About one in five young Canadians have been cyberbullied or cyberstalked, Statistics Canada reports.
Over the years, we’ve seen some of Hollywood’s biggest B-list celebrities get roasted by their fellow acting, singing and comedic peers, all for the sake of a good (yet sometimes raunchy) laugh.
Up until recently, this fascination with roasting has largely been something either seen on TV or experienced at adult gatherings like bachelor and bachelorette parties. But now, kids are getting in on the action through social media, and it has experts worried.
According to ABC News, this version of roasting involves kids uploading videos to their social media – like YouTube, Instagram Twitter and Reddit, for example – and inviting their friends and strangers to roast them online, usually under the hashtag #roastme.
And while some comments may be light-hearted or mild, others can be mean and hurtful. It’s these types of comments, experts say, that encourage cyberbullying.
It might seem trivial to preceding generations – to invite insults as a form of interaction – but as bullying and healthy relationship expert Debra Pepler explains, this might be another example of kids (adolescence especially) craving attention from their peers.
“During adolescence, young people have a really strong need to belong – it’s probably foremost in their mind,” Pepler, who works in the department of psychology at York University, says. “For those who drift to the social margins of the group would do almost anything to get attention from their peers, and we know that negative attention is better than no attention at all.”
Matthew Johnson, director of education at MediaSmarts, agrees.
“One of the reasons we can give in general is that kids enjoy being a part of something bigger than themselves – most of us enjoy that,” Johnson, who was also a member of the Digital Health Task Force with the Canadian Paediatric Society, says. “They like to be up-to-the-moment and involved in new trends… it feels good to be a part of a group.”
But rather than sit back and wait for the next trend to come along that will induce even more worry, parents should take a proactive approach when it comes to understanding the phenomenon that is social media, and what role it plays in the lives of kids today, as well as future generations, both Johnson and Depler say.
Understanding the relationship between kids and social media
The relationship that kids have with social media is one that is very different than what older generations have with these communication platforms, Pepler says.
“I think young people see this as a completely normal form of communication and maybe that’s another way of understanding this behaviour,” Pepler says. “So if a lot of kids are being roasted, kids will feel this is normative… and they feel it’s become part of the norm when it really shouldn’t be.”
It’s also one that we – as humans – have yet to understand and adapt to.
“Our brains aren’t really designed to interact through text,” she says. “Consequently, the mechanisms that have developed over hundreds of thousands of years that enable us to read social signals and mirror emotions, and understanding the impact of our behaviour on others, just isn’t developed enough to do that through text.”
So when a “roasting” message is posted in the comments, for example, kids aren’t able to understand the impact it has on the other person, Pepler explains. But if it was face-to-face, she says, then you’d be able to see the emotions of distress or discomfort, and in turn, reduce the likelihood of that type of exchange happening again.
“One thing we have to understand about the role of social media in kids’ lives is that it’s not separate from the rest of their lives,” Johnson adds. “They don’t distinguish between them. We know that kids primarily – in fact, almost exclusively communicate online with people they know and they’re the same people they know offline. And because they don’t draw that line, social media – for most kids today – is such an integral part of their social lives. Not going on social media is not an option for kids today.”
The self-esteem issue
“The reason I would define this as cyberbullying is because it meets the three criteria of bullying,” Pepler says. “The person who’s commenting is in a position of power, and the reason for that is because they have an audience larger than one and are using their power aggressively over the other person. Secondly, they’re doing things that are harmful that may cause distress… And the other feature of bullying is that it’s repeated. Although this may not be repeated over time, each time somebody else sees [these comments], there’s a possibility that it increases the sensitivities and the harm.”
And as Pepler points out, it can have a profound impact on a child’s self-esteem – whether the comments are invited or not.
But what causes distress to one child isn’t the same as what causes distress in another. Some children are more sensitive to certain things so this is a very individualistic experience but something that is potentially harmful, Pepler points out.
“I don’t think they understand the impact that kind of post will have for them,” Pepler says. “When we interact face-to-face – if somebody says something terrible to us and it sounds just terrible to us, we might replay it in our minds but we’re never back in that context. Whereas with social media, you can keep going back and back and look at the comments that have been posted.”
So if a child is anxious or has depressive symptoms, it may exacerbate those, Pepler says.
“Maybe we don’t talk enough about how important attention, recognition, belonging and mattering in a social context, and perhaps we don’t help children understand that that kind of negative attention – although it feels like you’re getting attention – isn’t the right kind of attention,” Pepler says.
Tips for parents
If you’re wanting to make social media a safer place for kids, then Pepler and Johnson offers these tips to parents.
First, Johnson says, it’s important to talk to your kids about their expected behaviour online and relate it closely (if not, identically) to the rules that are expected to be followed within the household.
For example, everyone the child speaks to – online or in person – must be spoken to with respect.
Parents should also talk to their kids about self-respect, and help them apply that self-respect to both the online and outside worlds, Pepler says.
“I think parents need to talk about it a lot and learn from their children,” Pepler advises. “Learn what your children are doing on social media, what they find interesting and engaging and difficult. Young people are way ahead of us in terms of their use and understanding of social media.”
“If you know your child is doing this, this is something you should ask your child about,” he says. “It is worth talking to them about it, even if you aren’t aware your child is doing it. Chances are, if your child is doing it, they’ll be hiding it from you.”
Also, Pepler says parents need to keep an eye out for any changes in their children.
“Be attuned to changes in their behaviour,” she says. “When a child is experiencing bullying, he or she often starts to become very worried or anxious and become very closed up, or they become difficult and act up at home in a way they normally wouldn’t. They’ll also sometimes drop out of activities because they’re afraid to go to school or be on a sports team and be [ridiculed].”
And most importantly, Pepler says to keep the lines of communication open – especially with teenagers.
“You can only keep them open if you’re non-judgmental,” she says. “Be ready to hear some of the hard things that young people talk about and help your child reflect on them and understand them in perhaps a more mature way.”
“Talk to your kids early and often about their online lives in general,” Johnson adds. “Reassure them that you’re not going to freak out about whatever they tell you because you want to make sure you’re the person they come to if they have problems online.”
According to Statistics Canada, nearly one in five Internet users between the ages of 15 and 29 reported experiencing cyberbullying or cyberstalking at some time in their life.
Should you suspect a child is being bullied or cyberbullied, the RCMP offers a list of resources that can help.
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