They are called Keyboard Warriors.
People that say things to you online that they would never say to your face.
Mean things. Hateful things. Insulting things.
"The key there is probably the word ‘face,’ said Dale Wisely, Ph.D. - a child and adolescent clinical psychologist for 38 years. “If I am speaking to you face-to-face, and I say something that hurts you, I have to see your hurt response. Now, granted, for some rather hard-core bullying by the most mean-spirited person, they might like seeing it. But for most of us, face-to-face interaction probably puts a kind of governor on bullying."
"I was practicing psychology before the Internet," Wisely said. "As it became available to people and then grew, so did online bullying."
According to stopbullying.gov, the most common places where cyberbullying occurs are:
• Social Media, such as Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, and Tik Tok
• Text messaging and messaging apps on mobile or tablet devices
• Instant messaging, direct messaging, and online chatting over the Internet
• Online forums, chat rooms, and message boards, such as Reddit
• Online gaming communities
We all see plenty of adults bully other adults online, especially about politics, Wisely said. "But teens and young adults are even more vulnerable to being attacked because they spend so much time online.
"Bullying happens where they are," said Wisely. "The more a demographic hangs out on a social media platform, the more likely the bullying will be there. And certainly, any messaging platform which is more private.
"For children, almost anything that makes a child different increases the risk of being bullied, especially if there is an imbalance of power, like physical size and strength. But maybe even more—social power. A person with less social support is more likely to be bullied."
And according to stopbullying.gov, cyberbullying poses unique concerns because it is persistent. Digital devices offer the ability to immediately and continuously communicate 24 hours per day, so it can be difficult for children experiencing cyberbullying to find relief.
"We know that bullying can lead to bad things," Wisley said. "It can make the current youth suicide crisis worse. It may be that bullying contributes to the formation of some school shooters. Bullying certainly makes schools less safe."
Birmingham resident Jo Allen said her teen daughter was bullied online, and the impact was devastating.
"My daughter, Anna, has struggled with her weight," said Allen. "So, recently she decided to go to the gym. With so many fitness enthusiasts, it took a lot of bravery to enter that space. When she was there, a classmate, unbeknownst to her, filmed her working out, then sent it out on a group text, making fun. The next day at school, my daughter found out about it. She didn't let on at school but started crying when she showed me. As a result, she swore she would never go to the gym again."
Allen, whose name we changed for privacy reasons, said she hopes other parents reading this article will talk to their children about the power of their words and the things that are posted and shared.
"Parents need to pay attention to their kids' social media and texts," Allen said. "If you see other kids posting things you don't like on their accounts, be sure to let them know and explain why. Too many parents never look at their kids' phones, so it is easy for them to become pretty bold with their words and not realize that the phone is not a toy.
It can be a dangerous weapon if used wrong. Ask them to consider how it would make them feel if they were the one, alone, on the other side of that post. While the kids making fun may be sitting with a group of friends laughing at the posts and texts, remind them that the target of their joke may be holding on to their will to go on with each day. Words can be powerful."
Wisely said he has worked with plenty of people over the years who were bullied online, and it's not always kids doing the bullying to other children.
"One concern I have is a kind of bullying of youth by adults on social media," said Wisely. "I worked once with a teenager who made a mistake at school which was at first treated as a threat to do serious violence. It turns out not to be a threat at all. Quickly, though, as the story spread among students and then parents, it totally changed into a story that he had a weapon, which was absolutely false.
Because they were scared, parents then took to social media to tell what they believed had happened—wrongly—and in a way that the whole community knew who the kid was. In some cases, they used his name. It made it impossible for him to function at school."
Wisely said he wishes the keyboard warriors would go away, but that may not be possible.
"It's a kind of assumption by most American parents that you can eliminate undesired behavior by punishment," said Wisely. "Particularly in the case of kids and bullying, that usually is not true. In fact, punishing kids who bully routinely makes things worse for the victim.
He or she gets labeled as a tattletale or further defined as a victim, making them vulnerable to retaliation. The retaliation is often so subtle it's sometimes hard for adults to see it. It's also not clear if punishing bullying stops it.
"Research tells us that chronically bullied kids are at risk for more trouble in their lives.", Wisely said. "We can be firm about bullying, and we certainly can punish it. But we should stop demonizing kids who bully, though."
"Anytime severe bullying goes on, adults need to deal with it over time. It is just inadequate to punish the bully, have a little talk with them, and assume everything will be okay. We have to check on the victims over time and not assume the bullying is over."
Wisely said there is plenty of psychology in bullying.
"Of course, when possible, kids could avoid the people doing the bullying," said Wisely. "Children and teenagers sometimes find that difficult. Even when they can avoid the bullies, sometimes they are reluctant to do so. What they often want is to get the bullies to like them."
Counselors and therapists work in this area to help victims understand that when they show bullies they are upset by crying or showing anger, it can make things worse. It is delicate work because you never want to suggest that being bullied is the victim's fault. However, bullies will often lose interest if victims can learn to shrug off bullying.
"Sadly, when kids tell adults, there is still a decent chance that poor handling by the adult can make things worse," said Wisely. "We have to help adults learn how to do better."
So why does anyone bully? Why would anyone turn into a keyboard warrior? Is it jealousy, insecurity, boredom, or some other cause?
Wisely said the answer is not clearly defined.
"There are a lot of motives," Wisely explained. "Always remember that almost any young person is capable of bullying, especially in a group context. A kid who would never be unkind one-to-one may do so in a group."
As parents, a big way to cut down on cyberbullying and keyboard warrior attacks is to put off getting children cell phones.
"I do think we tend to start too young," he said. "It seems to me that the online world is growing so fast that maybe, we haven't thought through the implications. If it were up to me, parents would wait more than most. I say: Consider slowing it down. Consider that individual child, their level of responsibility, and where they are developmentally."
Allen understands this fully.
"When I was growing up, it was done through whispers or mean notes, but today hundreds of people see these things as kids' posts and texts, which is devastating," Allen said. "As I said, Ann has not been back to the gym and says she won't. How sad that any child is that traumatized like that? All because one kid picks up her phone and decides to be mean, just because."
If you are feeling bullied and feel helpless, call 1-800-273-8255 (TALK).
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