to avoid class or school, a drop in grades, lead to depression or an eating disorder, or much worse.
“A lot of kids don’t see it for what it is,” says Grass Valley Police Officer Zack LaFerriere, who serves as a School Resource Officer. “We have a bunch of insecure kids who want to fit in. They’re working on their pecking order, and they’re often not very nice.”
‘A SOCIAL BATTLEGROUND’
So why do young adults bully? Usually, it’s more about the bully rather than the victim. Bullies are attempting to improve their self-worth by using others to project their feelings. These feelings could be anger, sadness or even fear. It also can be about social status, need for attention or even jealousy.
The desire to fit in often plays a role. And anyone who looks different – such as physical size, weight, a different ethnicity, culture, academic success, economic status, students with disabilities – are often the target, Turner says.
Physical bullying dramatically declined during the start and peak of COVID with the statewide lockdown that pushed schools online. But when in-person school returned, bullying did as well and, in some cases, came back with a vengeance.
“After COVID, they’re learning to socialize and communicate with each other all over again,” says Turner, who has been working with students since 1999.
Unfortunately, cyberbullying never took a break. About one of every four teens in the Nevada Joint Union High School District has experienced online harassment or threats during the past 12 months, according to a new California Healthy Kids Survey.
It’s an almost hard-to-avoid, impossible-to-control problem for teens – and their parents.
Almost nine of every 10 teens own a smartphone, according to the latest Common Sense Media report. And those devices can pack a powerful punch, where words are weapons via social media, videos and texts.
“If you want unnecessary drama … hand (a teen) a smartphone,” says LaFerriere, who encourages parents to require their teens to sign a contract outlining expectations and rules before they get a smartphone. “Kids want to be heard and they want to have a voice. But kids spout things to hurt each other. You have a bazillion ways to communicate and harass someone. It’s a social battleground.”
MEAN GIRLS (AND TAYLOR SWIFT SONGS) ARE A REAL THING
Girls use a different approach to bully than boys. Boys will tease and use physical aggression. Although some girls will use violence, too.
Bullying can range from spreading rumors, ostracizing, threats, silent treatment, defending someone for no reason, whispering in front of the person, and gossip. Girls spend time planning and plotting how to hurt their victim. They very likely involve their peers to gain more power in the situation.
And teen girls are the worst. Almost 30% of ninth-grade girls in the Nevada Joint Union High School District say they’ve been a victim of bullying, according to the California Healthy Kids Survey.
Boys tend to get over it quicker and move on.
There are far too many casualties. The hurtful posts, photos and videos can have a damaging and long-lasting effect on teens.
“The influx of bullying is so much greater (with cyberbullying),” Turner says. “Today you can ruin someone’s reputation very quickly and it stays with you forever.”
Bullying – in person or online – can be a vicious cycle, and the desire to fit in often plays a role.
“But every situation is unique,” says LaFerriere, who estimates he only comes across a small fraction of the bullying that takes place in local schools. “Most bullying happens outside of adult supervision.”
So, parents are critical in identifying – and resolving – the problem. Depression, eating less, frequent visits to the school nurse’s office, talking less about school, skipping class or school altogether can be warning signs that students are being bullied.
“Parents need to be aware and educate themselves … and communicate with their children,” Turner says. “Nobody knows their children better than their parents.”
Warning signs of bullying, cyberbullying
- Avoiding a class or school altogether
- Goes to the nurse’s office to skip a class when they are not sick
- Becomes depressed or unconnected
- Grades decline
- Scared to go to school, ride the bus or walk to school
- Loss of appetite
- Unexplained bruises or cuts
‘YOU WANT ACCOUNTABILITY’
So, how should a parent respond when a child is being bullied?
“You need to focus on your child and be supportive,” Turner says. “Hear what they are telling you. Never tell your child to ignore the bullying. It’s not something they can take care of themselves. And don’t blame your child as though they are provoking it.”
Instead, parents need to discuss the bullying and cyberbullying with the principal or teachers. Under state law, educators must address bullying. And the law has been effective, with bullying declining from at least one of every three students in Nevada County in 2005.
Parents should also avoid contacting the bully – or the bully’s parents, says LaFerriere.
“Do not encourage physical retaliation,” Turner says. “It’s really not something they can take care of themselves.”
Instead, allow school officials to address the problem, which may include a face-to-face meeting with the bully and the student’s parents.
Quite often “if the bully gets help, it can be very successful,” Turner says.
In fact, many bullies aren’t aware of how much their actions affect the students targeted. Plus, many bullies have also been the victim.
Teach your child safety strategies, such as how to seek help from an adult and encourage your child to develop interests and hobbies that will help build resiliency in difficult situations like bullying.
“But when bullying does occur, we as adults can partner with our youth to help support them and curb future occurrences,” LaFerriere says.
That’s when school staff and, to some extent, even students need to take a stand. Upstanders – basically a group of students who stand up and protect each other from a bully – are often effective.
“You can make an atmosphere that is safe, and put a kid on notice,” LaFerriere says. “That’s the full-court press.”
And that can change the game. But communication, just like in basketball, is important.
Finally, don’t assume your child – regardless of their great circle of friends, good grades or social status – are beyond being the bully. Some parents will look at their child’s smartphone photos, texts or social media messages and are shocked with what they find.
“I’m a firm believer in sitting down with your kid, and talking about expectations and responsibilities,” LaFerriere said. “You want accountability.”
Accountability and expectations, in writing
A smartphone user should make smart choices. But teens, who are dealing with a wide range of emotions, sometimes forget the “smart” part.
Grass Valley Police Department School Resource Officer Zack LaFerriere encourages parents to sit down and discuss expectations from their kids when it comes to smartphones, social media and video games.
“The Internet doesn’t discriminate,” he says of smartphones. “You just gave them the keys to the city.”
The contracts demand accountability and some tough practices – including always answering calls and texts from their parents, sharing passwords and limiting followers to only those they know in the real world. And, of course, no cyberbullying.
“A good rule is if you wouldn’t say that to grandma, don’t say it online,” LaFerriere says.
The contracts also detail consequences for breaking the rules, including taking away the smartphone or gaming system – or limiting access to social media.
“If you want to lock (a smartphone) down, you can,” he says.
Or better yet just give them a flip phone to use. Now, that’s a punishment no teen wants.
The contracts are Tough Love 101. Check them out on the Bright Futures for Youth website at https://bffyouth.org/contracts/