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Cyberbullying Challenges Mental Health in Our Schools

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J. M. Myers M.D.* returns as a guest blogger to write this two-part series about mental health in our schools. In Part One, Dr. Myers wrote about Good News About Mental Health in Our Schools. Here, in part two, he shares his view of cyberbullying and its challenge to mental health in our schools.

How ironic that during this month, May, Mental Health Month, we have seen videos of torture, murder, rape, and threats widely distributed on social media. In fact, these Internet sites had previously publicized that they wanted live action.

All this though represents only the most extreme actions of a few who have posted this material. I would maintain that day to day less publicized but very insidious cybermedia postings have introduced massive new waves of vulnerabilities for our children by exposing them to the risk of almost universally distributed forms of community bullying.  

Bullying Is Not New

Bullying used to take the form of verbal taunts, threats, or physical nudging. It consists of a triad of an intent to harm, with repetition, and an imbalance of power between the dyad.  In the past, frequently, all parties chose to keep it private and school leaders were quite happy with that, since it required no intervention, even when it occurred right before their eyes. Some did not see it as part of their role as educators to intervene.  Yet even they now see that there is no escape from addressing the issue.

Cyberbullying, utilizing email, chat, texting, instant messaging, and video, has become ever more the issue with survey reports showing that 16% of middle and high school students have been bullied electronically. It now includes harassment, cyberstalking, exclusion, impersonation, dissing, and outing. Home used to be a haven from threats, but no longer. The rate of suicide in children has increased in the last 15 years. Might this be more than a correlation with electronic media?  

Adolescents now share compromising pictures of themselves with others who today are seen as friends until the falling out occurs and the purported friend becomes a persecutor. Schools become involved as parents turn to them as agents of justice and resources for assistance. Mental health staff may provide assistance to work on feelings of guilt, shame, and anger but actions to remediate the trauma are pitifully few.  All of us are struggling to confront this newest threat to child mental health. Laws have been passed in all states recently that, with some variation, allow for the prosecution of the perpetrators, but they are not easily identified.  

Is Facebook the Devil?

Rarely does a clinical day of a child psychiatrist go by now without some Internet related stressor making an appearance. They come in every conceivable form, and some hardly imaginable. All of us working with children observe some of this. Recently when walking through the hallway of Child Protective Service where I consult, I saw that one worker had posted a sign reading "Facebook is the devil". Momentarily it reverberated with me until I stepped back to reaffirm that people determine what is on the platform. Yes, the corporations on whose platforms this all occurs abrogate any accountability, even for its effects on our children. In prior times newspapers saw themselves as accountable for what they printed and actively screened for "all the news that's fit to print". Our children have become both publisher of this bullying material and the victim of it, while Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat collect the profits. This whole schema takes place with no adult input!!!

Be Aware, Educate, and Protect Our Children

Bullying, an age-old problem, now poses huge new challenges for us to address. What was quiet or private has become widely dispersed, even from nameless sources. We do not know what, if any, prevention strategies may work. At the least, mental health resources and educational resources must be brought together to ensure our best chance for success in stemming the spread of cyberbullying and protect the mental health of our children.

J.M. Myers, brother of Ann Myers, has spent his career working with children and families in multiple mental health and child developmental facilities in upstate New York. Part One of this two part series can be found at 'Good News About Mental Health in Our Schools'  A previous post by J.M.Myers 'Schools Need More Reliable Research' can be found here.

Ann Myers and Jill Berkowicz are the authors of The STEM Shift (2015, Corwin) a book about leading the shift into 21st century schools. Connect with Ann and Jill on Twitter or Email.

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